U.S. outpost in Afghanistan was left vulnerable to attack, inquiry finds

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 6, 2010

KABUL -- Delays in closing a remote U.S. military outpost in eastern Afghanistan before eight American soldiers were killed last fall in an attack by 300 insurgents increased the base's vulnerability, according to a summary of a military investigation released Friday.

The prolonged siege of Combat Outpost Keating, in the Kamdesh district of Nurestan province, was one of the deadliest insurgent attacks against U.S. troops in Afghanistan. It came to symbolize the danger entailed in posting small groups of soldiers in sparsely populated areas, a strategy commanders have moved away from under a new plan to protect more-populous areas.

The investigation into the attack, led by Army Maj. Gen. Guy C. Swan III, drew on interviews from about 140 people who were either at the outpost or had information about the attack. The inquiry found that the roughly 60 soldiers stationed there defended the base courageously, killing about 150 insurgents.

But the report also said that those soldiers were stationed in a place of "no tactical or strategic value" and that critical intelligence and surveillance capabilities had been diverted to other missions.

With limited manpower and located in a ravine surrounded by steep hillsides, Bravo Troop, 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry had seen its mission devolve into protecting its base, Swan concluded. During the soldiers' five months at the outpost, they were attacked about 47 times, three times as often as the unit that preceded them there, the report found.

"As a result, the chain of command decided to close the remote outpost as soon as it could," the report said.

But a scheduled midsummer closure was delayed because the equipment needed to haul away base supplies, conduct surveillance and gather intelligence was sent elsewhere, the report said.

"The delayed closing of COP Keating is important as it contributed to a mindset of imminent closure that served to impede improvements in force protection on the COP," the report said. "There were inadequate measures taken by the chain of command, resulting in an attractive target for enemy fighters."

The report said commanders should have done more to improve the base's defenses and to analyze intelligence reports that the enemy was planning a major assault. It recommended that the squadron commander overseeing the outpost receive a letter of reprimand. Military officials said the brigade commander was given a letter of admonishment, a less severe punishment.

The letters are part of a new push by top military brass to hold commanders accountable for major incidents in which troops are killed or wounded.

The attack on Oct. 3 began at 5:58 a.m. with a barrage of insurgent gunfire and mortar shells from all sides and a simultaneous attack on a nearby U.S. outpost that limited the Americans' ability to return the mortar fire. Afghan soldiers helping to guard the outpost could not hold their positions, and insurgents entered the base at three locations, the report said. U.S. soldiers eventually regained the momentum with the help of fighter jets and Apache helicopters. In addition to the eight soldiers killed, 22 were wounded.

"Members of B Troop upheld the highest standards of warrior ethics and professionalism and distinguished themselves with conspicuous gallantry, courage, and bravery under the heavy enemy fire that surrounded them," said a statement from the U.S. military that accompanied the summary report.

After the U.S. soldiers had regained control of their outpost, they began withdrawing. By Oct. 6, three days after the attack, they had destroyed what was left of the base to prevent insurgents from taking it over.

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