Army Edits Its History of the Deadly Battle of Wanat in Afghanistan

Published on
by
The Washington Post

Army Edits Its History of the Deadly Battle of Wanat in Afghanistan

by
Greg Jaffe

The Army's official history of the battle of Wanat
- one of the most intensely scrutinized engagements of the Afghan war -
largely absolves top commanders of the deaths of nine U.S. soldiers and
instead blames the confusing and unpredictable nature of war.

The history of the July 2008 battle
was almost two years in the making and triggered a roiling debate at
all levels of the Army about whether mid-level and senior battlefield
commanders should be held accountable for mistakes made under the
extreme duress of combat.

An initial draft of the Wanat history, which was obtained by The
Washington Post and other media outlets in the summer of 2009, placed
the preponderance of blame for the losses on the higher-level battalion
and brigade commanders who oversaw the mission, saying they failed to
provide the proper resources to the unit in Wanat.

The final history, released in recent weeks, drops many of the earlier
conclusions and instead focuses on failures of lower-level commanders.

The battle of Wanat, which took place in a remote mountain village near the Pakistan
border, produced four investigations and sidetracked the careers of
several Army officers, whose promotions were either put on hold or
canceled. The 230-page Army history is likely to be the military's last
word on the episode, and reflects a growing consensus within the ranks
that the Army should be cautious in blaming battlefield commanders for
failures in demanding wars such as the conflict in Afghanistan.

Family members of the deceased at Wanat reacted with anger and disappointment to the final version of the Army history.

"They blame the platoon-level leadership for all the mistakes at Wanat,"
said retired Col. David Brostrom, whose son was killed in the fighting.
"It blames my dead son. They really missed the point."

The findings in the early draft history of the battle and pressure from lawmakers,
including Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), prompted Gen. David H. Petraeus, who
was then the commander of U.S. Central Command, to order an
investigation into Wanat.

The initial investigation, conducted by a three-star Marine Corps
general and completed in the spring, found that the company and
battalion commanders were "derelict in their duty" to provide proper
oversight and resources to the soldiers fighting at Wanat.

Petraeus reviewed the findings and concluded that based on Army
doctrine, the brigade commander, who was the senior U.S. officer in the
area, also failed in his job. He recommended that all three officers be
issued letters of reprimand, which would essentially end their careers.

After the officers appealed their reprimands, a senior Army general in the United States reversed the decision to punish the officers, formerly members of the the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

Gen. Charles Campbell told family members of the deceased that the
letters of reprimand would have a chilling effect on other battlefield
commanders, who often must make difficult decisions with limited
information, according to a tape of his remarks. He also concluded that
the deaths were not the direct result of the officers' mistakes.

The initial decision to discipline the three officers was controversial
within the Army even before Campbell's decision to tear up the letters
of reprimand. On the day the letters were supposed to be finalized,
senior Army officials had planned to have top commanders discuss the
decision with their officers. When the letters were revoked, those plans
were canceled.

The Army's final history of the Wanat battle largely echoes Campbell's
conclusions, citing the role of "uncertainty [as] a factor inseparable
from any military operation."

In its conclusions, the study maintains that U.S. commanders had a weak
grasp of the area's complicated politics, causing them to underestimate
the hostility to a U.S. presence in Wanat.

"Within the valley communities there had been hundreds of years of
intertribal and intercommunity conflict, magnified by hundreds of years
of geographic isolation. Understanding the cultural antagonisms present
in [Wanat] was difficult and complicated," it said. "Coalition leaders
had difficulty understanding the political situation."

But the history focuses mostly on the failures of lower-level commanders
to patrol aggressively in the area around Wanat as they were building
their defenses. It also criticizes 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom,
a 24-year-old platoon leader, for placing a key observation point in an
area that did not provide the half-dozen U.S. soldiers placed there a
broad enough view to spot the enemy.

"The placement of the OP [Observation Post] is perhaps the most
important factor contributing to the course of the engagement at Wanat,"
the report states.

The initial investigation, by contrast, found that the placement of the
post was not a major factor in the outcome of the battle.

That investigation also found that mid-level Army officers failed to
plan the operation beyond the first four days and as a result failed to
provide sufficient manpower, water and other resources to defend the
base from a Taliban attack. The official history makes little mention of
such conclusions.

One of the senior officials involved in the initial investigation said
that none of the officers who were recommended for disciplinary action
were incompetent. "They were all truly professional officers," the
senior official said.

But even good officers must be held accountable for inattention and
mistakes, the official said. "We are talking about people's lives here,"
he said. "Officers have to be held accountable for their actions. They
can't be given a free ride when lives are involved. If you screw up, you
have to pay a price."

David Brostrom, the father of the dead platoon leader at Wanat, said he
will meet next month with senior Army officials and Army historians at
Fort Leavenworth, Kan., in an effort to get them to further revise the
Wanat history. He doesn't expect the Army to change the record, which is
considered final.

"For me, this has never been about trying to get officers fired,"
Brostrom said. "It is about trying to get the Army to admit and learn
from its mistakes."

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