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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.