Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Battle of Wanat, Afghan istan, in July 2008 was a tough pill to swallow. We lost nine men and 27 wounded at a remote outpost in Nuristan province when a platoon from the 2nd Battalion (Airborne) of the 503rd Infantry Regiment was attacked by more than 200 Taliban and al Qaeda fighters as they were constructing a new combat outpost (COP). It was even more painful, as the unit was less than two weeks from finishing a brutal, 15-month deployment that saw an average of three troops in contact incidents daily.

There have been multiple investigations and reports on the battle, including one that was just finished. The interest is understandable, given the loss of life, but it appears that what once was a hunt for lessons to be learned has turned into a search for scapegoats. The families of several of the fallen have been vocal in calling for this additional investigation and in criticizing the command elements of the unit for perceived failures. No one can fault a parent who has lost a child for attempting to find the truth about how it happened and to see any mistakes properly addressed. However, difficult decisions are made in combat that may lead to loss of life, but that does not always mean that those decisions were wrong or, worse, failures of command.

I have had the privilege of meeting quite a few of the brave paratroopers who fought this battle, and I was present at a very emotional reunion between some of the wounded and their comrades who also survived. I accompanied more than a dozen members of the unit to the memorial service for Cpl. Jonathan R. Ayers when his parents and brother received the Silver Star he had earned manning his machine gun under withering enemy fire. They discussed the battle and compared their recollections of the incident in an informal and unrestrained environment. My opinions in this piece are informed by those discussions as well as information from Col. William Ostlund, then a lieutenant colonel and commander of 2nd Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment, and from the after-action reports and previous investigations of the battle. These remain my opinions and conclusions alone, and I limit them to evaluation of actions within the 2/503 and not the higher headquarters. Here is a look at the main areas of contention.

Outpost constructed near end of tour and during handoff to incoming unit:

COP Wanat was being built to replace another outpost (COP Bella) that had become indefensible and was closed. Lt. Col. Ostlund has noted that the incoming commander would have been severely hampered by the lack of an outpost such as Wanat and “personnel with 14 months’ experience are infinitely more qualified and prepared to do such an operation than are those just arriving in country.”

Warnings of large enemy force and impending attack:

The unit had been hearing from locals about a buildup of enemy fighters and threats of attacks on their positions, including COP Bella, for a considerable time. These continued when they began work at Wanat, but they expected probing attacks first as the new location was 10-12 kilometers (6.2 to 7.4 miles) from COP Bella.

Shortage of defensive materiel for outpost:

The platoon self-deployed to Wanat with as many supplies as they could transport to build defenses. There was a civilian construction group contracted to improve the road to the COP and bring in additional defensive materiel, which failed to show up prior to the attack. This did leave them with fewer physical barriers and cover than had been planned for. It is fair to ask if this was a severe enough defect to call for scrapping the mission, but there were no additional supplies available to alleviate this, regardless. The mission was deemed important enough to proceed.

Insufficient water available:

The platoon brought bottled water with them, and it did begin to run short. They also had iodine tablets and filters that would have allowed them to use the local well and a stream, but a decision was made by the platoon leadership not to use them. Instead, they rested the men during the heat of the day and limited some of the construction of defenses. This was a tactical decision, and if deemed important enough, the local water supplies, although quite unappealing, could have been utilized.

Lack of drone surveillance:

The unit had Predator drone support on the first five days at Wanat, but it was withdrawn the night prior to the attack. This led to the enemy being able to move into its assault positions without being detected. Both battalion and brigade officers strongly requested Predator support but the assets were in use on other missions.

Unit failed to conduct counterinsurgency mission:

There have been claims that the battalion lost the hearts and minds of the local populace by taking a purely kinetic combat approach. This is shown to be false by unit records documenting considerable outreach to the locals throughout the deployment. It should be noted that during this time period, al Qaeda and Taliban elements had reconstituted in safe havens across the border in Pakistan and were conducting a major push back into Afghanistan. Deteriorating relations with the locals began six months prior to 2/503rd’s arrival when a major from the previous unit was killed while conducting an outreach mission. The enemy’s tempo made ongoing counterinsurgency efforts difficult, but they were done as much as possible.

Combat in the incredibly inhospitable terrain of Afghanistan is a nightmare in the best circumstances. The men of that platoon at the Battle of Wanat had very little going for them other than their incredible fighting spirit. They held their ground and overcame a numerically far superior enemy. Their story will be added to the long and proud history of our airborne forces. Unless this latest report contains some new information that has not come to light previously, I do not believe any adverse actions toward the command are warranted.

Jim Hanson served on an A Team in 1st Special Forces Group and reports on national security for Blackfive.net.

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