Analysis of the Battle of Wanat

BY Herschel Smith
15 years, 3 months ago

Stars and Stripes summarizes the investigation into the battle of Wanat, and links a redacted version of the report: “AR 15-6 Investigation Findings and Recommendations – Vehicle Patrol Base (VPB) Wanat Complex Attack and Casualties,13 July 2008,” Part 1 and Part 2.

The AR 15-6 provides a fairly detailed analysis and event time line of the battle, and we learn quite a bit about the things that led up to the battle and the ensuing casualties. The report necessarily ends with findings and opinion concerning force protection among other things, and several observations of the battle and subject report are warranted.

The Waygul Valley and in particular the location of the Wanat VPB is in steep, rugged terrain, and location of any sort of combat outpost (or VPB) was risky from the standpoint of force protection, but the decision had been made approximately one year earlier to move COP (Combat Outpost) Bella to VPB Wanat due to the fertile human terrain for counterinsurgency.

The meetings with tribal and governmental officials to procure territory for VPB Wanat went on for about one year, and one elder privately said to U.S. Army officers that given the inherent appearance of tribal agreement with the outpost, it would be best if the Army simply constructed the base without interaction with the tribes. As it turns out, the protracted negotiations allowed AAF (anti-Afghan forces, in this case an acronym for Taliban, including some Tehrik-i-Taliban) to plan and stage a complex attack well in advance of turning the first shovel full of sand to fill HESCO barriers.

VPB Wanat did indeed have concertina wire, HESCO barriers and other means of force protection, but in every direction the base was on the low ground. One particularly fateful decision was the construction and garrisoning of Observation Post “Top Side,” which sat on slightly higher ground to the East of VPB Wanat.

Just before the battle began on July 12, 2008, troops from VPB Wanat observed men they believed to be enemy combatants positioning and preparing for battle, but consistent with a theme here at The Captain’s Journal, decision-making is not given latitude in these circumstances (e.g., no PID, not actively engaged in hostilities against U.S. troops at the time, or whatever the case – this portion of the report is redacted. See TCJ coverage of Rules of Engagement).

At 2350, AAF initiated a large scale attack on VPB Wanat and OP Top Side. The enemy numbering several hundred were located at the perimeter of the VPB and in surrounding buildings and from hillsides at elevated positions compared to VPB Wanat. The enemy engaged primarily with automatic weapons and RPGs.

OP Top Side was also under heavy attack by the enemy. In fact, of the 36 casualties suffered in this battle (nine dead, 27 wounded), nine were sustained in the first fifteen to twenty minutes of the attack, specifically at OP Top Side. The enemy were close enough to engage OP Top Side by throwing grenades and shooting automatic rifles from no more than twenty meters.

In response to calls for help, three waves were sent to reinforce OP Top Side. Of the first wave, two more U.S. soldiers died while attempting to set up a machine gun position. The second wave of reinforcements saw the twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth U.S. casualties. Of these fifteen casualties, eight perished attempting to defend OP Top Side (out a total of nine dead in the totality of the battle of Wanat that night).

There were between 21 and 52 AAF killed and 45 wounded. Considering a clinical assessment of kill ratio can be a pointer to the level of risk associated with this VPB and OP. 21/9 = 2.33, 52/9 = 5.77 (2.33 – 5.77), and 45/27 = 1.67. These are very low compared to historical data (on the order of 10:1).

One bright spot in the battle concerns air support. Close Air Support (CAS) was initiated within 27 minutes of start of the battle, and Close Combat Aviation (CCA) was initiated within 62 minutes of start of the battle. Aircraft supporting U.S. troops includes B-1 bombers, F-15s, A-10s and AH-64 Apache Attack Helicopters. Multiple “gun runs” were conducted “danger close” to U.S. troops.

One key breakdown in force protection pertained to intelligence. Multiple villagers, including tribal elders, had told multiple U.S. troops that an attack on VPB Wanat was imminent, but the assumption that such an attack would be probative caused little concern among the leadership. But the enlisted ranks included men who knew what was coming. Cpl. Gunnar Zwilling suspected that his days were numbered, while he and his band of brothers in the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team prepared for a mission near Wanat, Afghanistan. “It’s gonna be a bloodbath,” he told his father, Kurt Zwilling, on the phone in what would be their last conversation.

In fact, there had been daily reports of 200-300 fighters massing to attack COP Bella in the first 10 days of July before transfer of operations to VPB Wanat, and while U.S. forces anticipated a transfer of enemy activity to Wanat, they didn’t anticipate such heavy conventional operations. The AAF fielded a company-sized force to attack OP Top Side and VPB Wanat.

While we witnessed the adolescent fawning over Nir Rosen’s embedding with the Taliban (to which The Captain’s Journal was unimpressed and claimed that all of the information was already known without his having whored himself to the enemy), the real question is not why we haven’t listened to Nir Rosen. Rosen is irrelevant. The question is why U.S. intelligence would ignore reports directly from tribal elders in the town in which they wish to conduct COIN, thus losing nine sons of America.

There is also the issue of OP Top Side and whether such an Observation Post should have been garrisoned with so little force protection and such proximity and elevational vulnerabilities. Again, eight of the nine U.S. troops who perished that fateful night did so as a result of OP Top Side.

More broadly, the implementation of combat outposts (or VPB, or OP) should consider the modern day origins of such practice, i.e., the Marines in Anbar. COPs were “hopscotched” across Ramadi and other cities in Anbar (combined COP and police precincts in Fallujah), and while reinforcements were within minutes of each COP in Anbar, the first reinforcements arrived at VPB Wanat approximately two hours after start of the battle. While the terrain in Afghanistan is more rural, wide open and unfriendly to COPs located so closely together, still, the notion of a COP relies on reinforcements in close proximity.

Afghanistan is still an under-resourced campaign, as both Generals McNeill and McKiernan have told us. Counterinsurgency TTPs can only be implemented if the campaign is treated as COIN rather than counterterrorism operations against high value targets.

Finally, in the future, the Army would do well to consider the Marines in Helmand and their COIN tactics.  Kinetic operations served as the basis for reconstruction efforts, and no Marine asked for permission to attack Garmser.  More than 400 Taliban died as a result of Marine operations in Helmand.  One year of planning to open an COP at Wanat is about 11.5 months wasted.

In summary, while the TTP of VPB Wanat and OP Top Side were questionable, and while Afghanistan is an underresourced campaign, the men who fought that fateful night were brave in the superlative. America should be justly proud of her sons who fought with such valor.

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  1. On November 11, 2008 at 8:53 pm, Slab said:

    I don’t think your comparisons to Anbar and Helmand Provinces really bear out. I’ve been to Kunar Province, and in the vicinity of Wanat. The terrain is vastly different. The terrain in Helmand allowed the MEU to employ a completely different approach.

    Also, I don’t really think your points on ROE are particularly germane to the discussion of Wanat. If the platoon had engaged those personnel, I don’t believe it would have changed the outcome of the battle one bit. Positive identification is as difficult as it is critical in a counterinsurgency environment. I can think of numerous instances where I thought someone was an enemy combatant, when in fact they were not.

    Where I think you hit the nail on the head is when you mention the terrain. The platoon in Wanat sacrificed control of the key terrain in the area in order to locate closer to the population. This was a significant risk, and I don’t see any indication that they attempted to sufficiently mitigate that risk. I can empathize a little bit – I was the first Marine on deck at Camp Blessing back when it was still Firebase Catamount, in late 2003. I took responsibility for the camp’s security from a platoon from the 10th Mountain Div, and established a perimeter defense around it. Looking back, I don’t think I adequately controlled the key terrain around the camp. The platoon that replaced me took some steps to correct that, and I think it played a significant role when they were attacked on March 22nd of 2004. COIN theorists love to say that the population is the key terrain, but I think Wanat shows that ignoring the existing natural terrain in favor of the population is a risky proposition, especially in Afghanistan.

  2. On August 13, 2009 at 2:06 am, SFOD said:

    The diction you use may be calculated to impress young company grade officers, but it ain’t English. Example:

    “There is also the issue of OP Top Side and whether such an Observation Post should have been garrisoned with so little force protection and such proximity and elevational vulnerabilities.”

    What does that communicate? First the OP should not have been established at all – he placed 15% of his troops there. Second the OP did not occupy truly key terrain. Given the position of their base, the hotel roof was the key terrain to occupy whether the owner liked it or not. From there, a warning could have come and fire could have been directed.

    There is no mention of the 3 US Marine advisers with the ANA force. They were not wounded and themselves probably contributed effective fires.

    The whole concept of the Combat Outpost is antiquated and foolish. You are either there to stay in force or not. This is what the Marines are now doing. A foolish brigade commander and his staff created this tactical error and LT Brostrom was forced to make the best of it. The errors made were those we advertised in “Lessons Learned” in RVN in 1965. One such lesson is that heavy weapon’s positions are moved after nightfall. To facilitate such moves, you prepare several alternate positions. A vehicle with an automatic grenade launcher is preferable to a TOW. There were no indicators to suggest that the impending attack was to be a probe. The absence of women and children in the town was a clear indicator of an attack. After the fact, it was clear that the local police had fought allied with the AAF. Finally, knowing the exact location and dimensions of the outpost 10 months in advance gave the AAF more than enough time to plan their attack as the VC were happy with half a day’s notice. Conceptually and tactically this was wrong from the outset. Valor and self-sacrifice saved the unit at great cost.

  3. On August 13, 2009 at 10:36 am, Herschel Smith said:


    It costs you nothing to visit this web site. You aren’t paying for the content like you would for your home town newspaper. Thus your “letters to the editor” should consider that fact.

    You broke a major rule of engagement. See Robert’s Rules of Order. You know what I wrote. You can only speculate on what I meant. You certainly don’t know anything about my state of mind when I wrote what I did. Comments should be limited to content, not intent, and certainly not to how you think I constructed my prose.

    I write what I do the way I do because it’s the only way I know. For you to drop by my site and charge me with something like trying to impress young company grade officers is not only ignorant and presumptuous, it is ungracious. My diction is fine, and I communicated exactly what I wanted. Your assumptions were flawed in believing that you know anything at all about me. However, by dropping such a comment I now know something about you.

    As for your comments on tactics, I am less strident. You can hold whatever views you like. Personally I am not opposed to COPs as long as they are done well and right. For an example of what I think is the right way to do it, see:

    Your statement that the COP is antiquated and foolish smacks of extremist views. You should filter your comments through more nuance before you speak – at least in my opinion. COPs have worked well in many places, including in Ramadi in 2006 and Fallujah in 2007. I would be less firm and fixed in my position if I were you. There is also little way to be in such constant contact with both the population and the enemy (as with the Marines in Helmand, and Soldiers in Korengal) unless you do COPs.

    Finally, you shouldn’t presume to teach me anything about what happened at Wanat. But as for your observation that Brostrom had to make the best of a bad situation, I agree. Whenever I speak of the soldiers on this engagement, I try to do so with the utmost respect.

    I will continue with my diction since it’s my site. You should amend your attitude if you post any more comments.

  4. On August 13, 2009 at 11:33 pm, SFOD said:

    General Mattis’ concept for deploying Marines in Fallujah, in my opinion, cannot be applied to places like Wanat owing to terrain and our lack of troops. It is my recollection that he analogized his intended deployments to police stations and he deployed many of them tied into one another by commo. He also had reaction forces. He wanted these bases of security to spread like oil spots (a Malaya/RVN era concept.) Later, these concepts were employed by General Petraeus in the cities. I do not recognize these concepts in the placement of this brigade’s combat outposts. To me, a COP suggests a fairly isolated position (outpost) with sufficient strength to stand alone. Examples would be the “bullet magnets” some units have placed on hilltops in areas near the Pakistan border.

    However, the best examples of largely successful outposts were the “A” Team camps in RVN. These camps had significant (well paid) Vietnamese units (Strikers) inside the wire. Some teams (mine) also served as District Advisers and were located next to hamlets and villages. When these camps were located in isolated locations astride enemy LOCs and outside friendly artillery range, they were vulnerable to being overrun. As we know, this did happen.

    Place a platoon in a hostile area without two to three-hundred troops loyal to them and they are vulnerable to being overrun. In this case, they had their parent unit 7K away and as in RVN, the Taliban had planned to ambush the relief force. That did not come to pass and the platoon with its competence, valor and aerial support thwarted the Taliban’s plans. BTW, let us remember that 1LT Brostrom trained this platoon and that excellent training shone through those dark hours.

    A similar situation occurred where a Special Forces Team was placed in a town near the Pakistan border without supporting forces. They too hung on by their fingernails with examples of extraordinary valor until evacuated. The Army seems to want to celebrate the valor without openly condemning the bad planners that made it necessary. I’m interested in future good COIN planning that embraces more than the correct tactical placement of an adequate number of troops.

    As I understand it, the Marines are clearing areas where they then intend to offer the population a secure environment in which to improve their way of life. This means adequate stay-behind forces which can prevent the Taliban from returning while finding alternative work for those who performed tasks for the Taliban to earn money. Although the Marines secured Vietnamese hamlets with platoons dedicated to living and fighting there, I’d like to see company strength units placed in Afghan villages until significant progress has been demonstrated. Certainly this is a justification for additional troops and more civilian AID rural development personnel.

  5. On August 13, 2009 at 11:47 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    Your argument is for additional troops, and for additional force projection. Amen to that. You have found the right web site for that notion. From Iraq when I started this blog through to now, my argument has been for more force projection. My argument all along has been that force projection and the need to apply that force is inversely proportional.

    I am well aware of Marcus Luttrell’s publication on this matter. Yes, Korengal (and surrounding area) has been troublesome.

    I don’t know what General Mattis’ view was. My view is that he sold the Haditha Marines up the road, and so beyond that, his views are irrelevant to me. As for COPs, they worked fine in Ramadi and (I know from my son and fellow Marines) in Fallujah in 2007 (although at that time, it was an Iraqi Police Precinct with both IPs and Marines deployed together). BTW, the Marines trusted the IPs, and loathed the ISF who were treacherous scumbags. In Afghanistan it seems reversed, although it also seems that even the ANA cannot be trusted to fight at times.


    Lt. Brostrom walked into a Hornets nest (and knew that it was happening), and performed with valor as did the other men that fateful night. On this, I think we can all agree.

    For some of his story:

  6. On August 17, 2009 at 10:24 am, Warbucks said:

    Help cure Geo-Duffism:

    My geography never seems to be up to adequate speed to stay with the highly mobile, adept, and knowledgeable professionals surrounding this site. It would no doubt be of great utility for those readers sharing my limited geographic knowledge, if we had one TCJ Global Battle-Site Map, “B-S Map” for short, that anyone commenting could link into with multiple level resolutions — maybe with a built-in feature the pulled up drawings triggered by the link from which the inquiry originated. This later feature would enable B-S content to be archived for any relevant discussion.

    Say for example I wanted to compare the terrain of Anbar and Helmand Provinces. I could go to my Global B-S Map, hit level-3 on the resolution code, illustrate with simple highlight graphics (as the talking-head retired Generals do on t.v.) giving me the best resolution to illustrate my comparisons, and presto — the map is linked in for all of us.

    It otherwise takes a geo-duffus, many vital morning minutes to find the relevant map, which is sometimes near impossible.

    The highest service of TCJ is to enable civilian powers (voters) to understand battle realities and the true status of the war, to influence government. This is of course the one power or service, government does not want a blog such as TCJ to be able to achieve if the powers that be are embarrassed. There will always be inherent tension between effective free speech and state secrecy. While all governments will seek to operate in a vacuum in secrete, a free democratic republic can survive and change with transparency of truth, a tyranny can not, as truth destroys tyranny eventually. Any maps provided are always appreciated.


  7. On August 17, 2009 at 3:31 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    I find that pictures and video are very useful, and so I typically spend some time searching for the right stuff. Very infrequently DVIDS has some good stuff, more more often I waste my time there.

    Maps and especially topo’s are even more difficult to come by, at least, the good ones. A good combination for Wanat is found:

    As for a larger more regional map, any good search can easily find the province in which this is located, and a larger map of Afghanstan can place this in context. Frankly, I find this to be time consuming and usually avoid it.

    But … I invite my readers to help me with this at any time. Maps, Google Earth views, other satellite photos, topo views, and so forth, are always welcome. I just don’t have the time to do reasonably good blogging PLUS maps and views. Or … someone could pay me to blog professionally and I would have the time.

  8. On August 19, 2009 at 9:56 am, Warbucks said:

    I once exercised the audacity to suggest to our 2007 crop of men-in-black-suits, that they very quietly, give Google Earth, military grade, high resolution, satellite map data covering all the middle east; replace sensitive installations (several hundred) with low resolution (what we in the civilian world call “air-brushing-out” sensitive installations), but otherwise let anyone interested, zero-in on the landscape right down to the license plates. And put it out in 3 D, and change it with the seasons.

    The question this begs of course is, would there be more to gain than we risk losing?

    For example, the whole issue of Opium Production is visible already with Google Earth 5.0. The casual observer can see all the opium fields in production in the high mountains. I mean there they are.. in plain sight!

    One could argue both ways over the national security implications of being able to count the size of the harvest in the year of the last data update to Google Earth… and yet… there they are.. valley after valley after valley.

    I think our free and open democratic-republic can survive such truths, even if it does cause controversy. On the other hand corruption has a hard time being viewed and tends to want to avoid the spot light.

    If any one is listening…

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You are currently reading "Analysis of the Battle of Wanat", entry #1506 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Battle of Wanat,Counterinsurgency,Featured,Rules of Engagement,War & Warfare and was published November 11th, 2008 by Herschel Smith.

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