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

By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 5, 2010; A01

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.

"He wanted to slow things down and give the Army, as an institution, a chance to review the investigation in case there were any accountability issues. He felt very strongly about it," said Capt. John Kirby, a spokesman for Mullen.

The handling of the Wanat ambush appears to have set a precedent for how such investigations are conducted. In the attack last fall in Kamdesh, in which eight U.S. soldiers were killed, senior Army officials quickly dispatched a three-star general from outside Afghanistan to investigate the battle. This was done at the request of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, officials said.

On Wednesday, the families of the soldiers killed at Kamdesh received a call from an Army casualty assistance officer. The officer read from a prepared script informing them that the investigation was completed and that members of Congress would be briefed on its findings as early as Thursday.

The script praised the bravery of the troops at the Kamdesh outpost, which was briefly overrun by the enemy. It also suggested that commanders should have focused more attention on improving the base's defenses and on analyzing intelligence reports that the enemy was planning a large-scale assault.

The final investigation recommended that the squadron commander overseeing the outpost receive a letter of reprimand. The brigade commander was given a less-severe letter of admonishment, said military officials.

Both the squadron and brigade commanders overseeing the Kamdesh outpost had been pressing to close it for months after they determined that it made no sense to keep troops in the area. But plans to close the outpost were regularly delayed because of pressure from Afghan officials, who did not want to cede territory to the Taliban, and because of other missions deemed a higher priority.

Some family members of the deceased soldiers in the Kamdesh ambush said the officers who postponed shuttering the base, know as Combat Outpost Keating, should also be held accountable. "Combat Outpost Keating was predisposed to fail and it did," said John Petro, grandfather of Spec. Stephan Mace, who was killed at Kamdesh.

In the third incident that has resulted in a reprimand, four Marines were killed near the eastern Afghanistan village of Ganjgal when they were ambushed on their way to a meeting with local villagers. Senior Marine officials alleged that the Army battalion in the area was slow to provide artillery support to ward off the attack. After an investigation, the battalion executive officer, who was the senior officer on duty at the time, received a letter of reprimand, Army officials said.

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