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Army edits its history of the deadly battle of Wanat

By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 29, 2010; 12:01 AM

The Army's official history of the battle of Wanat - one of the most intensely scrutinized engagements of the Afghan war - largely absolves top commanders of the deaths of nine U.S. soldiers and instead blames the confusing and unpredictable nature of war.

The history of the July 2008 battle was almost two years in the making and triggered a roiling debate at all levels of the Army about whether mid-level and senior battlefield commanders should be held accountable for mistakes made under the extreme duress of combat.

An initial draft of the Wanat history, which was obtained by The Washington Post and other media outlets in the summer of 2009, placed the preponderance of blame for the losses on the higher-level battalion and brigade commanders who oversaw the mission, saying they failed to provide the proper resources to the unit in Wanat.

The final history, released in recent weeks, drops many of the earlier conclusions and instead focuses on failures of lower-level commanders.

The battle of Wanat, which took place in a remote mountain village near the Pakistan border, produced four investigations and sidetracked the careers of several Army officers, whose promotions were either put on hold or canceled. The 230-page Army history is likely to be the military's last word on the episode, and reflects a growing consensus within the ranks that the Army should be cautious in blaming battlefield commanders for failures in demanding wars such as the conflict in Afghanistan.

Family members of the deceased at Wanat reacted with anger and disappointment to the final version of the Army history.

"They blame the platoon-level leadership for all the mistakes at Wanat," said retired Col. David Brostrom, whose son was killed in the fighting. "It blames my dead son. They really missed the point."

The findings in the early draft history of the battle and pressure from lawmakers, including Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), prompted Gen. David H. Petraeus, who was then the commander of U.S. Central Command, to order an investigation into Wanat.

The initial investigation, conducted by a three-star Marine Corps general and completed in the spring, found that the company and battalion commanders were "derelict in their duty" to provide proper oversight and resources to the soldiers fighting at Wanat.

Petraeus reviewed the findings and concluded that based on Army doctrine, the brigade commander, who was the senior U.S. officer in the area, also failed in his job. He recommended that all three officers be issued letters of reprimand, which would essentially end their careers.

After the officers appealed their reprimands, a senior Army general in the United States reversed the decision to punish the officers, formerly members of the the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

Gen. Charles Campbell told family members of the deceased that the letters of reprimand would have a chilling effect on other battlefield commanders, who often must make difficult decisions with limited information, according to a tape of his remarks. He also concluded that the deaths were not the direct result of the officers' mistakes.

The initial decision to discipline the three officers was controversial within the Army even before Campbell's decision to tear up the letters of reprimand. On the day the letters were supposed to be finalized, senior Army officials had planned to have top commanders discuss the decision with their officers. When the letters were revoked, those plans were canceled.

The Army's final history of the Wanat battle largely echoes Campbell's conclusions, citing the role of "uncertainty [as] a factor inseparable from any military operation."

In its conclusions, the study maintains that U.S. commanders had a weak grasp of the area's complicated politics, causing them to underestimate the hostility to a U.S. presence in Wanat.

"Within the valley communities there had been hundreds of years of intertribal and intercommunity conflict, magnified by hundreds of years of geographic isolation. Understanding the cultural antagonisms present in [Wanat] was difficult and complicated," it said. "Coalition leaders had difficulty understanding the political situation."

But the history focuses mostly on the failures of lower-level commanders to patrol aggressively in the area around Wanat as they were building their defenses. It also criticizes 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, a 24-year-old platoon leader, for placing a key observation point in an area that did not provide the half-dozen U.S. soldiers placed there a broad enough view to spot the enemy.

"The placement of the OP [Observation Post] is perhaps the most important factor contributing to the course of the engagement at Wanat," the report states.

The initial investigation, by contrast, found that the placement of the post was not a major factor in the outcome of the battle.

That investigation also found that mid-level Army officers failed to plan the operation beyond the first four days and as a result failed to provide sufficient manpower, water and other resources to defend the base from a Taliban attack. The official history makes little mention of such conclusions.

One of the senior officials involved in the initial investigation said that none of the officers who were recommended for disciplinary action were incompetent. "They were all truly professional officers," the senior official said.

But even good officers must be held accountable for inattention and mistakes, the official said. "We are talking about people's lives here," he said. "Officers have to be held accountable for their actions. They can't be given a free ride when lives are involved. If you screw up, you have to pay a price."

David Brostrom, the father of the dead platoon leader at Wanat, said he will meet next month with senior Army officials and Army historians at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., in an effort to get them to further revise the Wanat history. He doesn't expect the Army to change the record, which is considered final.

"For me, this has never been about trying to get officers fired," Brostrom said. "It is about trying to get the Army to admit and learn from its mistakes."

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