WASHINGTON - Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, kept a remote U.S. base in the country manned last year at the local governor's request despite warnings from his field commanders that it should be closed because it was vulnerable and had no tactical or strategic value.
McChrystal's decision to maintain the outpost at Barg-e Matal prompted the top American commanders in eastern Afghanistan to delay plans to close a second remote U.S. outpost, Combat Outpost Keating, where insurgents killed eight U.S. troops in an assault Oct. 3, a McClatchy investigation has found.
Keeping Barg-e-Matal open also deprived a third isolated base of the officer who would have been its acting commander and left its command to lower-ranking officers whose "ineffective actions" led "directly" to the deaths of five American and eight Afghan soldiers in an ambush Sept. 8, according to a high-level military investigation.
In addition, an unidentified witness told the military investigators that the operations center that failed to provide effective artillery and air cover to the U.S. and Afghan force that was ambushed in the Ganjgal Valley was focused instead on Barg-e Matal.
However, the ambush inquiry and a similar high-level Army probe into the Oct. 3 deaths at COP Keating, the worst single American combat loss in 2009, don't mention that McChrystal's decision to keep Barg-e Matal open made the combat outpost and the Ganjgal operation more vulnerable.
Instead, the inquiries hit lower-ranking officers - including two field commanders who'd urged McChrystal for months to close Keating and Barg-e Matal - with administrative penalties.
The two officers, Col. Randy George and Lt. Col. Robert B. Brown, and other U.S. officials had warned repeatedly that the two outposts were worthless and too costly to defend, two American defense officials and a former NATO official told McClatchy.
Neither George nor Brown could be reached for comment.
A spokesman for McChrystal said the U.S. commander had ordered American troops to remain in Barg-e Matal to prevent it from falling to insurgents while a local militia was being trained there.
"The threat at that time was both significant and real," Rear Adm. Gregory Smith wrote in an e-mail.
Nuristan Gov. Jamalluddin Badr pressured the United States publicly and privately to keep troops in Barg-e Matal to prevent the village from falling to the Taliban before Afghanistan's Aug. 20 presidential election. The two U.S. defense officials said McChrystal's decision to keep the outpost there open until the local militia was trained was intended to help Badr survive the political fallout had insurgents captured the village after an American withdrawal.
"Everyone knew why we were in Barg-e Matal," one U.S. defense official said. "McChrystal . . . was not in favor of pulling out because of the political ramifications."
The two American defense officials and the former NATO official said they wanted to discuss the matter because of what they considered flawed investigations that penalized the two field commanders but failed to hold McChrystal and other superior officers accountable. They requested anonymity to avoid retaliation.
They said that George, of the Army's 4th Infantry Division, based at Fort Carson, Colo., had begun making plans to close Keating in January 2009, six months before his 4th Brigade Combat Team deployed to Afghanistan last June.
He briefed plans to close Keating and Barg-e Matal to McChrystal, other senior commanders and top Afghan officials at a July 17 meeting in Kabul, they said, and he and Brown briefed McChrystal again in early August at Brown's headquarters at Forward Operating Base Bostick in Kunar province, they said.
"The Barg-e Matal operation made it impossible to close Keating," the former NATO official said. George "had a whole schedule for coming down out of those COPs accordion-style."
George, the American commander in four Afghan provinces that border Pakistan, has received a letter of admonishment; Brown, whose operational area included Keating and Barg-e Matal, has received an official reprimand.
The admonishment, which is a minor penalty, is unlikely to affect George's career, but the official reprimand could end Brown's career.
"They are screwing these two guys," the first U.S. defense official said of the field commanders.
"They were looking for heads," the second American defense official said. "It's a travesty."
Penalizing the pair is even more egregious, the U.S. defense officials and the former NATO official said, because their plans to close the outposts were consistent with McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy of moving American troops from remote areas to economically important population centers.
The fact that officers in the field are being punished while no mention has been made of the role that their superiors played signals that those on the front lines always will take the blame when things go wrong, the first U.S. defense official said.
"This will make the Army even more casualty-averse," he said. "This is the worst message at the worst time for McChrystal to send."
Army Lt. Gen. Guy Swan, who conducted the Keating investigation, didn't return calls seeking comment on why his report, which found that manning Barg-e Matal delayed Keating's closure for several months, didn't hold McChrystal or any other general officer responsible for that decision.
Fewer than 70 American soldiers were deployed at Keating, which was in a deep valley and under frequent attack. It was closed after the Oct. 3 assault by an estimated 300 insurgents, some 150 of whom are thought to have been killed after U.S. airpower finally arrived.
"By mid-2009, there was no tactical or strategic value to holding the ground" and "the chain of command" decided to close Keating in "July-August 2009," the report says. The withdrawal was "delayed when the assets required to backhaul base supplies were diverted to support intense brigade-level operations in Barg-e Matal."
In addition, it says, drone aircraft and other intelligence-gathering "assets that could have given the soldiers at COP Keating better situational awareness for their operational environment were reprioritized to support Barg-e Matal as well as the search for a missing U.S. soldier in the south."
"The delayed closing of COP Keating is important as it contributed to a mindset of imminent closure that served to impede improvements in force protection on the COP," the report continues. "There were inadequate measures taken by the chain of command, resulting in an attractive target for enemy fighters."
A U.S. Army spokesman in Afghanistan said he couldn't discuss why Barg-e Matal's impact on the ambush in Ganjgal wasn't included in that investigation.
The report found that the commander of Forward Operating Base Joyce, which had operational control of the ambushed force of Afghan troops and border police and their American Marine and Army trainers, was away on leave, and his deputy was assigned to Barg-e Matal.
"The absence of senior leaders in the operations center with troops in contact . . . and their consequent lack of situational awareness and decisive action was a key failure," the report says.
An unidentified officer said in a sworn statement on the incident that "during this same period, we were managing leave, and providing battalion command and control to the fight in Barg-e Matal. The fight in Barg-e Matal had an even greater need for a competent battle captain because they were constantly in contact (with the enemy), and the (sic) lethal fight far more complex at that time than anywhere else in our battlespace."
The roughly 200 10th Mountain Division troops in Barg-e Matal were nearly a third of FOB Joyce's combat power, creating a major strain on the contingent, which was spread across parts of Kunar and Nuristan provinces.
The area was so "expansive" that a quick reaction force that would have been dispatched to relieve the ambushed force in the Ganjgal Valley had been disbanded, the unidentified officer said in his sworn statement.
Smith, McChrystal's spokesman, acknowledged that the top U.S. commander had ordered the makeshift base in Barg-e Matal held from July until mid-September to prevent insurgents from seizing the area while a local militia was being recruited and trained. Four American soldiers died during that operation.
"We responded to a request by the government of Afghanistan to support nascent security forces that had come under direct and sustained insurgent pressure and were jeopardizing governance and the people in the area," he said.
The area was a "historical rat line" - or infiltration route - for the Hezb-i-Islami insurgent group and al Qaida, Smith added.
There also was a "political component to the decision," Smith said, indicating that in one pillar of U.S. counterinsurgency strategy, McChrystal wanted to extend Afghan government authority to the district.
"The decision on the scale and tempo of support to Barg-e Matal was balanced against other competing operations," said Smith, who added that the local militia in Barg-e Matal is "doing a pretty effective job, so the investment has paid dividends."
Knowledgeable American officers and officials countered that the impoverished mountain backwater of 2,500 in Nuristan province has no strategic value, lacks any roads, is far from key population centers, traditionally has disdained the authority of the central government in Kabul and is historically hostile to outsiders, including other Afghans.
"It's lunacy to deploy forces to a location simply because the unseasoned, politically driven host government so requests," said a U.S. diplomat who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly. "Bear in mind that this operation in what is undoubtedly one of the most remote and difficult locations in all of Afghanistan occurred at the time of discussion about revising our strategy to concentrate our forces in areas of dense population and strategic importance."
Barg-e Matal is deep in rugged mountains where insurgent snipers were so well dug in that American troops resorted to calling in jet fighters and attack helicopters to silence them, U.S. soldiers based there told a McClatchy reporter in September after he was denied permission to visit Barg-e Matal.
The troops, who originally were told that they'd be in Barg-e Matal for four days, said they were under constant attack.
The outpost of sandbags and concertina wire consisted of a girl's school and wooden homes on one side of a river that bisects the village, and the local administration compound where Afghan troops and Latvian trainers were based on the other.
It could be supplied only by dangerous nighttime helicopter missions, and the nearly constant fire made the reconstruction projects on which American counterinsurgency strategy hinges all but impossible. Local officials distributed some U.S. aid to the few locals who remained there, but they hoarded most of it, the American troops said.
Two Afghan soldiers shot and wounded themselves in September so they could be evacuated, U.S. troops said.