COIN Leadership Failure in US Army Unit in Aghanistan

Discussion in 'Staff College and Staff Officers' started by jumpinjarhead, Jul 26, 2009.

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  1. Overreliance on "kinetic" strategy and underestimating opponent contributes to mauling of US unit. These troops (especially the 3 Marines who had the bad luck to be there) deserved better...

    The New ForeignPolicy.com

    Wanat (VIII): An Army report finds a major COIN failure
    Thu, 07/23/2009 - 11:46am

    The Army's study of what happened in the Wanat battle a year ago in eastern Afghanistan is even harder on senior U.S. military commanders than I was in my series on it back in February, saying that they didn't understand counterinsurgency doctrine and also that some of their statements about the fight were misleading at best.

    The report, which is still in draft form, contradicts a few aspects of the accounts provided by some of the senior officers involved, implicitly raising integrity questions. That's especially significant because two officials at Fort Leavenworth have told me that the Army inspector general's office is investigating how the Wanat incident was reported and reviewed. I also hear that congressional interest in the situation is growing.

    The report, which has not been released and was written for the Army's Combat Studies Institute by military historian Douglas Cubbison, finds multiple failures by the battalion and brigade commanders involved, Lt. Col. William Ostlund and Col. Charles Preysler. The core problem, Cubbison writes, is that the battle resulted from "a failure of COIN [counterinsurgency] manifested in a major combat action that although a marked tactical victory, became an operational and strategic defeat." Indeed, the report concludes that the unit's attempts at counterinsurgency were so badly implemented that they "were more likely to foster hostility than reciprocity from the local population."

    That finding on the failure to properly carry out a counterinsurgency campaign is to my mind the most significant part of the Cubbison report. He flatly concludes that, in sharp contrast to their predecessors from the 10th Mountain Division, the commanders in the Wanat area mishandled their COIN campaign, both in the long term, over several months, and in the days preceding the Wanat fight. In sum, they alienated the population, failing to protect it and treating it as hostile. They then compounded the problem by instituting a "clear, hold and build" COIN operation without sufficient troops to clear Wanat, let alone hold it. "A single platoon in the open field near the bazaar lacked the capability of holding Wanat," the report finds.

    Those errors came on top of the ones I discussed in my series, such as launching a major new operation even as the brigade was pulling out of Afghanistan, plus failing to ensure that the troops in Wanat had adequate building supplies or any drone aircraft for intelligence surveillance or even enough water. Cubbison also is more emphatic than I was about the fears the platoon in question justly had about their assigned mission.

    The brigade commander, Col. Preysler, and the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Ostlund, come in for repeated criticisms. (I e-mailed a copy of this post to both officers yesterday, asking for their comments or responses, but didn't hear back from either.) Preysler, for example, has flatly stated that the Wanat outpost was never intended to be a "full-up combat outpost," or COP. "That is absolutely false and not true," he said after the fight. "So, from the get-go, that is just [expletive] and it's not right." The report finds that statement to be misleading, because, it notes, there were extensive plans for construction of a "permanent COP," with walls, housing and sewage control.

    In addition, while Ostlund, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, has stated that he was carrying out a COIN campaign, with a focus on "living with the population," the report finds that statement to be inaccurate. "This was not the case in the Waigal Valley, where the paratroopers occupied only two COPs, and had almost no interaction with the population." The report finds the statement of one machine gunner in the unit to be more accurate: "We didn't interact with them...They didn't come near us and we didn't go near them." 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.

    The report quotes one soldier's view was representative: "These people, they disgust me...Everything about those people up there is disgusting. They're worthless." This is not an attitude that tends to produce productive relationships.

    These findings on COIN, by the way, sharply contradict the findings of the Army's 15-6 inquiry into the firefight, conducted by Col. Mark Johnstone, who recommended in Powerpointese, "Continue to interact closely with the local population as per current counterinsurgency doctrine."

    Cubbison also writes that, "The highly kinetic approach favored by TF Rock...rapidly and inevitably degraded the relationships between the US Army and the Waigal population." To top it off, a helicopter attack on some trucks just a few days before the Wanat outpost was established wound up killing a good percentage of the doctors and other health care workers in the valley.

    Also, while there was every reason to expect an attack on the outpost as it was being established, which had happened with previous outposts, Ostlund didn't appear to be focused on it. As a result, he and his subordinates appeared to neglect repeated signs that a major attack was imminent. "Until it had actually been the target of a major ACM [anti-coalition militia] attack, no senior leadership visited the new installation," the report states.

    The report also states that assertions made by officers involved that UAV surveillance wasn't in place because of "weather issues" was "not accurate."

    In addition, Cubbison casts doubt on Col. Presyler's assertion that, "The enemy never got into the main position." Rather, he finds, the "defensive perimeter was positively penetrated, and fighting occurred within the OP [outpost] perimeter." At any rate, Cubbison notes, overrunning the outpost doesn't appear to have been the aim of the insurgents, who instead seemed to have been trying to capture soldiers or their bodies. Two of the American dead appeared to have been dragged several yards, probably in a failed attempt to do so, he notes.

    Cubbison also makes the important point that the platoon was saved from being overrun mainly by its own discipline and professional competence. They did just about everything they could do to establish the defenses of their outpost, despite being dehydrated from a lack of potable water. They were attacked just as they were doing a pre-dawn "stand to," in which every soldier, despite being exhausted from building walls and digging holes, was awake and fully armed and armored and surveilling his assigned sector of fire. As sergeants fell during the fight, junior soldiers were able to step into their shoes. He also marvels at the skill and courage of medical evacuation pilots and crews who picked up out wounded American and Afghan soldiers even as Apache helicopters were conducting gun runs 30 meters from the landing zone. Of the 20 evacuees, not one died of his wounds.

    The report also is in awe of the bravery and persistence of the 42 soldiers and 3 Marines who fought at Wanat, as I am. I knew that some continued to fight after being hit several times. But I didn't know that one continued to pass ammunition even when he was mortally wounded.

    I also think the Army deserves praise for having the honesty to have this report done. I am told that the final version will be released soon. Let's hope it isn't thrown out the back door at 5 pm on a Friday afternoon in August.
     
  2. very interesting read.
     
  3. The 15-6 (investigation) is riveting reading. If I can find it I'll post it here.
     
  4. AR 15-6 Investigation Findings and Recommendations — Vehicle Patrol Base (VPB) Wanat Complex Attack and Casualties, 13 July 2008

    LINK (PDF)


    Go to page 9 section 8 for the battle's detail. Very intense.
     
  5. cheers virgil. pretty intense.
     
  6. Also remember this report was discredited in terms of the accounts by the senior officers and that is why Cubbison as brought in by the Army's Combat Studies Institute to do an independent investigation. It is still in draft so we will see if its findings make it into the official version.

    If Cubbison is to be believed, the officers who failed in their duty to these men who died should be court martialed.
     
  7. msr

    msr LE

  8. I don't have a side take but here is Thomas Ricks blog posting about Cubbinson's paper and in the comments is LTC Gentile's answer to the report, disagreeing with Cubbinson's.

    It's interesting, I'm sure siht will hit the fan when it's officially released.
     
  9. I agree-it should be "interesting" as long as it does not get suppressed as feared by Ricks. I believe all concerned should get the process they are due but if the facts demonstrate the failures that have been suggested then firm action should be taken to vindicate the heroic stand the troops made and more broadly to make the point that we must fight wisely (in the fullest meaning of that term) when engaged in COIN ops. To resort to mere kinetic action (to use the term so favored by the "kill them all and let God sort it out" crowd), especially when aggravating the error by grossly misunderstanding and underestimating your enemy, may be satisfying to some warriors in a tactical sense but it is folly strategically.
     
  10. A very interesting thread!

    It's time there was an enquiry into why this govt neglected to support its own armed forces adequately, whilst sending them out to do battle.
     
  11. I was PSYOP so you're preaching to the choir.

    For what it's worth, if you didn't already know, LTC Gentile is the Army's 'loyal opposition' to this present day COIN trend. Google his name and 'the Surge' together and you'll see. I think he's wrong, dead wrong, but he teaches at West Point, makes a lot of ink and it's fair enough to have an opposing view.

    Ricks has his own issues but he's usually correct or pointed in the right direction, well when he's not trying to dismantle the service academies.
     
  12. Concur. I have met the good LTC.
     
  13. I stumbled across this site tonight. Wish I had blood pressure meds after reading most of this. It was a bit difficult for me just to get past your comment about the Marines who were there. That was the most dreadful day for EVERY American who was there. Your comment came across as the three Marines having more "standing" than the Soldiers. Shameful. All of those men went through hell that day.

    I was not at Wanat. I've never served in the military. My role is one of support for our military personnel and their families. I also support British military personnel since the Brits don't seem to hip to support their own.

    I was actively involved in support of the 2-503 for their entire 15 month deployment to Afghanistan. Aside from the TONS of items my friends and I shipped, I made many trips to Walter Reed at my own expense to spend time with the wounded and their families and continue to do so. I have become very close to many of the Wounded from Wanat and other battles and ambushes. I have listened for HOURS and HOURS as the men recount the various battles. I've heard more about Wanat than any of them and from several of the wounded.

    Bottom line - I'm sick and tired of all of the arm chair quarter backing. If you weren't there stop putting in your two cents worth. Shame on anyone who "leaks" reports (preliminary or not) and who speculates about Courts Martials, men's careers, etc. Decisions from investigations should be made on facts and not emotions or personal feelings.
     
  14. Tankerbabe breath relax welcome to the site please look around and enjoy. This is quite an interesting thread which is not leaking reports but simply commenting from their point of view on matters of doctrine and responsibility. Both participants have service experience which will always bring opposing views from the branch or service that they come from. This is the strength of ARRSE it allows us to examine points of view which may differ widely from our own. Thanks for the comment on our (UK) inadequacies in the welfare front. I live in Glasgow so please feel free to comment on my Governments recent prisoner decision I will not be offended