Army overrules inquiry faulting officers in Wanat ambush

By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Army has overruled a military investigator who found that command failures on the part of three Army officers contributed to one of the deadliest ambushes of the Afghan war. The ruling drew a swift rebuke from a U.S. senator and from relatives of the nine soldiers slain in the attack.

The soldiers were killed in the village of Wanat when more than 200 Taliban fighters attacked their fledgling base. Last year, amid pressure from lawmakers and the families of the deceased, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, ordered a new investigation into the conduct of officers overseeing the operation.

The initial inquiry by Marine Lt. Gen. Richard Natonski concluded that the brigade, battalion and company commanders had overextended their force and did not provide enough support for the troops to defend themselves in the austere terrain. Petraeus approved Natonski's findings.

But Gen. Charles C. Campbell, whose command was formally charged with sending out letters of reprimand, decided not to take action against the officers after reviewing Natonski's 4,000-page report and discussing it with the officers.

The Army's decision, announced Wednesday, prompted Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), who had pressed for the initial investigation, to issue a blistering statement.

"Centcom conducted an intensive, three month independent investigation, which concluded that the company, battalion and brigade commanders were 'derelict in the performance of their duties through neglect or culpable inefficiency,' " he said. "I find it deeply troubling that the Army has exonerated these officers and in the process rejected the findings of the independent review."

Natonski initially briefed the family members of the deceased on his recommendation that the officers be disciplined. He then left the room and Campbell, the Army general, told the family members that he had decided to take no action against the officers.

"Right now, as far as I am concerned, the Army's credibility is nonexistent," said retired Army Col. David Brostrom, whose son Jonathan was killed at Wanat when he and another soldier sprinted into enemy fire in an effort to repel the Taliban attack. Brostrom spent three decades in the Army as a helicopter pilot.

He said he found it cruel of the Army to have Natonski brief the relatives on his findings, only to have Campbell overturn them minutes later. "Why would you do that to people?" he said.

Natonski, who initially found the officers at fault, served as a commander in Fallujah, Iraq. Campbell has not led troops in Iraq or Afghanistan in the past decade. In a written memorandum explaining his actions, he said he drew on his experiences as a young soldier in Vietnam.

Brostrom said many of the family members cried as Campbell explained that he had decided to overrule Natonski's initial findings. "My opinion of the Army is pretty low," Brostrom said.

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