Report Cites Firefight as Lesson on Afghan War

by THOM SHANKER

Published: October 2, 2009

WASHINGTON — The paratroopers of Chosen Company had plenty to worry about as they began digging in at their new outpost on the fringe of a hostile frontier village in eastern Afghanistan.

Peter Schumacher/The Burlington Times-News, via Associated Press

Cpl. Pruitt Rainey’s coffin was carried from his funeral in July 2008 in Burlington, N.C. He was one of nine American soldiers killed in a firefight that month in Wanat, Afghanistan.

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Intelligence reports were warning of militants massing in the area. As the paratroopers looked around, the only villagers they could see were men of fighting age idling in the bazaar. There were no women and children, and some houses looked abandoned. Through their night scopes they could see furtive figures on the surrounding mountainsides.

A few days later, they were almost overrun by 200 insurgents.

That firefight, a debacle that cost nine American lives in July 2008, has become the new template for how not to win in Afghanistan. The calamity and its roots have been described in bitter, painstaking detail in an unreleased Army history, a devastating narrative that has begun to circulate in an initial form even as the military opened a formal review this week of decisions made up and down the chain of command.

The 248-page draft history, obtained by The New York Times, helps explain why the new commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, is pressing so hard for a full-fledged commitment to a style of counterinsurgency that rests on winning over the people of Afghanistan even more than killing militants. The military has already incorporated lessons from the battle in the new doctrine for war in Afghanistan.

The history offers stark examples of shortcomings in the unit’s preparation, the style of combat it adopted, its access to intelligence, its disdain for the locals — in short, plenty of blame to go around.

Before the soldiers arrived, commanders negotiated for months with Afghan officials of dubious loyalty over where they could dig in, giving militants plenty of time to prepare for an assault.

Despite the suspicion that the militants were nearby, there were not enough surveillance aircraft over the lonely outpost — a chronic shortage in Afghanistan that frustrated Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates at the time. Commanders may have been distracted from the risky operation by the bureaucratic complexities of handing over responsibility at the brigade level to replacements — and by their urgent investigation of an episode that had enraged the local population, the killing a week earlier in an airstrike of a local medical clinic’s staff as it fled nearby fighting in two pickup trucks.

Above all, the unit and its commanders had an increasingly tense and untrusting relationship with the Afghan people.

The history cited the “absence of cultural awareness and understanding of the specific tribal and governance situation” and the emphasis on combat operations over the development of the local economy and other civil affairs, a reversal of the practices of the unit that had just left the area.

The battle of Wanat is being described as the “Black Hawk Down” of Afghanistan, with the 48 American soldiers and 24 Afghan soldiers outnumbered three to one in a four-hour firefight that left nine Americans dead and 27 wounded in one of the bloodiest days of the eight-year war.

Soldiers who survived the battle described how their automatic weapons turned white hot and jammed from nonstop firing. Mortally wounded troops continued to hand bullet belts to those still able to fire.

The ammunition stockpile was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, igniting a stack of 120-millimeter mortar rounds — and the resulting fireball flung the unit’s antitank missiles into the command post. One insurgent got inside the concertina wire and is believed to have killed three soldiers at close range, including the platoon commander, Lt. Jonathan P. Brostrom.

The description of the battle at Wanat — the heroism, the violence and the missteps that may have contributed to the deaths — ends with a judgment that the fight was “as remarkable as any small-unit action in American military history.”

The author, the military historian Douglas R. Cubbison, also included a series of criticisms in his review, sponsored by the Army’s Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., that laid blame on a series of decisions made before the battle.

The draft report criticized the “lack of adequate preparation time” before arriving in Afghanistan, which meant there was little training geared specifically for Afghanistan, and not even a detailed operational plan for the year of combat that lay ahead.

Pentagon and military officials say those initial criticisms are being revised to reflect subsequent interviews with other soldiers and officers who were at Wanat or who served in higher-level command positions. After a round of revisions, the study will go through a formal peer-review process and be published.

The battle stands as proof that the United States is facing off against a far more sophisticated adversary in Afghanistan today, one that can fight anonymously with roadside bombs or stealthily with kidnappings — but also can operate like a disciplined armed force using well-rehearsed small-unit tactics to challenge the American military for dominance on the conventional battlefield.

Official judgment on whether errors were made by the unit on the ground or by any leaders up the chain of command will be determined by a new investigation opened this week by Gen. David H. Petraeus of United States Central Command at the urging of Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The call for such an independent review came from family members of the fallen, including David P. Brostrom, father of the slain platoon commander and himself a retired Army colonel, as well as from a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Jim Webb, Democrat of Virginia.

The history is replete with wrong turns at every point of the unit’s mission, starting with the day it was reassigned to Afghanistan from training for Iraq.

After having served for more than a year in other hot zones of eastern Afghanistan, the platoon arrived in the village at dark on July 8, 2008, just two weeks from the day it was supposed to go home to its base in Italy.

The men wore their adopted unit emblem — skull patches fashioned after Marvel Comics’ antihero, the Punisher. They unloaded their Humvees, packed with weapons, water and the single rucksack each had kept when the rest of his kit was shipped home. They had plenty of ammunition.

But at the end of an intense tour of combat, they had run out of good relations with an increasingly distrustful population.

They named it Outpost Kahler, after a popular sergeant who had been killed by one of their own Afghan guards early that year. His last words as he moved ahead of his comrades to check whether their Afghan partners were asleep while on duty had been, “This might be dangerous.” (The shooting was ruled an accident, but relations between skeptical American troops and Afghan forces deteriorated.)

Although the 173rd Airborne Brigade had been scheduled to return to Iraq from its base in Italy, the need for forces to counter a resurgence of militant violence in eastern Afghanistan prompted new orders for the brigade to switch immediately to preparations for mountain warfare — many of the outposts were linked only by narrow, rutted trails, and some could be reached only be helicopter — and a wholly different culture and language. “Unfortunately, the comparatively late change of mission for the 173rd Airborne B.C.T. from Iraq to Afghanistan did not permit the brigade sufficient time to prepare any form of campaign plan,” the history reports.

The unit arrived at Wanat ill prepared for the hot work of building an outpost in the mountains in July; troops were thirsty from a lack of fresh water, and their one construction vehicle ran out of gas, so the unit was unable to complete basic fortifications. The soldiers had no local currency to buy favor by investing in the village economy, the history makes clear. The soldiers also said they complained up the chain of command about the lack of air surveillance over their dangerous corner of Afghanistan, but no more was provided.

Even as they settled into their spartan command post, the unit’s commanders were insulted to learn that local leaders were meeting together in a “shura,” or council, to which they were not invited — and which might even have been a session used to coordinate the assault on the Americans that began before dawn the very next morning.

The four-hour firefight finally ended when American warplanes and attack helicopters strafed insurgent positions. The paratroopers drove back the insurgents, but ended up abandoning the village 48 hours later.