A Chinook lands at Combat Outpost Keating in March. (Sgt. Amber Robinson / Army)
The attack on Combat Outpost Keating in the Kamdesh district of Nuristan province felled eight American soldiers and wounded 24 others before the enemy was finally pushed out of the camp's perimeter.
The soldiers "were sitting ducks," said Larry Mace, father of Army Spc. Stephan Mace, who was killed in the Oct. 3 battle.
That attack was eerily similar to another Afghanistan battle 15 months earlier in Wanat, in nearby Kunar province.
Both ground assaults were on remote American outposts. The enemy struck with devastating speed and firepower, each time nearly overwhelming highly trained, battle-hardened defenders. Combined, 17 soldiers were killed, 51 wounded.
How could this happen — twice?
At a disadvantage?
There are some 150 outposts and forward operating bases in eastern Afghanistan, many of them manned like those that were nearly overrun. The remote, undermanned and underresourced outposts are on bad terrain that frequently gives enemy forces the advantage, say experts, who predict more attacks unless the outposts are either reinforced or shut down.
Enemy Afghan forces dominated the terrain around the platoon-sized Wanat outpost and attacked on the morning of July 13, 2008, fighting with superior numbers and firepower. Defenders eventually repulsed the attack but not before the enemy knocked out the unit's heavy weapons, killed nine soldiers and wounded another 27. The Wanat attack is now the subject of a second investigation to explore allegations of negligence at senior levels of command.
In the same way U.S. forces pulled out of Wanat, they have now left COPs Keating and Lowell and Observation Post Fritsche, all three in Kamdesh. This is part of a plan recently launched by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the NATO and U.S. commander in Afghanistan, that calls for pulling forces out of these small outposts and moving them closer to cities as part of a counterinsurgency strategy aimed at better protecting the population.
Experts maintain that the only way to prevent more of these types of attacks is to commit more troops and more resources to Afghanistan. This comes as the Obama administration is debating how to respond to McChrystal's request for up to 40,000 more troops.
"There is no doubt in my mind that we have to have more troops," said retired Brig. Gen. David Grange, a Vietnam War veteran who later served in Delta Force and commanded the 1st Infantry Division. "If you can't maneuver you are not on the offensive … if you don't maneuver, you don't win."
"You have to do the mission [but] you don't have the resources," said retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, a former commandant of the Army War College and a Vietnam veteran. "Every time you remove a combat outpost, what happens? Either a key piece of terrain goes uncovered or something like the [attacks in Wanat and Kamdesh happen]."
"It's not enough to add more troops," he said. "It's also important to add more enablers, more artillery, more helicopters, [and] more tactical [unmanned aerial vehicles]."
Despite McChrystal's previously announced plan, a spokesman refused to say whether the remaining outposts will be closed.
Closing "three out of 150 [bases] are negligible," said Col. Wayne Shanks, spokesman for International Security Assistance Force. "These [three sites] didn't have any effective control over the border region. They weren't set up to do that. They were set up to interdict insurgent access routes throughout the region. The commanders across Afghanistan, regional commanders, are continuing to reassess their situation and realign their forces," he said. "There's always a possibility that we'll close a base as we realign forces."
Multiple warnings from citizens
Wanat and Kamdesh — and presumably many others — were placed in indefensible terrain and provided minimal personnel, making it difficult for soldiers to conduct offensive operations outside the wire.
The small force did not conduct patrols from the time they arrived at Wanat on July 9, 2008, to the time of the attack four days later. Most soldiers were busy either strengthening the new camp's defenses or manning crew-served weapon systems. Nearly every soldier there was well aware of the efforts directed against them. Soldiers were receiving reports from the few citizens who remained in Wanat that an attack was imminent, but such warnings had been received so often, and were so vague, that they were discounted, according to a draft analysis paper on the battle written by Douglas Cubbison, a military historian at the Army Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
"There were civilians who were watching us all through the day," remembered Sgt. Jason Oakes, a member of a Marine Corps Embedded Training Team mentoring and working with the Afghan National Army. "They knew exactly where we were … and there was nothing we could do. You can't shoot somebody for walking around slowly."
Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a Washington-area think tank, said the strategy of scattering small combat outposts, each manned by platoon- or company-sized elements, in remote areas was not working.
"What's the point of having a local presence when you can't leave your encampment?" he asked. "But if you concentrate [solely] in the cities, you largely give over the countryside to the enemy."
Experts maintain that McChrystal's plan to close the outposts will only embolden Taliban-backed forces to plan more deadly attacks in the future.
"The Taliban are going to use that as a victory and tell everybody that they pushed the Americans out," Grange said. "They're influencing [American] public opinion, our Congress, and our media."
David Brostrom, a retired Army colonel, said there are a lot of lessons to be learned from the battle in Wanat that killed his son, 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, and the attack on COP Keating in Kamdesh.
"How can this COP, that's been there for many years, be surprised and almost overrun by over 200 bad guys and we didn't see it coming?"
When the enemy attacked in Wanat, Jonathan Brostrom and his soldiers, from 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, had been in that location for less than a week.
COP Keating in Kamdesh was established in the summer of 2006, and the soldiers who battled the enemy on Oct. 3, from 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, had been there for more than three months.
"The amount of ammunition the enemy had was phenomenal, and that had to be stored in caches some place, or if they brought it up you'd think we would have seen it," Brostrom said. "You kind of ask the questions, were there patrols in and around the base? Where was the [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance]? And you're probably going to find the ISR was someplace else because there's not enough to go around."
COP Keating was in extremely rugged and mountainous terrain with high ground on three sides around it.
When the terrain works against you
Army officials are still sorting through the details surrounding the battle at Keating, but the situation already sounds very similar to the fight at Wanat where COP Kahler occupied a large open field near the village and was surrounded by prominent ridges that approach 10,000 feet in peak elevation on the northwest, northeast, southeast and southwest.
One soldier candidly described COP Kahler as "being at the bottom of a bowl, surrounded by a whole lot of s— sandwich," according to a Cubbison's report.
Vietnam veterans such as Grange say they are all too familiar with this scenario. "The enemy had the dominant terrain," Grange said. "If you don't have the dominant terrain, you have to have cover or some way to ensure that [the enemy] can't use it against you."
Leaders had planned for a strong defense of the Wanat COP, including an exterior stone wall, fighting positions with overhead cover and four guard towers. But a lack of construction equipment meant only "minimal defenses" were in place the morning of the attack, Cubbison wrote.
Thomas Donnelly, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, believes the remote outposts in Wanat and Kamdesh districts likely were the results of previous successes elsewhere in eastern Afghanistan. "I think in both cases there was a certain tactical logic to being in the spots they were in," he said. "Somebody's always going to be in the most exposed position, regardless of where you are in particular."
To Thompson, however, the attacks at Kamdesh and Wanat demonstrate the lack of knowledge about the enemy U.S. forces face in Afghanistan, which is "very different" from Iraq — demographically, culturally and topographically, Thompson said.
"The terrain is harder, the cultural differences are more impenetrable, and our grasp of enemy dynamics is very incomplete," he said. "A key reason our counterinsurgency strategy worked in Iraq is that the population was fairly educated and they all spoke different versions of the same language. In Afghanistan, we face a population with a variety of different dialects and languages and most of that population is illiterate."
Scales said the attacks in Wanat and Kamdesh employed the same tactics enemy fighters have used for years, including in Vietnam. "This is nothing new," he said. "This is all part of how an enemy deals with fighting a western army in irregular war."
Scales believes the Army did learn lessons from the battle in Wanat.
"The question is do you have the resources to do something about it?" he said. "Because Afghanistan is so vast, the distances are so great and the troops available to man the outpost [are limited], you have to take some sort of tactical risk."
• http://www.airforcetimes.com/news/2009/10/airforce_mackay_trophy_b1b_102609w/">Air Force Times: Crew awarded Mackay Trophy for Wanat mission