Did bad decisions set stage for 9 U.S. deaths in Afghanistan?

Seattle TimesJuly 31, 2009 

In the days before one of the fiercest battles in America's eight-year war in Afghanistan, Army Capt. Benjamin Pry argued for more surveillance flights to help his beleaguered unit of fewer than 50 soldiers.

Since moving into a new outpost on July 8, 2008, they had struggled with shortages of water, fuel, food and heavy machinery to help defend against an enemy attack that they believed would eventually come. Lacking excavating equipment, the troops dug fortifications by scraping the rocky soil with spades and bare hands.

Then on July 12, headquarters commanders diverted drones — remotely operated planes outfitted with cameras to spot enemy movements — to another area. Pry argued so hard to undo that decision that he said he breached professional etiquette. Still, he was unsuccessful.

"We had no support from brigade, division or theater level assets at the time," Pry told Army historians in a study obtained by The Seattle Times.

That study, written by historian Douglas Cubbison of the U.S. Army Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., documented missteps that preceded some of the bloodiest combat to date for American troops in the Afghanistan war.

Early in the morning of July 13, the outpost at the village of Wanat came under assault from some 200 enemy troops. The attack claimed the lives of nine Army soldiers — including Cpl. Jason Bogar, 25, of Seattle — and wounded 27 others, precipitating the withdrawal of U.S. troops from a valley in eastern Afghanistan.

The 254-page unreleased study challenges the Army's official battle investigation, which had concluded that leaders displayed "sound military analysis" and that no blame could be placed on commanders.

Cubbison noted suspect decisions by commanders, who allowed an understaffed platoon to plant itself in hostile territory without adequate support.

In the Wanat battle study, Cubbison concluded that:

-- No senior commander visited Wanat before establishing it as an outpost, and it was "highly questionable" whether these commanders exercised due diligence when they ordered a platoon to move there.

-- The lack of heavy equipment to fortify defenses and the lack of intelligence support directly contributed to the casualties suffered last July 13.

The Army institute is a military think tank that helps evaluate Army capabilities and operations.

Cubbison noted that some soldiers who stepped forward to talk did so at the "risk of being professionally censured."

Army officials say the study is far from finished. They described it as a working paper that is not yet even a draft. They said there would be more interviews and a peer review, and declined to comment on the findings. "It's not done," Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon, told The Seattle Times on Thursday.

Cubbison could not be reached for comment for this story. A spokesman for the Army institute confirmed that the study was not yet complete.

The extensively footnoted study, based on numerous interviews with soldiers and other sources, also documents the heroism of those who fought that day and prevented the outpost from being overrun.

It also offers a sweeping narrative of the events leading up to the battle, when much of what was going wrong with the war in Afghanistan last summer was going wrong in Wanat.

The study already is raising questions in Washington, D.C.

Sen. James Webb, D-Va., wrote in a July 9 letter to the Defense Department's Office of Inspector General that he believes "more thorough consideration of senior command accountability is warranted."

By then, the Inspector General's office had already opened an inquiry into Wanat in response to a hotline complaint received in November from one of several parents pressing for more information.

"It's been over a year since the nine soldiers were killed, and I just want the truth to come out," said David Brostrom, a retired Army colonel whose son, 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, 24, died in the battle.

Bogar's mother, Carlene Cross, of Issaquah, said, "They need to tell people what happened so they can make changes and it doesn't happen again."

They called themselves "Chosen Company," and their informal mascot was a Marvel Comics figure known as The Punisher, a lone soldier who took jobs nobody else would do.

Based out of Italy, C Company was part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Command Team and had earned a reputation as a savvy, combat-hardened unit of paratroopers.

Bogar was a Bothell High School graduate who joined the Washington National Guard in 2000 and then became caught up in military life. He served in Iraq, assisted in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and then went to Afghanistan. After returning, he joined the active-duty Army with the belief that the military would send him to film school, according to his mother.

Instead, he ended up in Afghanistan.

In June 2007, the company was sent to the Waigal Valley, a remote, rugged corner of eastern Afghanistan that hosted insurgent groups. The insurgents often recruited young villagers eager for income and a chance to test their warrior skills.

The company had three platoons, but only two of them — fewer than 80 soldiers — were sent to the valley. Cubbison wrote that those two platoons were overextended as they tried to staff Spartan combat outposts.

Early on, they faced tough fighting. Soldiers were involved in hand-to-hand combat in August 2007 as insurgents tried to overrun one of the outposts. Then, in November 2007, six Americans were killed in an ambush.

An incident in January 2008 was a blow to both troop morale and attempts to cooperate with Afghan forces.

Platoon leader Sgt. Matthew Kahler was killed by an Afghan soldier who leaned out of a bunker, fired a shot and then fled. After an investigation, the killing was ruled an accident.

But soldiers in the platoon believed that it was deliberate, according to the study and Bogar's diary entry obtained by The Seattle Times.

"He [Kahler] walked up stating loudly we are Americans," Bogar wrote. "But [he] was still shot in the head.

"It was planned and they all knew exactly what they were doing."

Kahler's death was followed by a period of intense warfare that continued through the summer of 2008. Despite all the fighting, the U.S. was not gaining ground in the valley.

The Army closed one outpost in November, planned to close a second one known as Bella and then open a new outpost in Wanat on a mountain slope at an elevation of about 4,000 feet. Meanwhile, on July 4, a U.S. attack near Bella inflamed the local communities against the Americans, according to the study. A convoy of pickups was speeding away from an area that was the source of hostile fire. U.S. Apache helicopters fired on the trucks, killing 17, including doctors, nurses and staff of a local health clinic.

It was unclear what happened. Capt. Pry, the company intelligence officer, believed insurgents had forced their way onto the convoy. Still, for the enemy it was a propaganda victory.

"I think July 4 was a disaster both for the people of [Waigal] valley and the Coalition forces," said Sami Nurstani, a valley resident, in an interview published in the study.

The anger over the death of civilians, Nurstani said, led to the attack nine days later on Wanat.

On the evening of July 8, 2008, soldiers began arriving at Wanat. By the next morning, there were 47 U.S. military troops, including several Marines, and some 24 Afghan National Army paratroopers at the site.

An Afghan construction company had been hired to build up the defenses with heavy equipment. But that company never showed up, so there were shortages of equipment and supplies for such crucial tasks as constructing overhead cover or bunkers, according to the study.

The company did have a Bobcat, a small excavating machine. But it couldn't reach high enough to stack containers to place mortars at a 7-foot height. Instead, they were placed only at 4-foot level, where they would be less effective. Even the Bobcat was unreliable, breaking down for a day.

The soldiers were also constrained during the next four days by a shortage of drinking water. "I remember on the 10th, 11th we [were] down to less than a liter of water per person and subsequently we did not dig or work to conserve our energy and water supply," said Spc. Michael Santiago, in an interview for the study.

Some of the biggest gaps in defenses were in a key observation post. There were three fighting positions there, but no posts or stakes left to prop up the single strand of concertina wire. So it was just placed on the ground, according to the study.

Bogar urged his buddies to stack up sandbags as high as they could in a fortified position on the south end of the observation post. One of the other soldiers dubbed that encampment "The Alamo," according to Bogar's mother, Cross.

In the four days preceding the attacks, there were numerous troubling signs.

Soldiers noticed small groups of men who had gathered in a village bazaar and had watched development of the fortifications. Women and children were noticeably absent. A group of five men was spotted moving across the mountains in the dead of night.

At a dinner meeting in the village on July 12, a father and son known as staunch pro-Americans warned that the soldiers should shoot anyone they saw in the hills, and even asked if C Company had drone surveillance.

But by that evening, the drone flights had been diverted to help another operation.

"This action, with a platoon deployed at high risk, is on its face incomprehensible," wrote Webb, the U.S. senator, in his letter to the Army.

Last July's attack

The attack began at about 4 a.m., led by a fierce volley of rocket-propelled grenades that targeted key defenses and rendered the unit's mortars ineffective. The gravest situation was at an observation post manned by Bogar and eight other soldiers who came under a withering onslaught.

"This first round of explosions was devastatingly accurate, and everybody in the OP [observation post] was immediately wounded, stunned or both," wrote Cubbison.

Spc. Tyler Stafford suffered searing leg burns and shrapnel wounds to his arms as he was blown out of his machine-gun position. Stafford ended up next to Spc. Matthew Phillips, a Georgian known for his sharpshooting. He watched Phillips throw a grenade and then get knocked back down, mortally wounded.

Stafford then crawled to a hole in the southern part of the post, where Bogar was firing an automatic weapon perched atop a sandbag. Bogar fired hundreds of rounds until the barrel of his weapon became white-hot and jammed. Then he tended to Stafford's wounds.

"He saw how bad my arm was bleeding and he grabbed a tourniquet and put it on my arm," Stafford told The Seattle Times. "He saved a lot of blood from coming out of me."

Sgt. Ryan Pitts also had been wounded, by a rocket-propelled grenade. Bogar tied a tourniquet around Pitts' leg.

Bogar then ventured to another part of the observation post to use another machine gun.

Stafford and Pitts survived the battle. Bogar was eventually killed. His body was recovered on a hillside terrace outside the post, possibly dragged there by an insurgent, according to the study.

At the observation post, insurgents penetrated the concertina wire but never took control. After several hours of fighting, the battle turned as American helicopter gunships strafed enemy positions, bombers dropped their loads and more troops were sent in.

Army medical teams were able to evacuate all the wounded soldiers, flying amid smoke, burning vehicles and ground fire. "Their incredible courage ... is solely responsible for this miracle," Cubbison wrote.

Troops held on

By the end of the battle, 75 percent of the U.S. troops were wounded or dead.

Still, the troops held on to the enclave. Cubbison writes that the successful defense of the Wanat outpost was a "magnificent tactical victory ... as remarkable as any small unit action in American military history."

But the tactical victory, according to the study, was followed by a strategic setback as the valley two days later was ceded to enemy control. Residents who had cooperated with U.S. forces over a three-year period were left vulnerable to retaliation by insurgents.

Col. Charles Preysler, who headed the brigade that included Chosen Company, bristled at any notion that Wanat held any long-term importance in the Army's plans for the valley.

In a July 2008 interview with Stars and Stripes, he downplayed the significance of the withdrawal. He said that Wanat was just a temporary site where solders and vehicles gathered for a few nights. "We do that routinely. We're always doing that when we go out and stay in an area for longer than a few hours, and that's what it is. So there is nothing to abandon," Preysler said.

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