The battle at Wanat

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"Brostrom's battalion commander, Lt. Col. William Ostlund, had concluded months before Kahler's death that keeping troops at the Bella outpost no longer made sense. Enemy fighters coming from Pakistan had long ago learned to maneuver around the base.

But Ostlund wasn't ready to give up the surrounding Waygal Valley, which was home to a largely illiterate and deeply religious population. The isolated valley offered an ideal haven for al-Qaeda and the Taliban. "It was a population I really had a hard time understanding and did not respect," Ostlund said. "But I really did believe that they needed to be connected to the central government and that would be the first step to making them better people, less of a threat to themselves and Afghanistan."  Washpost

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Yesterday we had a couple more combat outposts shot up and assaulted in Nuristan with eight men killed.  Nuristan is a part of Afghanistan that is wild even for Afghanistan and largely uncontrolled by other than its inhabitants.  Nuristan was called "Kaffiristan" (land of the heathen) until the late 19th Century when the people there were forcibly converted to Islam.  Now the "Nuristanis" are among the most fanatic and ignorant of all the border peoples of the Pakistan/Afghanistan region.

Last year in July a rifle platoon was badly hurt at a village called Wanat in Nuristan.  According to the story in today's Washington Post, the incident has been much investigated and continues to be investigated.

The account of the planning and execution of the placement of the outpost at Wanat raises a number of key issues bearing on the army's conduct of the war in the mountain country of east Afghanistan.

– The Taliban (Nuristani) enemy's capabilities were badly underestimated by higher headquarters before the decision was made to place this outpost at Wanat.  This happened even though another combat outpost at Bella a few miles away in the same valley system had been repeatedly attacked by forces which showed real planning ability and which displayed numbers superior to those of the Bella outpost.  In spite of this, the same battalion decided to establish the small Wanat outpost with a 40 man platoon under a young officer who would be completely on his own out in this unfriendly place.  In the event of the Wanat attack, the enemy numbered over 200 and opened their assault by attacks by fire from dominant terrain that eliminated much of the platoon's available local fire support.   Either combat intelligence analysis failed badly or the command just ignored analysis that it did not want to hear.

– The Wanat outpost appears (from the Washpost drawing) to be badly situated.  It was overlooked by higher ground and surrounded by buildings taller than anything that the platoon had to shelter within.  The outpost appears to have been situated with priority given to the importance to locating it within the village so that there would be a maximum interaction with the local population rather than priority having been given to defense of the post.  This is a very basic mistake that bespeaks a lack of focus on the need to survive in combat as opposed to devotion to a theory that demands maximum exposure to the local population.  If counterinsurgency theory demands that kind of interaction, then the interaction must take place in a situation of enough physical security to enable the counterinsurgents to survive.  That did not happen at Wanat.

– The battalion commander's remarks about his lack of respect for the Nuristanis is probably revealing.  In the event they seem to have proven that they deserved a greater degree of respect as fighters than he had given them.  This officer further remarked to the reporter that he had decided that the resistance of the Nuristanis to his battalion's efforts was a challenge to "his will" and that this was a factor in his decision to create the Wanat outpost.  That is disturbing.

- Wanat was attacked 4 days after construction began.  Under normal circumstances, and in my experience, such an outpost would have been sized larger, situated on defensible ground, provided with dependable fire support and built by engineer troops protected by a sizable security force before being handed over to this unfortunate young lieutenant and his 40 men.  There are basic issues of competence  involved in the planning and execution of the Wanat venture.

It will be interesting to learn if anything was learned at Wanat and applied to yesterday's action.   pl   
 

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26 Responses to The battle at Wanat

  1. arbogast says:

    The squib in the Times now says that eight soldiers were killed by tribal militia.
    With all respect to those who know more about this than I do, I am forced to assume that those are the tribal militia who pose a threat to the United States.
    I suppose that, seeing young people are being killed defending us from these tribal militia that I should know, as a voter and an educated person, what the nature of that threat is. I don’t. I’m under the impression that it was Saudi’s who flew planes into the World Trade Center, but we are not at war with Saudi Arabia. In fact, they are among our closest allies.
    So, in ignorance, I am forced to ask what tribal militia in Afghanistan have to do with protecting the continental United States from attack.

  2. ISL says:

    Dear Colonel,
    Before the discussion focuses solely on the logistics/situational aspects, I draw attention to the “human terrain.”
    “…that would be the first step to making them better people…”
    I always distrust enormously – and nothing makes me grumpier – than someone who wants to make me a better person (versus my own decisions). It escapes my imagination how a foreign military is going to make “better people.”

  3. Robert C. says:

    Blatent colonialism…white man’s burden to help the natives…your tax dollars at work.
    RC

  4. WILL says:

    “I’m under the impression that it was Saudi’s who flew planes into the World Trade Center”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/9-11
    Masterminded by a Pakistani Baluchi working under UBL, Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, Saudis supplied the muscle, the pilots were Egyptitan, UAE, Lebanese.
    The Smart strategy would have been to keep Al-Qai’da’s head down while getting troops out of Muslim lands and addressing the Israeli occupation of Gaza & the West Bank which fuels AQ.
    Instead of addressing the issues which fuel AQ, Dubya’s administration poured gasoline on the fire by occupying the muslim countries of Iraq & Afghanistan and giving Sharon a free hand in Palestine. Duh

  5. Jackie says:

    arbogast,
    Good question! Tribal militia sounds like it is probably native Afghanis who would like us to leave? Kind of like the native Americans were “tribal militia” who wanted the white man to go.
    I like the way the language gets all scrambled. Are the taliban, al qaeda and tribal militia different individual groups or are they mixed and matched and lumped together?
    I sincerely grieve for these young men and their families.

  6. Steve says:

    It seems that LTC William Ostlund is now Col. William Ostlund.

  7. N. M. Salamon says:

    ALL:
    Sorry off topic Oct 4, 2009:
    Rep Ron Paul at http://www.juancole.com/
    talking on IRan – opposes neocon ideas
    Enjoy

  8. Tyler says:

    When I was at FOB Salerno in Khost we had a battalion plus there. When we went out, we realised that we could only pick fights if we traveled in a platoon formation. However, we had two Delta company (heavy weapons) up armor humvees with us, a group of sappers, and a 60 mm mortar. As well as air support and 105mm howitzers.
    I don’t know what is going on in Afghanistan, to be honest. My battalion commander, LT COL Glenn, was a great leader and would never put us in a shitty situation like this one in Wanat.
    Where did they find this guy?

  9. lina says:

    I have yet to read or hear a reasonable explanation of why there are ANY conventional U.S. forces in Afghanistan. If the post 9/11 goal is to protect America from attack, why can’t the countries that harbor anti-American belligerents be attended to by a combination of Intelligence and Special Forces operations?

  10. Fred says:

    I’ll leave the tactical review to those more knowledgeable about infantry actions, but there are few telling things I gather from this report:
    “A few days after the platoon arrived, a Wanat village elder gave Brostrom a list of Afghans who had been killed in a helicopter attack the previous week. The dead included insurgents but also several local medical personnel who had worked closely with U.S. soldiers.”
    “It was a population I really had a hard time understanding and did not respect,” (Lt. Col. William Ostlund). What is it that the LTC does not understand? Why these people of the Waygal Valley would work for Americans or why they would be pissed of over their relatives being killed by Americans? There are echoes of the arrogance of the King’s officers in the Colonies prior to Lexington and Concord in his attitude.
    “Americans are hard to dislike for an extended period of time,” he said. “I really believe that.” If you had killed any of my family I would not be ‘liking’ you for a long, long, time. Of course here I can have the sheriff arrest you, the attorney general prosecute you and the Governor keep you in a prison for years. I gather in Wanat you get your gun and plan on how to shoot the SOBs who killed your kin. Kind of like happened on the American frontier. What part of that is hard for LTC Ostlund to understand?

  11. eakens says:

    they were probably thinking the same thing:
    “But I really did believe that they needed to be connected to the central government and that would be the first step to making them better people, less of a threat to themselves and Afghanistan United States.”

  12. DCA says:

    Not respecting this population? A bad idea indeed. Compare Kipling’s “Ballad of East and West” (set not far away). Perhaps LTC Ostlund didn’t like them, but that’s another matter.

  13. china_hand says:

    I was struck by the WaPo’s bland admittance that White Phosphorous was being used as a weapon — and then they followed it up with what must’ve been a story from the father, who asked his son if the people he dropped the WP on might not’ve been civilians, collecting the bodies of the dead.
    The son’s response was sad, but not surprising.

  14. arbogast says:

    The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are a distraction. But from what?
    Simmons
    A short question for the New York Fed
    Currently, many Americans are still watching the NFL on Sunday and going to the mall afterwards. What they don’t realize and perhaps don’t care about is that their children are being sold into slavery. I suppose their willingness to have their children killed by tribal militia in Afghanistan says something about how much they care.
    The American educational system has completely and utterly failed.
    Res ipsa loquitur.

  15. From the WAPO article:
    “A few weeks before Brostrom was killed, a military historian asked him about the successes he had witnessed in Nurestan province, where he had spent most of his tour. He gave a prescient reply.
    “It is almost a lost cause up in Nurestan,” he said flatly. “There needs to be a lot more than just a platoon there if you want to make a big difference.” He thought some more about his frustrating tour, leading the 40-man 2nd Platoon of Chosen Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne), 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team.”…
    1. Some organizational data on 173rd with photo of Ostlund:
    http://www.hqusareur.army.mil/htmlinks/Press_Releases/2006/
    Aug2006/173rd_airborne_stands_up_eight_n.htm
    2. Some further data from Foreign Policy website: “Underscoring the hazy grasp Ostlund and his subordinates had of COIN, the report says, they were precise about the number of engagements they had, and even the number of bombs and missiles fired, but were ‘unable to provide commensurate statistics’ for their efforts to actually help the local population….”
    http://ricks.foreignpolicy.com/category/region/central_asia
    3. OPSEC?
    “U.S.: Insurgents knew of Kunar operation
    By Drew Brown, Stars and Stripes
    Mideast edition, Friday, May 23, 2008
    ASADABAD, Afghanistan — Enemy fighters knew that U.S. and Afghan troops were coming in by helicopter to three of the five locations they flew into during a recent combat operation in central Kunar province, a U.S. commander said.
    “(Anti-Afghan Force) commanders knew we were coming into the valleys,” said Lt. Col. William Ostlund, commander of 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment.
    “Enemy commanders didn’t know when U.S. and Afghan forces were coming, nor did they know the precise locations of the helicopter landing zones, “but they knew we were coming, and they started to leave” before the operation started, Ostlund said….” http://www.stripes.com/article.asp?section=104&article=55016
    4.”William Ostlund, BGS, lives in Fort Benning, Ga., and is a colonel in the U.S. Army, serving as deputy commander of the 75th Ranger Regiment. He has participated in Operation Desert Shield/Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. He also has traveled to the Balkans 12 times and served or trained in more than 30 countries. He also has earned a master of arts degree in law and diplomacy from Tufts University, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He is married with three sons.”
    http://www.unoalumni.org/magazine/current_alum/class_notes/

  16. ael says:

    According to reports, ten (not eight) men were killed. However, only eight were from the U.S.A.

  17. Fred says:

    A little research shows the average income in Afghanistan being anywhere from $300 to $700 USD. For $100,000 you can hire 100 afghans for a year. If you bring in heavy equipment and outsiders they’ll complete the project in a few weeks and the locals go back to being unemployed. Given the reported $1.4million projects for Wanat alone I have to ask: what the hell they are doing with the money? Apparently the the ‘contractors’ in Kabul got their cut, as we can assume many in Karzai’s government did, too. Perhaps we should take a page from the Taliban book and go to the contractors and the provincial governor for some ‘zakat’; as in hire the locals or you better buy yourself another armored mercedes….

  18. HH says:

    What I find most peculiar about the discussion of America’s recent “wars” is the persistence of faith in counter-insurgency doctrine. Apart from the British success in Malaya, which defeated an unpopular rebellion by an ethnic faction, COIN has been an overwhelming failure. Why should Afghanistan be any different? We might as well rely on astrologers as on the COIN “professionals.”

  19. Dan M says:

    The Malaya example always drives my nuts. A small minority of the population (the Chinese) were in the insurgency. The Malays and Indians hated them, and were terrified of Chinese communism. Key facts, these.

  20. Jimbo says:

    Not Taliban, Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s old crew, and when US Forces first moved into Nuristan, they were suckered into taking sides in a tribal war over resources.

  21. Noman says:

    Aqaba. Aqaba, from the land.

  22. VietnamVet says:

    Colonel,
    Since we are discussing Charlie Company where I served for a year, but it is now called Chosen Company, I have to belatedly jump in my comments. The mission of the 2nd battalion today is identical to 40 years ago; pacify an occupied agrarian population. Today, apparently with less success because they have to be supplied by air, our beer was brought in by truck. But, then as now, as soon as the American troops left the valley, any fiction that the people are as under the central [puppet] government control was gone.
    The term “Long War: accurately describes the American occupation of Afghanistan. If the 2nd battalion is pulled back into Kabul; sooner or later the supply lines will be cut. The War Profiteers and the Kagan Family have to muddle the facts. The Obama Administration has two stark choices; withdraw or send in a million boots on the ground. There are no compromises in war. The only viable strategy that will not bankrupt the USA is isolation and containment of religious fanatics and energy independence.

  23. kassandra says:

    “Hard time understanding”, “did not respect”, “make them better people”, “ignorant”, all used by the mighty Americans to describe the Afgan fighters who want the occupiers out. It’s the British Emprise deja vu all over again. Talk about hubris!

  24. Bart says:

    Last night on the News Hour, I think it was, the loss was blamed on a lack of choppers, logistics, and a lack of support by the Afghans. Nothing about the decision to post and leave those few troops out there so long.

  25. Patrick Lang says:

    All
    In NYC last night at the party after the debate I talked to a couple of West Point professors who attended.
    We discussed the Wanat mess. They mentioned thst issuues of basic skills are being raised more in more in the Army.
    I’ll bet that is true. Too much sensitivity training, too much political science education for officers, too much politicking. pl

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