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Outside View: Strategic defeat

disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only
by Lawrence Sellin
Helsinki, Finland (UPI) Mar 18, 2009
Last week it was reported that four-star U.S. Army Gen. Charles Campbell of Army Forces Command issued career-ending official reprimands to Capt. Matthew Myer, Lt. Col. William Ostlund and Col. Chip Preysler, company, battalion and brigade commanders who, according to the Army investigation, failed to adequately prepare their unit for the July 13, 2008, Taliban attack on a remote U.S. outpost in Wanat, Waygal Valley, Afghanistan.

All the soldiers and Marines involved in this intense battle fought with exceptional valor and professionalism in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. military. This includes Myer, who was awarded the Silver Star, the nation's third highest combat medal.

Nine soldiers were killed in action, 27 were wounded. The numerous acts of individual courage and sacrifice are too numerous to describe adequately here. Suffice it to say that one can only feel humbled when reading details of this battle. The defenders were outnumbered three-to-one by Taliban forces, under unrelenting withering fire and forced to defend a position of location and circumstances far less than ideal.

This article relies heavily on an outstanding report of the Wanat battle written by Douglas R. Cubbison, a military historian with the Research and Publication Team, U.S. Army Combat Studies Institute, Fort Leavenworth, Kan. The report was requested by Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell, then commander of the Army's Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth and now commander of the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan.

The Waygal Valley is one of the most isolated and topographically forbidding areas of Afghanistan. It has long been a Taliban infiltration route from Pakistan but it is also a hub for criminal activities and an area plagued by inter-tribal rivalries. Much of the terrain is inaccessible by road and often difficult to resupply by helicopter. Both the geography and the cultural complexities have left many areas without central government presence or influence.

The operational timing and command actions leading up to the July 13, 2008, battle in Wanat probably had a significant impact both on the insurgent's decision to attack and on the vulnerability of the defenders. The Taliban attacked a mere five days after coalition forces arrived in Wanat, long before it could build an adequate defensive perimeter with the amount of supplies, including potable water, and equipment they were initially allocated.

At the time of the battle, the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team was in the process of a Relief in Place and Transfer of Authority to the 3rd BCT of the 1st Infantry Division for operational control of the Waygal Valley.

Although the idea for establishing a combat outpost in Wanat was floated as early as February 2007 during its pre-deployment site survey, the decision to do so wasn't made by the battalion and brigade commanders until late June 2008. On July 7, 2008, the contingency operation was briefed to Brig. Gen. Mark Milley, deputy commanding general-operations of the 101st Airborne Division, the lead element of Coalition Joint Task Force-101, which contained Wanat within its area of responsibility.

After sunset July 8, 2nd platoon, C Company, 2-503rd Airborne Infantry, 173rd Airborne BCT departed for Wanat. It was about two weeks before 2nd platoon was scheduled to leave Afghanistan. Joining members of 2nd platoon were 24 Afghan national army soldiers, three U.S. Marine embedded tactical trainers, two interpreters and a six-man engineering squad from C Company, 62nd Engineer Battalion. At the same time and unbeknown to them, an assault on their new COP was being planned by 150-200 heavily armed insurgents.

The attack began about 4:30 a.m. and remained intense until about 6:30 a.m. Heroic efforts by medical evacuation teams, Apache helicopter gunship crews and ground reinforcements saved lives and prevented the Wanat force from being overrun.

Despite an exceptional performance by the company-grade officers, non-commissioned officers and soldiers during the battle, the mission was plagued from the start. Among other issues, there were insufficient logistics, failure of weapons systems at high cyclic rates, withdrawal of an unmanned aerial vehicle surveillance by CJTF-101 at a critical juncture and discounting the battalion's own assessment of enemy capabilities and intentions.

There were operational security failures made at higher echelons. A particular noteworthy error was insufficient brigade and CJTF-101 command emphasis and attention given to the Wanat operation.

A tragic event, which no doubt affected the development of the insurgent assault, occurred on July 4, 2008. Apache helicopter gunships mistakenly killed 17 Afghan healthcare providers in a truck fleeing a battle scene. It is believed that two insurgents with weapons were among those killed in the vehicle.

Ineffective information operations in the wake of the July 4 tragedy and the absence of other counterinsurgency lines of operations -- e.g. economics, governance and population security -- could have been factors that contributed to the events leading up to the July 13 battle.

With an emphasis on combat power alone, and insufficient at that, Wanat was a very costly lesson in counterinsurgency education for senior leaders in Afghanistan. The real cost, however, was borne by American heroes and their families.

Two days after the battle, upon recommendations from subordinates, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser, CJTF-101 commander ordered the withdrawal from Wanat and the Waygal Valley.

The troops won the battle but the Waygal Valley and its surrounding areas remain the Wild West.

(Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D., is a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve and a veteran of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq . The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army or government.)

(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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