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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, November 22, 2009

Soldiers' families still searching for answers


By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, has asked for up to 40,000 more troops. President Obama, meanwhile, is weighing his options and expects to announce a decision "in the next several weeks."

JAN KOLLER | Associated Press

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The seeds of the Wanat battle were sown long before fighting broke out on July 13, 2008. That morning, more than a year's worth of accumulated hatred rained down on the Americans.

Sixteen months later, the Battle of Wanat continues to be scrutinized by the parents of soldiers who died that day, by members of Congress who asked about command accountability, and most recently, by the top U.S. commander in the Middle East.

But until a damning report by military historian Douglas Cubbison at the Army's Combat Studies Institute leaked out over the summer, Wanat received scant attention from Army officials.

The ongoing analysis of Wanat at the institute, the Army's premier intellectual center, identifies failure after failure by senior Army leaders leading up to the battle.

"You have nine soldiers dead, 27 wounded, an entire infantry platoon decimated," said David Brostrom, a retired colonel who spent 30 years in the Army. "The Army (in its initial investigation) did almost nothing to say what went wrong here.

"How can we learn from this experience? They just said, 'Gee, it's over with. Let's move on.' "

After the Cubbison report came out and David Brostrom continued to raise questions, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, Army Gen. David Petraeus, ordered a new investigation in late September into the Wanat battle. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Richard Natonski is conducting it. Petraeus is expected to receive an update on the new investigation on Dec. 5.

Meanwhile, David Brostrom continues to ask questions about Wanat, based in part on his familiarity with Army practice:

• Why was his son's relatively small unit sent into extremely hostile territory to set up a combat outpost, short on water and heavy equipment, and with no unmanned aerial vehicles to watch over them during a major operation?

• Why were they sent without soldiers from the follow-on unit? The soldiers of Chosen Company had less than two weeks left in Afghanistan, and commanders were preoccupied with preparing for a unit turnover and a return home.

• Why did the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team disregard intelligence that a major attack was being planned?

• Why did the unit wage such an aggressive campaign over its nearly 15-month deployment, alienating the local population?

The losses experienced by the 173rd Brigade at Wanat and elsewhere in eastern Afghanistan amid renewed Taliban resistance whipsawed the nation's attention back to what had been a "forgotten" war, and led to a rethinking of strategy in the east.

Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, said in an Aug. 30 assessment of Afghan security that the overall situation was deteriorating. Neither U.S. success nor failure could be taken for granted, McChrystal said.

Stories of soldiers stretched thin and engaged in clashes in remote mountain passes where there is little or no Afghan government presence, few people, and limited ability by U.S. forces to hold the terrain left key U.S. military leaders convinced that the fighting was counterproductive.

Instead of bringing the Afghan people to its side, the U.S. bombings and firefights created ill will among an occupation-resistant populace and fueled a Taliban surge.

McChrystal has since started to abandon the eastern mountain outposts in favor of redeploying troops to larger population centers amid an Obama administration rethink of overall Afghanistan strategy.

The Cubbison report describes more than a year spent by the 173rd Brigade in polar opposition to McChrystal's recent mantra, which demands maximum protection of the populace and restraint in the type of firepower used.

McChrystal has asked Obama to send up to 40,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan to bolster the 68,000 U.S. troops and 40,000 from allied nations already in the country.

Obama has been weighing his options. He has held eight war councils on the topic and rejected all plans presented at the most recent meeting.

In a CNN interview on Wednesday, Obama said his decision will be announced "in the next several weeks."

"It is important for us to focus our efforts so that we don't start getting overextended. We're not signing up for a permanent occupation," Obama said. "I think that (with) some public discussion, you have the sense 'just throw more (troops) in,' then somehow that's going to solve the problem. That does not solve the problem."

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said at the Pentagon that he anticipated that "as soon as the president makes his decision, we can probably begin flowing some forces pretty quickly after that (into Afghanistan)."