U.S. commanders in Afghanistan face tougher discipline for battlefield failures

By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 5, 2010

The U.S. military has reprimanded an unusually large number of commanders for battlefield failures in Afghanistan in recent weeks, reflecting a new push by the top brass to hold commanders responsible for major incidents in which troops are killed or wounded, said senior military officials.

The military does not release figures on disciplinary actions taken against field commanders. But officials familiar with recent investigations said letters of reprimand or other disciplinary action have been recommended for officers involved in three ambushes in which U.S. troops battled Taliban forces in remote villages in 2008 and 2009. Such administrative actions can scuttle chances for promotion and end a career if they are made part of an officer's permanent personnel file.

The investigations are a departure for the U.S. military, which until recently has been reluctant to second-guess commanders whose decisions might have played a role in the deaths of soldiers in enemy action. Disciplinary action has been more common in cases in which U.S. troops have injured or killed civilians.

In response to the recent reprimands, some military officials have argued that casualties are inevitable in war and that a culture of excessive investigations could make officers risk-averse.

"This is a war where the other side is trying, too," said one Army officer who commanded troops in Afghanistan and requested anonymity in order to speak freely.

As many as five battlefield commanders have received letters of reprimand in the past month or have been the subject of an investigation by a general who recommended disciplinary action. A sixth commander received a less-severe formal letter of admonishment. None of the investigations or letters of reprimand has been released publicly.

The reprimands come amid growing political pressure from lawmakers who have pushed the military to assign greater accountability for incidents in which large numbers of U.S. troops are killed or wounded. The Pentagon's top leaders -- Adm. Mike Mullen, the Joint Chiefs chairman, and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates -- also have been quicker to dismiss senior officers, fostering a change in the overall culture. In 2009 they relieved the top commander in Afghanistan for his stewardship of the war. "The issue of holding people accountable is something Admiral Mullen watches very, very carefully," said a senior military official.

The military's invigorated focus on accountability also seems driven by commanders' experience in war zones. Many of today's senior commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan are on their second or third combat tours and are more willing to judge their field subordinates. Meanwhile, the military is showing a greater willingness to study and learn from its mistakes, senior military officials said.

The change is particularly evident in the Army's response to ambushes on U.S. troops in the villages of Wanat and Kamdesh, both in eastern Afghanistan.

In the Wanat ambush, which left nine soldiers dead in 2008, a colonel from the local unit investigated the attack. He concluded that the troops fought bravely and committed no serious errors, despite reports from soldiers that they were left short of basic supplies, such as water and construction material, to build defenses.

Retired Col. David Brostrom, the father of the deceased platoon leader at Wanat, pressed the Pentagon for more than a year to launch a new probe into the attack, and also enlisted the support of several lawmakers, including Sen. James Webb (D-Va.). Last fall, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, named a three-star Marine Corps general to launch a new investigation of the battle, which was completed last week. Petraeus was the commander in Iraq when the initial probe was conducted.

The second Wanat probe recommends that the company, battalion and brigade commanders who oversaw the battle face possible disciplinary action, said military officials. U.S. Central Command planned to release the findings of the new investigation last week but changed course after Mullen asked senior Army officials to review the 4,000-page probe to determine whether disciplinary action is needed against the chain of command.

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