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Battle of Wanat: Not 'Just Another Casualty'

In this photo made in Afghanistan and provided by David Brostrom, 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom is seen. He was killed in Wanat, Afghanistan, on July 13, 2008. As President Barack Obama grapples with the way ahead in Afghanistan, a decision to launch a new investigation into a deadly firefight is a painful reminder of the challenges the U.S. faces in a country known as the graveyard of empires. (AP Photo/David Brostrom)
In this photo made in Afghanistan and provided by David Brostrom, 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom is seen. He was killed in Wanat, Afghanistan, on July 13, 2008. As President Barack Obama grapples with the way ahead in Afghanistan, a decision to launch a new investigation into a deadly firefight is a painful reminder of the challenges the U.S. faces in a country known as the graveyard of empires. (AP Photo/David Brostrom) (AP)

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Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 6, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post staff writer Greg Jaffe was online Tuesday, Oct. 6, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his special interactive three-part report, Battle of Wanat, which occurred on July 13, 2008, when Taliban fighters launched a major assault on a small U.S. Army outpost in Afghanistan, killing nine soldiers and wounding 27. The story is told from the perspective of a lieutenant killed in the fight, Jonathan Brostrom, and his father, who has sought answers to what went wrong.

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Jaffe's new book, The Fourth Star -- Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the United States Army, about the lives of Generals Petraeus, Casey, Abizaid and Chiarelli, comes out next Tuesday.

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Greg Jaffe: Hi this is Greg Jaffe, one of the military reporters at the Post, here to talk about my stories at Wanat. Happy to take any questions about it?

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San Fransisco, Calif.: The same soldiers that were attacked in Wanat will be deploying back to that area again. Has there been anything done to prevent this from happening again? Or does the attack this past weekend that left 8 soldiers dead mean no?

Greg Jaffe: The new command in Afghanistan is committed to pulling soldiers out of these remote outposts and moving them to areas wehre there are no people. But it takes a while to close these bases and it hasn't been happening as quickly as some in military would like. Even the troops in more populated areas will be vulnerable to attack, though.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Greg, did you have any opportunity to interview any Taliban responsible for the attack in Wanat?

Greg Jaffe:

I did not. Interviewing someone from the Taliban side would have helped me understand the story. But it was too dangerous.

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Biloxi, Miss.: Why didn't the lieutenant inform his superiors of the suspect circumstances of his old camp that he showed his father?

Greg Jaffe: Lt. Brostrom's command was aware that the Bella base, where he was before the Wanat attack, was not working and was putting soldier's at too much risk. But it took months and months to close it. In many ways the situation is analogous to the attack over the weekend at Kamdesh outpost where eight U.S. troops were killed. The command had been making plans to close that base since late December.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Do you think that absent the unfortunate mistaken attack on the medical convoy the week before, there would not have been an attack on Wanat the following week? If so, why do you think so?

Greg Jaffe: I think the attack would have happened regardless of the mistaken attack on the medical convoy. My feeling, based on the amount of ammunition used in the attack, is that the insurgents had been planning the Wanat assault for several weeks before it was launched. The attack on the medical convoy, which the military says also killed insurgents, did upset people in the valley. Maybe one of those people might have tipped the US to the coming attack. But I doubt it.

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Augusta, Ga.: Hi Greg, when did you start your research for the story of the Battle of Wanat?

Greg Jaffe: I started looking into the battle in July and visited Afghanistan in September to finish my research on it.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: As tragic as this attack was, didn't the soldiers do an excellent job fighting back and defending themselves? What are estimates of the damage that was done to the attackers?

Greg Jaffe: Its a good question and a really hard one to answer. The US estimated that as many as 30-50 insurgents were killed. But only one body was found after the attack. So it is really impossible to know. My experience has been that enemy body counts are unreliable. To be honest, it is even tough to estimate the number of insurgents involved in the attack on the base.

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Rockville, Md.: I know the logic for pulling back. It is all good and very logical. But we learned in Vietnam -- when you start running it is hard to stop to fight.

You lose public support and the idea is you are losing the war.

People move to the other side.

It may make sense to pull back, but it will hardly ever work.

A retreat is the most difficult of all the military operations.

Greg Jaffe: I think commanders realize that they have to pull back. As Nurestan has grown more violent, troops at these outposts are increasingly tied to their bases. They are not achieving anything.

I agree that it is tough ceding territory to the enemy. But commanders have limited resource. They have to set priorities. I guess will see over time if they've chosen to focus on the right areas. There is a good amount of debate inside the military and the Afghan government over the long term consequences of giving up this terrain.

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Bethesda, Md.: This northeastern region of Afghanistan seems like a maze of valleys. What factors go into picking locations for these outposts, and is there a strategy with a broader perspective?

Greg Jaffe: I think the problem is that the strategy changed, but the US footprint in these valleys didn't change as quickly. The outposts were picked to try to interdict enemy moving into the area from Pakistan. There was also a feeling that if you fought the enemy in some of these remote valleys you could keep them away from the more important population centers.

Now the thinking is changing...But some of these outposts, which are a vestige of the old approach, still remain in place.

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Washington, D.C.: This story appeared on the CBS Evening News last night and I'm not sure, they seemed to analogize to another incident this week where people got killed then troops gave up their position anyway days later. Does that make their dying any more nonsensensical than the rest of them who got killed? Not sure why reporters got excited about positions being given up "anyway" like they should have been told before they were shot? Why does that matter? Waste of time.

Greg Jaffe: I think it is hard for the soldiers and the families to understand why the US is leaving territory that was worth their lives or their loved ones lives. But commanders can't make decisions based on the past investments.

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Augusta, Ga.: I read that the U.S. command negotiated for many months with local authorities for the location of the Wanat COP. What was the strategic importance of Wanat at that time?

Also, why was the UAV support removed when the soldiers on the ground in Wanat were reporting increased militia activity?

Greg Jaffe: There was, in fact, a long negotiation process for the land for the base. In retrospect, many people think that was a major mistake. It definitely gave the enemy advance warning that the US was coming and probably helped the insurgents get into position for the attack.

The UAV question is a tough one. At the time the US could only reach Wanat with Predator UAVs. There were only two of those in the country at the time. The soldiers did see some signs that an attack might be coming, but they weren't taking fire in the days up to the attack. Other areas in Afghanistan seemed more dangerous at the time. But the problem was there just weren't enough Predator UAVs to go around. The priority back then was still Iraq and not Afghanistan.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Greg, You've done a great job writing this story, both the gripping story of the battle, the human side of the tragedy, as well as the strategic implications of the issue. I look forward also to reading your book The Fourth Star.

Greg Jaffe: Thanks. The book out next Tuesday is about the lives of Generals Petraeus, Abizaid, Casey and Chiarelli from 1970 through today. They are all fascinating guys and the Army is a fascinating institution, full of all sorts of competing tribes and strong personalities. I hope the book captures it

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Gugusta, Ga.: Does the U.S. plan to remain in the Pech and Korengal Valleys?

Greg Jaffe: The US definitely wants to get out of the Korengal Valley, which has only about 4,000 people in it, but has produced a huge amount of fighting. The hope is that they will be able to leave there next year. The military is pretty committed to the Pech, which was a major base of operation for the mujeheddin during the Soviet times. And the general feeling is that they can build a sustainable Afghan presence in the Pech, even though it is going to be very hard. The Pech, though, has some advantages. It's got a paved road (thanks to our tax dollars) and is home to about 100,000 people. So I think US troops are in the Pech for the long haul.

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Mexico City, Polanco District, Mexico: Buenos dias. Do you think that the U.S. Army's use of drones to bomb targets in Afghanistan has been counter-productive in terms of the U.S.'s overall mission there?

Greg Jaffe: I think air strikes have been counter-productive in some areas of Afghanistan. Drones certainly fall into that category. The old saying in counterinsurgency war is that you are better off killing your enemies with a knife than a bomb. If you are trying to win the support of the population, you need to be as discriminate as you can in killing the enemy; even if it means putting US troops at more risk. It is a really hard thing to tell soldiers. But the argument is that you take the risk up front and as you make progress the overall risk goes down.

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Pickerington, Ohio: This is the same story of an American "outpost" being overrun and U.S. soldiers being killed in Kamdesh on 4 October 2009.

While the curent administration debates "should I stay or should I go," our brave young men are being sacrificed.

This is Vietnam as Afghanistan, and we need to decide what we are doing now!

How do we make that happen?

Greg Jaffe: I understand the need to debate and make sure the strategy is right, especially if the Obama adminstration is going to make a substantial long term committment to Afghanistan. But I also agree that it is probably hard on commanders not having a clear sense of direction. Not to sound weasely, but it is a tough balance (which is probably a weasely thing to say).

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Rockville, Md.: If we cede this territory in NE Afghanistan, what are the implications for destabilization in Pakistan, and is there a strategic reason to control this region?

Greg Jaffe: I think the US military is betting that there aren't strategic reaons to control this region. But it is definitely a bet. In 2006 a very smart group of commanders were completely convinced that there were strategic reasons to control this region (or at least try to control it).

They were worried the problems there would spill over into larger cities and villages where they were making some progress. I think it is also possible that the enemy could use the havens in NE Afghanistan to destabilize Pakistan.

But the Nurestanis are pretty fiercely independent people. The bet -- and it is a bet -- is that they will fight to defend their valley, but they are not interested in causing problems elsewhere. The hope is that their suspicion over outsiders will make it less likely that they will harbor Taliban or al Qaeda.

But to be honest I am not sure any of us know about Nurestan to say for sure.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Greg, how do you see Col. Brostrom? Is he a tragic figure obsessed by his son's death or is he pursuing a legitimate issue regarding the failure of his son's superiors to adequately protect the Wanat FOB? Also, what do you think the ramifications of the Cubbison report and other Army investigations will ultimately be?

Greg Jaffe: If I were he, I am sure I would be angry. I also think that if I were one of the commanders under investigation I might very well feel aggrieved. Mistakes happen in wars, which are chaotic, awful, unpredictable things. I don't think any of the commanders woke up wanting to screw up. I think Brostrom's push will be a net positive for the Army, because I think it will force it to take a hard look at the battle. As this weekend's attacks in Nurestan, it definitely merits lots of study and thought.

I think the Cubbison report will be published with revisions. Its tough to say what the ramifications of the current Army investigation will be. I'd hate to guess, because I will probably be wrong.

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Boston, Mass.: Why weren't these isolated bases closed sooner after our publicly disclosed change to a counterinsurgency strategy and decision to pull out of these bases which didn't fit that strategy? By publicly disclosing these changes in strategy and tactics but not moving quickly to close down the isolated bases, didn't we increase the risk of an overrun attack on these U.S. troops as the enemy knew we weren't fully committed to these areas? Why weren't the heavy lift helicopters needed to help close down the bases reprioritized for this job? Just as it is fair to ask why Obama went to Copenhagen in the middle of the Afghan review, health-care reform, etc., is it not also fair to ask why McChrystal was giving policy speeches in London instead of staying in Afghanistan to work on the logistics of closing down those vulnerable bases? Could and should Afghan commanders have reprioritized the heavy-lift helicopters to get these U.S. troops out of the risk that the change in strategy put them in?

Greg Jaffe: There were lots of reasons (some good and some not so good) the outposts overrun this weekend weren't closed sooner. The outposts had been taking fire, but the US hadn't sustained any fatalities at either one. So I guess it didn't seem super pressing.

Meanwhile the Afghan government was queasy about ceding territory to the Taliban. The government is already weak. The last thing it wanted was to appear weaker. Finally, there was resistance to leaving until ISAF and GEN McChrystal had settled on the new strategy. All of those factors conspired to keep the soldiers there. I know that in September commanders in the area were frustrated for quite a while that they couldn't close them. It has got to be very hard for them now.

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Richmond, Va.: Are any of the other NATO participants experiencing this same type of attack on their bases or are we the only ones with these remote and isolated bases? Do the taliban differentiate between U.S. forces and other NATO forces such as U.S. forces being a more valuable target?

Greg Jaffe: I think a foreign target is a foreign target. There were some Lithuanian forces at an outpost called Baria Lai in the mountains Northeastern Afghanistan that was almost overrun this spring. I've been told it was a really horrible attack.

My sense is (and I could be wrong) is that US troops take signficantly more risk than the other NATO nations and are more exposed. Also there are very few NATO forces in Nurestan or Konar province, two mountainous regions, which are home to most of these vulnerable outposts.

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Wokingham, U.K.: We in the U.K. have our own military voices calling for reinforcements and complaining of lack of equipment. But surely there is no way of ensuring that there are no weak points and exposed positions that the enemy will sometimes find? No one has all their fighters and all their guns at just the right place all the time. So there are always going to be these horrible incidents and these distressing casualties, aren't there?

Greg Jaffe: I agree there will always be this horrible incidents. And there is no way US or NATO troops can control the whole country. Commanders also have to be wiling to take risk, which will mean that these events are probably inevitable. I think the question is whehter commanders are taking reasonable risks or sending soldiers out on a mission that is to use Lt. Brostrom's words is "almost a lost cause." If the platoon leader feels that way. It is a problem.

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Freising, Germany: Over the years, I've read numerous times, even quite recently, that the Taliban continue to surprise with their tactical prowess. After such a long time, I'm surprised that this is still a surprise. Is it possible that the Taliban are still underestimated?

Greg Jaffe: I think there are instances where they have definitely been underestimated. It is especially true in units that have Iraq experience. The Taliban fighters are much more willing to mass and to stand and fight in the northeast.

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Augusta, Ga.: What weapons are these militant groups in Nurestan using? I read reports of rockets -- are these RPGs? And what is the range of their mortars? Is there any evidence that they weaponry is getting better? Their tactics seem more organized for sure.

Thanks!

Greg Jaffe: RPGs and machine guns (PKMs) are the main weapons in Nurestan and Konar. In the south it is IEDs. There is a fair amount of rocket and mortar fire on US bases, but it doesn't produce many US casualties.

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Washington, D.C.: Is this another battle of the little bighorn?

Greg Jaffe: I think it is an interesting battle and a dramatic story that offers insights into the Afghan war. I don't think it is as important as Little Big Horn.

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Greg Jaffe: Thanks very much for all the questions, which have been great. I am going to sign off...

My book The Fourth Star launches next Tuesday. I hope folks enjoy it. I think it captures Petraeus, Abizaid, Casey and Chiarelli in a way that they've never been portrayed before.

Again, thanks very much for your time.

Greg

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