Inside an Afghan battle gone wrong (VII): What it tells us about the Afghan war
Posted By Thomas E. Ricks Monday, February 2, 2009 - 8:04 PM Share
A friend who has read this series on the small but deadly battle at Wanat last summer suggested that we should consider one more issue-that is, what this incident might tell us about the war in Afghanistan.
I think the insights of this infantry veteran, who must remain anonymous because of his position, are important. Let him explain:
We are so very exposed in this land-locked...
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12:53 AM ET
February 3, 2009
Iragq vs Afghanistan
Can't help reflecting that blame here goes to the very top, to commander in chief. Impression: Army and Administration focus on Iraq loaded up that zone with people and gear. Promotions flowed/flow, as did/does money. Strong infrastructure, strong emphasis on force protection, every effort to optimize success. In contrast, Afghan campaign waged on the cheap, few promotions, little in way of gear or support compared to Iraq, and little interest or effort to deal with the pol part of pol-mil in the region.
Making Wanat victim of our profound blunder in grand strategy and the ready acceptance by Army of the easier path. If we're learning lessons, let's study the corporate Army's top-level performance since first into Afghanistan.
12:52 AM ET
February 3, 2009
Iragq vs Afghanistan
Double posting - my bad.
GIAN P GENTILE
12:31 PM ET
February 3, 2009
what is your point?
What is your point, or baseline criticism, in these postings?
What becomes clear from these reports, which you have yet to acknowledge, is that the Army has in fact learned and had ingrained into them the principles of pop-centric Counterinsurgency; an approach that you have been a huge advocate of in your writings over the past three years. In fact the report shows that the platoon and its higher headquarters were doing their damndest to follow those principles of population security, via living amongst the people even when it put them at tactical risk. I recall that one of the paradoxes of Coin as written in FM 3-24 says something like sometimes the more you protect yourself the less secure you are!! Well, can’t we acknowledge that that was exactly the principle these men were following?
It seems that you want it both ways. That you demand an Army that is transformed around the Coin principles of Galula; OK, you got that at Wanat. But then on the other hand when the Army has made that conversion you mire yourself down into the tactical details of the engagement but fail to acknowledge that at least demonstrated by the actions at Wanat the Army has become the Army that you seem to desire; aka the "Surge" Army. David Galula would have accepted what happened at Wanat as the price of doing business in population-centric Coin, why can’t you?
3:33 AM ET
February 9, 2009
Had this been an exercise of all-around COIN, the local government and the only national governmental entity on-site, the ANP, would have been actively engaged.
Active engagement of the ANP would have involved, first, a comprehensive district assessment including in inspection of the facilities (that means the arms room, too.) The leadership would have been evaluated, including their reliability. Biographical information would have been gathered; education, history, all of that stuff. Pictures would have been taken of the facilities and a sketch as well. The overabundance of weapons would have been apparent and red flags would have gone up all over the place.
The excess weapons would have been removed as well.
An investigation and interrogations would have followed immediately. Out of 20 ANP, there was likely a talker in the bunch. This may have blown the AAF plan to overrun the VPB. The removal of the weapons would surely have hampered the attack.
None of this was done.
Galula never advocated moving into an area and trying to engage the populace independent of the governmental agencies present. In COIN, the job is to make the government more legitimate, not supplant them. There were governmental security personnel in the area; but they were bad, and the only note on this early in the report (detailing the events leading up to the attack) is that they neglected to inform the Rock element of a Shura.
It was attempted COIN, perhaps, but there was no one to really engage the only local armed government force in the area. Doing this is an essential part of COIN.
This in no way takes away from the actions of the platoon. Engaging the ANP to the degree needed was simply not part of their job. There are special teams that are trained in this, but they were not available. You can bet that they were also not requested. It wasn't the platoon who failed in engaging the ANP.
This was a maneuver force-only attempt at pop-centric COIN and ignored some very basic principles of COIN. This is not a shining example of COIN done right that ended tragically. If anything, it is an example of men put into a situation without the tools needed to successfully engage the local governmental agencies that were in place already. The demonstration in the 15-6 that the ANP were complicit in the attack proves that this was a fatal mistake.
The fact that the 15-6 fails to identify this lack of appraisal of the local ANP while noting their complicity in the attack indicates that the Army that supposedly is so proficient at COIN didn't even recognize this key failure.
This was not what Galula would have done, nor would he have accepted this as the natural result of COIN done well.
3:38 PM ET
February 3, 2009
Thanks for reading the blog.
My point is to look at a series of questions about this small action. Many of those questions are raised by the Army's own 15-6 report.
Some of the questions have to do with counterinsurgency, and many do not. Yes, I do think that there is some evidence that the battalion was trying to use some principles of counterinsurgency, but there also is evidence that they were doing so incompletely, or even haphazardly, without a full grasp of the COIN approach, and probably without enough troops to do it.
I also think there are questions that go well beyond doctrine. Whatever the mission was, did they have enough people and resources to do it? Is this incident emblematic of the undersupported war in eastern Afghanistan?
3:58 AM ET
February 4, 2009
Damned if you Do - Damned if you Don't
6:00 AM ET
February 5, 2009
RockParatrooper, I'm sorry to see you removed your comments. Frankly, I thought they were the best part of this article. I hope you kept copies for yourself, at least.
Keep writing. For yourself, for posting, for publication, whatever. Just keep writing.
3:43 PM ET
February 5, 2009
Agreed. A lot of opinion and speculation here. RP's comments were factual and enlightening.
8:13 PM ET
February 5, 2009
a Waygul sort of war
Everyone in this string seems comforable with the redacted 15-6 'we was set up' narrative. Mr. Ricks called Wanat "an ambush".
The 'sudden' appearance of well led and potentially overwhelming enemy at VPB Wanat seems something of a brigade command excuse. If you accept the 'every Wanat building damaged, but no civilian casualties' part at face value, then villagers ought to have been seen leaving, with elderly, children and animals, bedding, food. My guess is that the Wanat OP reported such observations, and they were passed back to battalion. The 15-6 characterizes an elder evacuating his family from an adjacent 2-story house, and warning of an attack, as a generic, not useful. Yet the elder seemed to feel that his intel was actionable.
A half hour before the 4:30 am attack kicked off, 70 US and Afghan paratroops were geared up and dispersed in entrenched fighting positions on a 360º perimeter. Charlie Company's captain ordered his 120mm mortar to fire on an exposed enemy maneuver element, in anticipation of imminent attack. As the mortar team was taking aim, the first rocket barrage came pouring in from close range, revealing enemy strength around the prerimeter. The captain then got 155 heavy artillery putting a (hopefully) prepared fire plan onto the Wanat grid, within three minutes of the initial attack. For certain a 'holy shit' way to meet the dawn, but CF paratroops weren't caught napping.
Stripped of The Rock's sacrifice, heroism and unacceptable casualties, the attack on Wanat VPB is more descriptive of a micro Khe Sanh than Pearl Harbor. Khe Sanh was fought on ground chosen by the defenders, a place the enemy would attack.
Was it surprising that the enemy exploited our aviation crew rotation cycle at dawn, hit before heavy engineering gear and troop reinforcements arrived, used their knowledge of physical and human terrain to press close before opening fire, concentrated men and weapons sufficient to even the odds? Yes. But an expected attack of surprising strength against our base is not the same as an ambush sprung on a patrol.
On p2, the 15-6 states
"The Freedom of movement experienced by the AAF in Waygul District would not be possible without the passive and active support of the local population and the weakness of the government"
The version of the report I can read makes no tribal or religious characterization of that population, or any Afghan group or player in the drama. It doesn't mention what I was told here on Mr. Rick's blog, that Wanat sits right on an active ethnic conflict line, where Pashtun's pushed into Nuristani land during the previous decades of war. If ethno-tribal divisions played absolutely no role in enemy recruiting of local support, or how the attack developed, THAT would be unusual, and worth remarking on. NO mention is either a display of ignorance, or a play on the ignorance of the reader.
Afghan gov't troops, the local gov't, AAF fighters, and Wanat collaboraors are all aware of tribal affiliations in their allies and opposition. It's as much a part of the picture as the ANA platoon at Wanat being 'paratroops', and mentored by marines.
Those Marine mentors, and The Rock Paratroops were getting local ethno-religious information on the enemy, and on Wanat's Nuristani scene, vs the Pashtun orientation around nearby Camp Blessing, where the company and QRF was based.
Did the Nuristanis see The Rock, the ANA paratroops, and the ANA Commandos as aligned with their down-valley Pashtun rivals? Was The Rock relying on Pashtun translators and intel? Given their earlier casualties incurred during pacification efforts up-valley, and deep mistrust of the Wanat ANP post, was the Nuristani end of the Waygul marked as a hostile population?
The one ultra-slim post-action characterization of the attackers that makes it into the 15-6 is of one 'foreign looking' body. A contributor here went for the inference, that meant Arab or Chechen Terrorist. Maybe yes, and deniably 'maybe.' But Nuristani's are noted for a diversity of eurasian appearances within a clan. 'Foreign looking' is a pretty weak sop, given the totality of ethnic intel that's being left out. Who's cammies did he wear underneath, and was his outer disguise Nuri or Pash?
What was the quality and origin of enemy ordnance, relative to other Rock engagements, and the arms surplus the Wanat ANP were maybe selling? "AAF" seems a thin and generic characterization, given the price TF Rock paid to hold the ground and sift the evidence for answers pointing back to an enemy base.
Before the Wanat combat, one of our survivors is quoted as hearing a local say 'bad people to the West, shoot them on sight' . The paratrooper must have been asking himself what tribal filter is generating the statement, and who the 'bad men' were. The significance of the quote turns on the nature and intent of the source, which is left out. Lots of scores to settle in Afghanistan, and nothing is more deniable than a US air or artillery strike. Our guys know that, and work at not being manipulated or misdirected.
Every version of the civil war matrix that has racked Afghanistan for the last 30 years has been defined by a differing regional, tribal and religious character of the factions. If a bad police chief or Wanat elder or ANA PL is not aligned with either the Pashtun or Nuristani, that's unusual and worth remarking on.
Is the 15-6 blind spot, the entho-religious 'don't ask, don't tell', a willful ignorance, indicative of strategic blindness? Or is it in the service of 'all loyal afghans welcome our support' political correctness, like the ever-missing enemy casualty estimate? (The Rock's mauled platoon wasn't balanced against 'you should have seen the other guys' estimates? Only friendly casualties and dead terrorists'are fit fare for home audience consumption.) Fine. But who were those guys we killed, that killed us?
I'm not suggesting that identities of Pashtun-Nuristani-Tajik-Korengali-Sunni-Shiite-Wahabi-Sufi tell the whole Wanat/Waygul story, or are more important to a platoon-company level combat than how to deal with tomorrow's attack. I am saying that a Bagram command-level 15-6 retelling of the combat environment that makes absolutely no mention of tribal-religious alingnments in the Waygul players is remarkable for that blind spot.
My reading tells me that strategic surprise or failure is often a product of strategic blindness. And just as often retold as lack of intel.
I'm reminded of the vignette of AQI arch-terrorist Zarqawi's near capture, in 2005. As he prepared to dive alone out of his car and evade the pursuit, the thing he asked his driver was 'What tribe runs this area?" TE Lawrence must have asked the same question many times. Every band he led, every hole they watered at, had a distinct tribal character. That is the knowledge Zarqawi needed to stay alive, find cover in the human terrain, and continue his war.
Tribal knowledge is vital to us, if it's vital to our enemy. It wasn't until our force in Anbar came to grips with the futility of continuing a war of attrition, were ALLOWED to exploit tribal knowledge and divisions. began to protect surviving Sunni Sawa, fighters who were openly hostile to the US occupation, that the war in that province turned the corner.
My assumption is that The Rock was aware and working within the tribal context, before and after Wanat, the way a top carpenter notes differences in his wood, at a glance. But the mission statement in Bagram's 15-6 comes very close to boiler-plate 'connect the population to Kabul, defeat AAF" language that could justify any mission. It goes 9/24 pages setting the stage for the battle, without so much as a tribal caveat or op-for AAF characterization. Is the command-staff writer in Bagram ignorant of Nuristan? Or is addressing 'what kind of war is this?' a subject where information control doctrine calls for preserving the ignorance of the readers?