Officers blamed in Afghan ambush that killed 5 U.S. troops

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 17, 2010 

WASHINGTON — The absence of experienced senior leaders and inadequate action by officers in a tactical operations center, including a failure to provide effective artillery and air support, contributed to the deaths of five U.S. troops and nine Afghans in a Sept. 8 battle, an official investigation has found.

Three unidentified officers from the 10th Mountain Division from Ft. Drum, N.Y. received official reprimands following the inquiry into the clash, which erupted after Afghan security forces and U.S Army and Marine trainers were ambushed in the Ganjgal Valley near the border with Pakistan in northeastern Kunar Province.

"This event highlights the enduring importance of the inherent duties and responsibilities of command," said the executive summary of the investigation, which was obtained by McClatchy. "While authorities may be delegated, responsibility cannot."

The Army and Marine colonels who conducted the inquiry praised the "extreme heroism" of several U.S. soldiers, saying their actions "stand out as extraordinary examples worthy of the highest recognition."

The names of the colonels and the soldiers were redacted from the summary, which hasn't been released publicly.

A McClatchy correspondent was embedded with the U.S. trainers for the operation, which was launched after elders in the village of Ganjgal publicly disavowed the Taliban and agreed to accept the authority of local Afghan officials.

Some 90 Afghan troops and border police were to search the village, and then hold a meeting with the elders. About a dozen U.S. trainers accompanied them.

The contingent was ambushed as it moved up the valley just after dawn, pinned down by a withering storm of fire from insurgents in the village and the surrounding mountainsides armed with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, recoilless rifles and machineguns.

Eight Afghan troops and an Afghan translator also were killed. Two U.S. Marines and 19 Afghan troops and border police were wounded.

The investigation found that numerous oversights contributed to the deaths of the U.S. and Afghan forces. Most involved 10th Mountain Division officers assigned to Forward Operating Base Joyce, the U.S. outpost that had tactical control of the operation.

The base commander was on leave, his deputy was deployed elsewhere and the response to the ambush by the officers who manned the tactical operations center in their absence was "inadequate and ineffective, contributing directly to the loss of life," the report said.

Two majors, the senior officers there, "were not continually present" in the operations center. They left a captain who'd been on the overnight shift in charge of the center for more than four hours after the fighting began.

The officers' names were redacted from the report that McClatchy obtained.

"The absence of senior leaders in the operations center with troops in contact . . . and their consequent lack of situational awareness and decisive action was a key failure," it said.

Another major factor, it said, was the operations center officers' failure to provide "effective" artillery fire on the insurgents, despite repeated requests from the battlefield.

The acting commander and "all commissioned staff officers" failed to "monitor a rapidly degenerating tactical situation," the report said. That mistake "prevented timely supporting fires in the critical early phases of the operation and ensured that higher headquarters did not grasp the tactical situation."

Only four artillery salvoes were fired in the first hour of the operation; three were ineffective and no more salvoes were authorized from 6:39 a.m. until 4:15 p.m., it said.

One of the majors told the investigators that he denied further requests for fire support "for various reasons including: lack of situational awareness of locations of friendly elements; proximity to the village; garbled communications; or inaccurate or incomplete calls for fire."

The inquiry, however, found that too many calls over a radio network "may account for some confusion in the conduct of fires, but in our judgment is not an adequate explanation for the complete lack of fires from 0630 until 1615."

The report found that the failure to provide adequate artillery support wasn't due to a tactical directive issued by Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal that was designed to avert civilian casualties, as officers involved in the battle had believed.

"A second key failure was the lack of timely air support," said the report.

An unidentified officer denied requests from the battlefield to send a helicopter gunship that was minutes away because the requests weren't sent through his brigade headquarters and the aircraft was assigned to another operation, the report said.

The "probability is high" that Marine 1st Lt. Michael E. Johnson of Virginia Beach, Va.; Marine Gunnery Sgt. Edwin W. Johnson of Columbus, Ga.; Marine Staff Sgt. Aaron M. Kenefick of Roswell, Ga., and Navy Petty Officer James R. Layton of Riverbank, Calif. were killed during the more than an hour that it took for air support to be properly authorized and arrive on the scene, it said.

Army Sgt. Kenneth W. Westbrook of Colorado Springs, Colo. was wounded at the same time and died in October at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

"This decision, while technically correct on procedural grounds, was devastating in its consequences," the report said. "The correct tactical decision was clearly to divert (the helicopter). It was at this point in the fight that experienced, decisive senior leadership was most lacking."

A "third key failure" was a decision by the two majors not to send a relief force into the valley, said the report.

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