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Blamestorming on the Battle of Wanat

Tom Ricks, the former WaPo military correspondent has added an eighth chapter to his piece on the Battle of Wanat. It features leaks about a study of the battle by historian Douglas Cubbison that is very critical of the leadership of the commander of 2nd of the 503rd LTC (now COL) Ostlund and 173rd Airborne  commander COL Preysler.  This is not an official military report and has not even been published yet, but apparently Ricks and some others have seen a draft and since it supports his contention that this incident was a command failure, he has leaked some info. Small Wars Journal has posted a link that has drawn comments from COIN skeptic Gian Gentile rebutting many of the assertions by Ricks and Cubbison.

I take a personal interest in this topic as I know quite a few folks who were actually there and have heard first hand what the conditions were and what happened. Like every military operation there were miscues and nobody had all the supplies or support they could have used. During the battalion's entire 15 months in country they lived a very spartan existence and were in contact almost constantly. That and the terrain made resupply and all operations very difficult.

I am trying to locate a copy of Cubbison's story and if anyone can assist please let me know, but I will make a couple of points right away. He makes the assertion that the command failed to understand and implement COIN and that this was a direct causative factor in the attack on Wanat. That is a serious mis-statement of fact and of understanding the particular region. Simply waving a magic wand and sprinkling COIN dust will not change deep-seated feelings and fundamental mistrust of the local populace. That takes years and perhaps decades of continual effort. Although there are many ways we can learn from the stunning success of the surge and COIN in Iraq, there are so many differences between that and Afghanistan as to make direct comparison almost useless. Of course population-centric tactics are required, but let's think back to when this deployment happened.

 It was May 2007 and the Taliban had recently begun infiltrating back from Pakistan in significant numbers. This was not because we had taken our eye off the ball by fighting in Iraq, but because the Pakistanis had ceded control of much of Waziristan to the tribes between 2004 and 2006. This allowed safe havens for the Taliban to refit, recruit and train without interference. They took advantage of this and by 2007 had made significant inroads in places like the Korengal and Waygul valleys where 2nd of the 503rd operated. Cubbison and Ricks state that conditions there deteriorated or became more kinetic due to the lack of peaceful engagement by 2/503 as opposed to it's predecessor 10th Mountain. This completely ignores the influx of trained Taliban from across the border who had made a concerted effort to push into these areas.

As 2/503 began to operate all of their outposts were under continuous attack and the local populace though out much of the A/O was in fear of the infiltrated Taliban and therefore not willing to engage with the US forces out of legitimate fear of reprisal. In order to even conduct COIN a security environment must be in place where the people are safe to work with our troops. This was certainly not the case and so the first order of business had to be fighting the enemy forces and establishing patrol bases and outposts in what was now indian country.This does not mean that efforts to engage the population were not ongoing, but that they could not be particularly effective until a certain level of security was achieved. That also meant that kinetic operations would be dominant to make that happen.

There are many factors relating to the establishment of the Vehicle Patrol Base at Wanat that are discussed and I will deal with them in a later piece, but the thrust of Cubbison and Ricks that the incident was a result of the unit's failure to understand COIN is wrong. They failed to properly look at the situation on the ground and to understand the efforts actually made by the unit. COL Ostlund has a piece in the current edition of Military Review discussing the deployment that makes it perfectly clear they were attempting to run a population-centric COIN operation. To do that they had to deal with the influx of Taliban and that meant constant fighting to attempt to gain the security that would allow traction with the locals. To ignore that fact makes any analysis of the actions taken faulty and Cubbison and Ricks have both made that mistake.