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New inquiry ordered into 2008 Wanat battle

9 soldiers killed, 27 wounded in attack on Afghanistan outpost

Oct. 4, 2009 - 11:19AM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 4, 2009 - 11:19AM  |  
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Prompted by allegations of command negligence — and pressure from a U.S. senator — Gen. David Petraeus has ordered a new investigation into the deadly battle in Wanat, Afghanistan, that killed nine U.S. soldiers and wounded 27 others.

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Prompted by allegations of command negligence — and pressure from a U.S. senator — Gen. David Petraeus has ordered a new investigation into the deadly battle in Wanat, Afghanistan, that killed nine U.S. soldiers and wounded 27 others.

The investigation — the second probe of the July 13, 2008, battle — will address issues that have arisen since the completion of the Army's AR 15-6 investigation, including the "facts and circumstances surrounding the combat action that occurred," according to a Sept. 30 CentCom statement.

Sen. Jim Webb's office said Webb, a Virginia Democrat, on July 9 called for further investigation of the battle after "allegations of negligence at senior levels in the chain of command" were brought to his attention.

Marine Lt. Gen. Richard Natonski, commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces Command, will lead the investigation. Army Maj. Gen. Michael Oates, former commander of the 10th Mountain Division, is the deputy investigative officer.

"We believe that there was some information that just wasn't as thorough as we expected, that it didn't cover all the details that led up to the events of the 13th," said Bob Prucha, a CentCom spokesman. Prucha declined to provide additional details.

On the day of the battle, 45 U.S. troops, accompanied by 24 Afghan soldiers, were attacked in the rugged Waygul Valley in Afghanistan's Konar province.

More than 200 enemy fighters swarmed the soldiers' small, remote combat outpost near the village of Wanat, and in the fierce battle with the larger, well-organized enemy force, nine paratroopers were killed and 27 wounded. It remains the single deadliest attack against U.S. forces since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, apart from incidents involving helicopter crashes.

Thirty-eight of the soldiers were from 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, which was two weeks from the end of their 15-month deployment. There were also five combat engineers from the 62nd Engineer Battalion, a two-Marine training team and 24 Afghan soldiers. Family members of the fallen soldiers contacted Webb and asked him to help them get answers about what happened, said Jessica Smith, a spokeswoman for Webb.

First Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, a platoon leader, was one of the nine soldiers killed in the battle. His father, David Brostrom, a retired colonel with 30 years in the Army, said the 15-6 conducted after the battle didn't answer any of his questions.

"How can a highly trained, reinforced infantry platoon get overrun and surprised by 200 insurgents?" he said. "What were the decisions that were made, right or wrong, and if somebody is responsible or negligent, then hold them accountable. This is more than just the fog of war here. There were too many things that were going bad, and nobody did anything about it. If there were good reasons, fine, then list those reasons so this doesn't happen again."

Col. Bill Ostlund, who commanded 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry, at the time, declined to be interviewed but wrote in an e-mail that unit leaders have "welcomed all investigations and inquiries throughout and since the conclusion of our tour."

Brostrom said his questions about what happened that day were reinforced when he obtained a copy of a paper written by Douglas Cubbison, a military historian at the Army Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

In a draft of the paper, which was based on interviews with soldiers from the 173rd ABCT, Cubbison wrote that on July 4, 2008, just days before the attack, a pair of pickup trucks was destroyed by a team of two AH-64 Apache helicopters.

"The trucks had either been deliberately fleeing from the vicinity of an indirect fire attack launched [at the nearby COP Bella] as coalition forces would attest, or simply departing from the Bella Medical Clinic in response to a coalition warning to evacuate the Bella vicinity as per Afghan reports," the paper reads.

Seventeen people were killed, including several health care providers from the clinic, according to Cubbison's paper.

"The pickup trucks may or may not have actually contained militants, and a careful study by [the 173rd ABCT] was inconclusive," Cubbison wrote.

He also wrote that the attack, "whether justified or not by U.S. forces," aggravated public opinion throughout the Waygul Valley against the Americans and caused much of the population to actively support the insurgents.

"What [Cubbison's paper] found out was the attack on Wanat was a revenge attack, so they were able to get more support from people who probably normally wouldn't be insurgents but did it that one time," Brostrom said. "The question is, after the Apache attack, what did you do to mitigate that risk? So my son, who spent eight months at [COP] Bella and was pulled out to go to Wanat, knew just about all those doctors and nurses and kids [who were killed]."

Also in his paper, Cubbison wrote that all intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets were pulled from Wanat on the evening of July 12, hours before the battle erupted, and efforts by the battalion and brigade to get those resources back were unsuccessful because of a higher priority operation elsewhere.

Brostrom said that he initially thought his son did something wrong.

"As platoon leader, he was in charge," he said. "I read the 15-6 and you could argue he could have put a crew-served weapon here or occupied higher ground, but it wouldn't have made a difference. It was an impossible mission."

Brostrom said he and the other soldiers' families just want to know what happened that day.

"None of this is going to bring our son back, but it'll probably highlight the decisions that were made and why, and hopefully it'll be something we can learn by," he said. "This is not just for my son. This for the other eight kids who were killed and the 27 who were [wounded]. They deserve better than this."

Col. Bill Ostlund added that he respects and appreciates Petraeus' decision and is ready to answer any questions from investigators.

"I am hopeful the appointed investigative team can provide a factual understanding of the Battle at Wanat, the greater context in which we served for 14 months, and also illuminate those that purposefully purported and perpetuated untruths that have disparaged our fallen, [our] paratroopers, [our] leadership, and the [unit] while adding to and extending the pain of our families," he wrote. "As an organization and as leaders, we have nothing to hide and have practiced full disclosure — always — while avoiding [the] revisionist history practiced by some."

His soldiers served in rugged, austere, undeveloped and contested mountainous terrain with 14 outposts and numerous operations, Ostlund wrote.

"[We] had few assets but … our task force and subordinate units executed full-spectrum [counterinsurgency operations] expertly, with partners, and without regret as we tenaciously conducted 9,500 missions for and with the population and were involved in 1,100 engagements with the enemy — 48 engagements in the Waygul Valley," Ostlund wrote. "Our losses — all of our losses — were hard and exceptionally unfortunate."

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