Small Wars Journal

Army Report Finds Major COIN Failure

Wanat (VIII): An Army Report Finds a Major COIN Failure - Tom Ricks, Best Defense at Foreign Policy.

The Army's study of what happened in the Wanat battle a year ago in eastern Afghanistan is even harder on senior U.S. military commanders than I was in my series on it back in February, saying that they didn't understand counterinsurgency doctrine and also that some of their statements about the fight were misleading at best.

The report, which is still in draft form, contradicts a few aspects of the accounts provided by some of the senior officers involved, implicitly raising integrity questions. That's especially significant because two officials at Fort Leavenworth have told me that the Army inspector general's office is investigating how the Wanat incident was reported and reviewed. I also hear that congressional interest in the situation is growing.

The report, which has not been released and was written for the Army's Combat Studies Institute by military historian Douglas Cubbison, finds multiple failures by the battalion and brigade commanders involved...

... The report also is in awe of the bravery and persistence of the 42 soldiers and 3 Marines who fought at Wanat, as I am. I knew that some continued to fight after being hit several times. But I didn't know that one continued to pass ammunition even when he was mortally wounded.

I also think the Army deserves praise for having the honesty to have this report done. I am told that the final version will be released soon. Let's hope it isn't thrown out the back door at 5 pm on a Friday afternoon in August.

Much more at Best Defense.


Rick Bennett (not verified)

Fri, 01/21/2011 - 10:14am

Stop the vendettas? One man's vendetta is another man's political campaign.
While I will be the first to agree that it seems unfair to have one's efforts judged by those less trained in the military arts, the Constitution which we swore to uphold gives the ultimate confirmation of the status as an officer to elected officials. Ergo, one who feels he has been wronged by a shortcoming of a particular officer is entitled to influence the public and bring pressure upon his elected officials concerning the future career of said officer.
As for the fear this will make a more risk-averse Army, I prefer to hope that it will create a more thoughtful and literary Army, one in which the reasons and rationale are captured in diaries as officers are always preparing to defend themselves in the court of opinion. I think of the professional advantages to later generations when they can read of the burdens of everyday occurrence and appreciate how much there is to learn.


Wed, 12/29/2010 - 7:29pm

And now a very, very late note on a most interesting discussion.

1. Almost one year later, the enemy (we appear to change his initials and acronyms from engagement to engagement) conducted an almost mirror image assault against COP KEATING, also in that region, but a few very high ridgelines to the South. Same type of assault, similat casualties, same result - no complete overrun.
Also similarly, the force was about to cede the battlespace back to the enemy, and was at the end of a very, very long spear.

2. The Army CSI has released its final Wanat report, quite different than the Cubbison Draft. Interestingly, the two reports differ over tactical matters! The latter makes only passing account of the operational and strategic environment and CONOPs that the Draft eventually focuses on in its final assessment. Only two areas are found to be at fault in the final report: (a) scarce Intel assets that prevented use of UAVs the night of 12-13 July, and (b) questionable (damned by faint praise) decisions concerning the placement of the OP (Topside)by the dead platoon leader.

KAHLER was at the end of the long spear, and was by any account a distraction for higher command rather than a focus. There was no reasonable reason for KAHLER that late in the tour. Any major shift in tactical position should have been left to the replacement (TF DUKE) force to make.

Also, S-2/G-2 thinking should be questioned because they ignored enemy capability and focused on intention, and they planned against the most likely, not the most dangerous ECOA. Never underestimate your enemy!

I think it rather poor form to blame mechanics (scarce UAV support) and dead soldiers for the near-destruction of a unit.

But - and this is a personal observation based on long focused observations both close and far on senior leadership in the Army - the armed services and the informed public should expect nothing more from a professional military leadership that has learned to evade rather than embrace accountability and responsibility.

Our troops, marines, sailors and airmen deserve so much better.

(Author was veteran Army officer with some experience in the practical side of COIN and conventional operations, but long ago. He believes that while technology changes, wars - either regular or irregular - are fought by men and women, not machines however smart they may be.)

Bill M.

Wed, 12/29/2010 - 10:02pm

I'm very concerned that the new norm seems to be that some in our nation feel compelled to become arm chair quarterbacks and judges for our men's actions in combat. As Ken stated theyll never be able to see the battle from their eyes, and any attempt to do so will be flawed. If there are lessons to be learned then proceed down that path; but stop the vendettas.

I know some of the officers involved and have the upmost respect for their ability as officers, and more importantly for their character. They didn't carelessly throw mens lives away as some appear to imply. They're aggressive infantry officers that were given a dangerous mission that they executed. Superior officers order subordinates into combat and sometimes they won't return. Some will debate this, but I think ordering other into combat is harder than going yourself. War has always been that way. We should be understanding and supportive of grieving families, but refuse to pursue vendettas to find someone to blame. Our men already have a very tough job and their already carrying the burden of their combat losses; they shouldnt have to watch their backsides to defend themselves from attacks from their own people on the home front.

How much longer will our nation keep dragging some good officers over the coals over a perceived failure (it wasn't)? Not only is this unethical behavior, what message are we sending the force? Are we now rewarding risk adverse officers who manage FOBs instead of battles, or are we going to reward the fighters with deserved promotions? Which one is it? I see too many posts throughout SWJ by frustrated officers and NCOs that state they can't do their jobs due to the risk adverse climate in their command. Are the officers who establish the risk adverse climates being held accountable? Ultimately theyll be partially responsible for the loss of this war if it doesnt pan out, but instead we punish those who actually take risk and fight. Were encouraging weak officers to continue weak behavior because even if it isnt rewarded it isnt punished and were sending a message to strong officers to back off, dont get people hurt. Now we have a COL who should be a General Officer that is sidelined, while some milk toast officer takes his place. We'll paralyze our force if we continue down this path. If you want to know who is responsible for the deaths of our Soldiers it was the Taliban, and we were responsible for theirs. People, good people, die in war hopefully fighting for clear causes. War has always been a tragic endeavor that a nation should avoid unless there is not choice, but once they commit they need to fight to win. That is why we have an Army.

Anonymous (not verified)

Thu, 07/01/2010 - 7:52am

A friend of mine says that the investigation of the incident was done by a USMC general and is available as a result of a FOIA request by the platoon leader's father, a retired USA colonel. If the report is available then it would be interesting to see what it says.


Tue, 06/29/2010 - 10:10pm

Infantry CPT,

I've got no rebuttal to your points about Ostlund, since I was not under his tutelage at West Point. But as someone who did have interaction with COL Steele and the unit<strong>s</strong> he commanded, I will say that he should have been relieved much sooner and should not have ever gotten the opportunity to command 3/101. I only state that because you raised the issue. But, to ensure the discussion remains within the high standards of SWJ, I'll just preemptively add that this is all I will say on the matter of Steele or Ostlund. Hearsay and anecdotes are tough to reasonably discuss in this medium and I've added this solely as a counterpoint.

Former Inf Guy (not verified)

Tue, 06/29/2010 - 1:24pm

"COL Ostlund was an instructor when I was a cadet at West Point. Even then we knew that he was a zealot, a nut and a dangerous man."....In what sense a zealot and nut?

There are certain pathological personality types that the Army rewards. I personally recall a severely narcissistic 173rd BN CDR a few years back in Afghanistan.

Infantry CPT (not verified)

Mon, 06/28/2010 - 10:10pm

COL Ostland should never have been promoted and he should have been reprimanded, as recommended by the independent review. The man was a fool for dangling a subordinate platoon in a valley and trusting local contractors to provide logistics support. His stated arrogance about his enemy, the locals and the capabilities of his men shows that he is dangerous in command, but not to the enemy.

It is even more appaling that the protective society of colonels are willing to overlook COL Ostlund's fundamental failures as an infantry commander in favor of his well written and self-congratulatory essay. But that seems to be the way of it nowadays - make a good writeup of your battalion's efforts post-deployment and you can easily make it sound like your unit single-handedly saved the world. How many times did I read post-deployment write-ups from Iraq that made it sound like our battalion must have won the war, the hearts and the minds when none were the case? Three times; once for each deployment I was on to that country.

Wake up! What happened at Wanat was appalling and unnecessary. If a lieutenant or a captain left a squad in an indefensible position, without support and without checking on it in person, and that squad was rendered combat inneffective with 1/4 of it KIA, that company grade officer would have been relieved and sent to Division to never again see the light of day. But when a water-walking lieutenant colonel with all the right words does it, he is a misunderstood hero. Putting a unit next to some locals and calling it "COIN OPS" isn't. If that's COL Ostlund's understanding of COIN, then we must both fear his application of conventional and COIN tactics.

COL Ostlund was an instructor when I was a cadet at West Point. Even then we knew that he was a zealot, a nut and a dangerous man. The Army is so quick to crucify COL Steele because somehow his aggressiveness caused his men to commit crimes. But it won't do any justice to COL Ostlund when he clearly failed the men in his command.

Scott Shaw (not verified)

Mon, 08/03/2009 - 10:37pm

To Boatspace, read COL Ostlunds Mil Review article. Specifically, his comments on the bureaucracy that is getting money in Afghanistan (and Iraq for that matter was not easy either) on p 6, his comments on ROE on p 7 (the PID may mean "reasonable certainty not 'beyond reasonable doubt" is one that I hope was well explained not left to broad interpretation ), comments on "those that live with the population know COIN is not an impatient mans game; most operations proceed like a glacial thaw, and not all platoon, company, and battalion area thaw at the same speed" (p7), comments on gaps in the ANA capacity (When living and working with the population, leaders have to continuously gauge partner capacity and identify, understand, and appreciate gaps - p7), appreciation for the need to establish not only an effective ANP but more importantly an effective judicial and then detention system (p8), and finally the need to monitor discipline from the battalion level are what I expect in a Colonel of Infantry (or armor, field artillery, etc - dont want to slight my brothers and sisters.)

So I am glad that the Army saw fit to promote COL Ostlund.

IntelTrooper (not verified)

Mon, 08/03/2009 - 8:57pm

I think this:
<i>I've read a lot of After Action and Historical reports -- I have yet to see one that accurately reported a major contact of which I had personal knowledge.</i>
-- should put the whole matter in perspective. Thank you, Ken.

Ken White (not verified)

Mon, 08/03/2009 - 8:13pm

Fruitless argument. We weren't there and cannot know. Thus any firm statements are suspect. At best...

<b>Herschel</b>, you may be right on the ANA unit -- I say unit because I suspect that ANA is like the US Army or the USMC and everyone of the dozen or so Armed Forces I've seen and worked with, it has good units and bad units. You should at least consider that you may also be wrong in this case and acknowledge that no matter how much effort you've put into researching the action, that research is all based on hearsay.

I've seen both Marine and Army units, to include my vaunted Airborne, fail abjectly in combat. Anybody can have a bad day. In any event whether any ANA died is not a good basis on which to make the rather sweeping statements you made, nor is the disparity in wounded. Location, cover available and target of larger volumes of enemy fire directed may well be the determinant there. I've recall one two Platoon firefight versus a Company plus where one Platoon took over 20 casualties and the other two WIA and one KIA. Luck of combat imponderables.

You say:<blockquote>When I see further data to this extent, it doesn't prove my point. I already believe the point.
I give this kind of data regarding the ANA more importance than you are willing to</blockquote>Well, all that's certainly your prerogative. FWIW folks I've talked to who've fought with 'em say they're a mixed bag; some pretty good, some less so. Just as every other Armed Force. All units are not equal. Never have been.

As an aside, I'd suggest you not put too much stock in 'metrics.' Applying numbers to warfare is unwise. 'Data' is someone's opinion. Trying to apply those to the analysis of combat actions elsewhere and even hours ago, much less weeks or months is a sure fire route to erroneous conclusions. I've read a lot of After Action and Historical reports -- I have yet to see one that accurately reported a major contact of which I had personal knowledge.

And I'll take a final stab as well. I'm not certain that your statement is so.

Many of the nine died attempting to relieve Top Side into a hail of automatic weapons fire. I'm not sure that the ANA would have done that based on the assessment of their capabilities prior to the operation. You assume they would have. I am also not certain that it is a valid comparison. The ANA wouldn't have been assigned to Top Side to begin with.

And of the nine dead, Top Side accounts for most. This doesn't address the disparity in wounded (27 v. 5), most of which occurred at the VPB.


Mon, 08/03/2009 - 5:46pm

One more stab at what I thought was a fairly non-controversial point. If there had been ANA manning OP Topside, instead of Americans, then they would have died instead. I think that supersedes everything else. Again, not disputing the conclusion - just the relationship with the data.

No ANA dead, five wounded. Nine U.S. dead, twenty seven wounded.

IntelTrooper (not verified)

Mon, 08/03/2009 - 4:54pm

If I recall correctly, there were 4 ANA killed and 4 wounded. Can anyone confirm/deny?

I don't see eye to eye with you on this. I am well aware of the eight of nine who perished that night defending OP Top Side, or attempting to relieve it. But if engagements degenerate into U.S. defends U.S., ANA defends ANA, then that is meaningful data.

If I was a CO, I would want to know this metric. There were also a number of wounded, 27, and most of them were U.S. rather than ANA.

I wasn't attempting to engage in deductive reasoning. Based on the data that I have seen, my presupposition is that the ANA is relatively unreliable. When I see further data to this extent, it doesn't prove my point. I already believe the point. The data merely comports with and helps to evaluate the consistency of the model. One is deductive, the other is inductive with a continual re-evaluation of the model.

I give this kind of data regarding the ANA more importance than you are willing to. Again, if I was headed out on a patrol with or garrisoned at a VPB with ANA, I would want to know metrics like this.


Mon, 08/03/2009 - 12:55pm

My beef was with the reasoning of 0 ANA KIA + 9 US KIA = unreliable ANA. Like I said, the conclusion might be correct for other reasons. Brostrom's comments before the battle are a little more persuasive.


I appreciate the perspective, but this is only one metric out of many. 1 Lt. Brostrom stated that the ANA he was taking with him he considered not to count towards combat power.




Mon, 08/03/2009 - 7:23am

I disagree that comparing the number of US vs ANA killed is an indicator of whether the ANA could be trusted or useful. I have only read what is available in the public domain about this battle, so maybe some new information might support that conclusion, but the reasoning is flawed. I have done my share of joint patrols with local security forces (in my case, Iraqis). When a situation deteriorates quickly the American advisers stop mentoring and just take over. Otherwise, you're fighting the enemy and the language barrier. It is also worth noting that most of the casualties occurred at OP Topside. There were no ANA on that OP that I am aware of.

Ken, I appreciate your perspective, but it's worthwhile noting that while nine U.S. Soldiers died that night, no ANA did. That's a sign of how much the ANA platoon could be trusted in combat. Essentially, it was only the U.S. present at the VPB. The ANA might as well have not been there. It's a continuation of the drug addiction, ineptitude and lack of leadership in the ANA (holistic problems, not to say that each one of these problems affected that specific unit).

IntelTrooper (not verified)

Mon, 08/03/2009 - 1:46am

Good points, Ken, especially regarding risk. Unfortunately, no number of considerations, check lists, or PowerPoint slides (submitted 72 hours in advance) can remove the element of danger.

As your examples show, sometimes even breaking the "rules" (whatever those are according to the ruling regime) can be the right thing to do and bring success.

By the way, you're right about the number of ANA. Depending on the day, they could have been an important asset. :-| I haven't heard anything specific though.

Ken White (not verified)

Sun, 08/02/2009 - 11:31pm

Can't comment in any detail on Wanat, wasn't there.

I can comment on the Kilcullen suggestions -- I agree with them. I also strongly doubt the US Army is capable of doing that because they are constantly being prodded by the Government to 'do something.'

Like the US Government or just the US Congress, when the Army believes they have to 'do something even if its wrong' it generally will be. We're an impatient nation so the practical result of the Kilcullen guidance will effectively be 'noted' and we will continue to bumble and rush the cadence.

In Viet Nam, for some time, there was a four star edict that no US unit would ever operate outside the range of covering US Artillery. The Brigade I was in elected to ignore that. I was glad they did, we pulled of several good and effective operations by totally ignoring that directive. A lot of Artillerists would be amazed at how much HE a 4.2" Mortar Platoon (today's 120s -- or even 81s) can place where it's needed.

A Platoon sized COP can be tactically sound in most situations. Without having been there -- even reports and investigations will never get it right -- I certainly cannot say in this case. However, as I understand it, there was also an ANA Platoon, a total of 70 plus troops. A fair sized force with a lot of backup airpower.

It's been my observation that the guys actually on the ground generally get it more right than the hindsight crowd. However, there is always a question of the wisdom of placing a couple of Platoons out on a limb. Sometimes, it seems appropriate.

Doing that would indicate acceptance of a degree of risk. That's good because.

War is risk...

IntelTrooper (not verified)

Sun, 08/02/2009 - 2:13pm

Konar 2007-2008:

Perhaps I'm misunderstanding, but are you saying that placing an undermanned, undersupported platoon in a partially-completed VPB, in hostile territory is tactically sound?

<i>A balace is reached with a platoon sized element with regards to maintaining a positive and more intimate relationship with the locals. There is no question that this was a tactically sound decision. This decision does not constitute neglect and and represents resonable consideration of COIN objectives. This balance is required in order to facillitate reconstruction efforts with the cooperation of the local populace.</i>

This all just reminds me of counsel from Dr. Kilcullen:
<i> Start easy. If you were trained in maneuver warfare you know about surfaces and gaps. This applies to counterinsurgency as much as any other form of maneuver. Dont try to crack the hardest nut first--dont go straight for the main insurgent stronghold, try to provoke a decisive showdown, or focus efforts on villages that support the insurgents.
Instead, start from secure areas and work gradually outwards. Do this by extending your influence through the locals own networks. Go with, not against, the grain of local society: first win the confidence of a few villages, and then see who they trade, intermarry or do business with. Now win these people over. Soon enough the showdown with the insurgents will come. But now you have local allies, a mobilized population and a trusted network at your back. Do it the other way round and no one will mourn your failure.</i>

Konar 2007-2008 (not verified)

Sun, 08/02/2009 - 5:29am

I haven't read all of the posts, so bear with me if I am repeating any key points already mentioned in previous posts.

I happened to serve with the 173rd at a capacity where I had a broad perspective of the Battle Space.

I would like to start with this: at present, there are no publications (with the exception of the lessons learned, as authored by COL Ostland) that give solid guidance on how to conduct COIN operations specifically Kunar Province. Konar Province is a unique operating environment both in combat and civil reconstruction operations.

In COL Ostlund's defense, I believe that his methods (although perceived as harsh) were effective in communicating a show of force, and an intention of utilizing it. This is a critical objective in Konar Province as these perceptions on the part of both the local populace and of the enemy are identical and equally important. Additionally, this doctrine was generated by the 2/503rd by taking into account of the tactical and strategic failures suffered by task forces preceding them.

For example, if we are viewed as weak by the local populace, our abilities of gaining the confidence of the locals will be severely hampered. This is as critical as conveying our intentions of destroying our enemies in agressive engagements, the objective of which is self-explanitory.

The most important concept of COIN operations is this: "insurgencies" are as unique as our fingerprints, every one is different. In Konar Province, this proves very true. Therefore, it is absolutely impossible to be successful in COIN by applying a cookie cutter approach when analyzing a specific strategy, namely the one used by COL Ostlund.

That being said, the experience in Konar Province should not serve as an example in "How not to conduct COIN operations" but rather, a lesson on how we should be more fluid and dynamic in our tactical and civil engagements.

Should accountability lie with COL Ostlund? The answer is no. The failures are only realized upon conclusion of the battle, where hindsight is always 20/20. The notion of manning a FOB with little less than a platoon is common practice in that region, representing a key tactic in COIN operations in Konar Province. These practices are adopted in order to prevent further problems with the local populace with a large scale occupation and build up of major bases in sensitive locations.

A balace is reached with a platoon sized element with regards to maintaining a positive and more intimate relationship with the locals. There is no question that this was a tactically sound decision. This decision does not constitute neglect and and represents resonable consideration of COIN objectives. This balance is required in order to facillitate reconstruction efforts with the cooperation of the local populace.

While I feel heartfelt sorrow and pain for my fallen Sky Soldiers, I am convinced that any deviation from this approach would have resulted in far more coalition casualties resulting from a breakdown in the few relationships we have left with the local populace.

Niel (not verified)

Thu, 07/30/2009 - 11:22pm


I'm just going to weigh in with one comment:

The battle was an IO failure because, in the end, the perception given was that if you attack a US base ostensibly set up to engage and protect the population, and cause severe casualties, it will be withdrawn. Whatever small chance we had of gaining the trust and confidence of the citizens of Wanat was lost when we pulled out. We should have stayed there, and shown perseverance to the population.

If they don't think you can protect them, they won't give you any chance to win their acquiescence. That is, unless you become the thug, which we aren't willing (or able) to do, for mostly good reasons.

I won't engage in the good/bad COIN debate over this because I don't know enough details, but I have plenty of speculation. I will agree (for different reasons) that on the surface it appears that it was a checklist approach to COIN, which works about as well as a checklist approach to HIC.


Wed, 07/29/2009 - 6:58am

<p>Just one last thought...</p>
<p>This was a fight between guerrillas and Soldiers. Were any civilians killed? Were they made less secure than before the VPB was established? If no, then what does any of this have to do with whether a COIN campaign was being implemented? This was a firefight that is being critiqued according to some nebulous COIN criteria. Does it seem weird that some select details about this report were released as evidence of a "COIN failure?" Leaks or "sneak peeks" like this are usually put out there for a reason - either to get a head start on spinning the issue or as a trial balloon to see the reaction. What is the rest of the story?</p>
<p>In regard to my previous comment, <a href="">I couldn't resist</a>.</p>

Phillip Ridderhof (not verified)

Tue, 07/28/2009 - 8:41pm

I haven't seen the report, but I did find this report on Kunar and Nuristan that was recently posted at the Institute for the Study of War (a pretty good site itself):
What I liked about this report was that it extended the conversation beyond the battalion or BCT, or just the Wanat engagement, and painted the overall situation. Similar to Col. Gentile, I'm leery of how "population-centric" and COIN are being uttered in the same breath. Its not that its wrong, but it is quickly becoming dogma. Its sort of like working a math problem. if you can show your work on how you get to the conclusion, you really don't understand why you are doing the things you are doing and you cannt react to changes in the situation. I'm also troubled that population-centric is coming to not only represent securing the population, but prescribing a very specific way to secure the population--to be right there on top and among them. I think that's one valid approach, but this report (and I have to take it at face value) seems to indicate that holding high ground and sealing the border was just as important or else the coalition forces would remain hunkered down.
I do not sense a phenomenon of "getting it" or not "getting it" at the tactical level of COIN, it was attempting to accomplish a mission with a certain amount of troops, in a certain type of terrain, against a certain type of enemy. I don't agree with all of the choices made by the battalion commanders (and 2/503 is not the center of this report), but I believe that they were driven, to a great degree, by the situation at hand. Given a general mission to secure the population in an area, are we saying there is only one method, and it involves a hard&fast ratio of troops-to-population, or troops-to-insurgents for a point-type defense?
In Col. Ostlund's Military Review article, he states up front that the terrain, enemy and population did not support a Clear-Hold-Build approach. If that was the expectation of his higher headquarters, then he was set up to fail in the first place.
The report itself echo's the CNAS "Triage" report that we might just be working in some of the wrong areas, given our overall weakness to execute a "classic" COIN campaign throughout the country.

Ken White (not verified)

Tue, 07/28/2009 - 1:47pm

I'm unsure that I'd quote Ricks on much of anything but since it was provided, it was indeed silly. The 'COIN' mantra has gotten overdone to the point where those who believe it is a necessary skill will lose all credibility if they do not get sensible. So Gian's religion tag <i>is</i> becoming accurate. That is not good.

Slab said it well:<blockquote>"I wonder that if by assuming greater risk and putting themselves in a vulnerable position, the TF ROCK soldiers did the people of Wanat even less good than if they had established a more suitable defensive position more removed from the population."</blockquote>Focusing on the wrong objectives and ignoring proven tactical methods to support processes which seem wonderful in theory but which quite difficult in practice is a guaranteed route to failure on several levels.

As Michael C. says:<blockquote>"However, I refuse to believe that the report can both critique Chosen Company's performance in the Battle of Wanat and criticize COL Ostlund's entire train up and performance of COIN throughout their fifteen month deployment. <b>They seem to be two completely separate issues</b> and I have a feeling Mr. Cubbison's conclusions are not supported by a single battle. Whether or not Wanat was a failure, what the 2-503rd did throughout an entire deployment in an AO that would have been extremely kinetic no matter how much COIN went on." (Emphasis added)</blockquote>The probability that such a report accurately captures all the efforts of the unit or even of that battle is quite slim. Such reports are beneficial but few are nearly as accurate as many seem to or wish to believe. Firefights get a little chaotic and adrenalin does its thing with the mind.

The new Religionists may be well advised to use King James as a cautionary. You can convene a group of scholars and write a 'new' Bible and just omit the things you do not like and modify others to suit. However, if <u>everyone</u> -- particularly your opponents -- isn't using your Bible as <i>the</i> word, confusion at a minimum may result...

To add the report or the Battle of Wanat as a verse to the new Bible is quite probably a mistake. To attempt to make it into a Chapter -- or the premise for a new book -- is even more so.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Tue, 07/28/2009 - 10:37am

Hello Schmedlap:

Very, very perceptive post: To be sure not in any way about me and your very funny riff on ML, the Pope, and the theses being nailed to a wall. LOL!

But the perceptiveness of your post, to me, really hones in on the notion that if Coin (population centric counterinsurgency) is to be done correctly it requires full commitment (or to riff in a different movie-like direction citing JD Ripper and "Total Commitment"). There can be, as the Coin religion dictates, no middle ground, no options, no alternatives; in effect it demands a very prescriptive set of tactical and operational methods that always end up being in one form or another that of "clear, hold, build." And it does require a certain theory that links causes to effects to be believed that it works in practice. So when battalions like Ostlunds do not show indicators from their side that they are performing these causative actions correctly, they are judged to be failures at Coin.

Population Centric Counterinsurgency seeks to construct a framework of total war within an age of limits imposed by nuclear weapons. How else can one view the process and desired outcome of population centric counterinsurgency as anything else but total? The changing of entire societies through its processes, nation-building, how much more total can one become? A prominent Coin expert last year in an obscure book review called for "total war" against Al Queda and the reorienting of national institutions toward that object. Giddy-up!!

Problem is as I see it, and to get back to Schmedlaps perceptive post, is that strategy demands the allocation of resources for military operations to achieve political goals. In strategy, therefore, the fundamental problem is to consider alternatives then chose, and then align means with ends. In Afghanistan we seem to be pursuing an almost "total commitment" with population centric counterinsurgency there (as Tom Rickss post highlights when he says that to do Coin right you have to be doing a "full court press," hence the totality of it all) but without a total commitment by the nation: a dysfunctional strategy it seems to me to be.

And within this dysfunction allows the emergence of Coin tactics and operations to dictate strategy to the point now where we truly have a strategy of Coin tactics and principles in Afghanistan, in the absence of strategy.


Tue, 07/28/2009 - 4:41am

<p>Tom Ricks has unwittingly revealed COL Gentile to be a prescient fortune teller. COIN is now officially a religion. I'm waiting for people to start putting it on their ID tags. Any day now. This passage from Ricks's blog particularly astounds me...</p>
<blockquote><em>"Counterinsurgency can't be conducted piecemeal. You are either doing the full-court press -- or you are not doing counterinsurgency. Just dropping troops into a hostile neighborhood is not COIN."</em> - <a href="…;
<p>I'm curious if this applies to other types of warfare. If one is not doing a combined arms operation full-court press, then is it not a combined arms operation? What is it about COIN that leads people to believe that if what you're doing works, then it is COIN, but if what you're doing doesn't work, then it is something else?</p>
<p>Is COIN doctrine a proclamation from the infallible Pope? COL Gentile may be the Martin Luther of our day. Will he nail his theses to the front door of Thayer Hall or the front door of CNAS?</p>


Sir, you have given us much to think about and I appreciate the clarification. Thank you.

Best regards,


nd (not verified)

Tue, 07/28/2009 - 2:36am

Hersch, I think you basically hit the key issues with your post, but I want to clarify a couple things.

1. Due to the lack of forces, Wanat had to be constructed essentially in conjunction with the dismantling of COP Bella, located a few kilometers north. This significantly increased the rotary wing lift requirements and the overall complexity of the operation. In fact, the operation was delayed well into the Brigade's RIP/TOA because CJTF-101 could not support the rotary wing requirements (another lesson learned).

In addition, the construction of a COP in a narrow valley nearly surrounded by 8-10k ft mountains is significantly different than occupying an abandoned walled compound in the relatively flat terrain of southern Farah Province. There are significant lessons learned from the placement and defense of the COP, but it's not comparable to the current fight in RC-South.

2. Nobody likes to believe it, but the vast majority, if not all of enemy fighters at Wanat and the two previous major engagements at Aranas Bridge and the Ranchhouse were local Waigalis. Its a culturally insular, non-Pashtun community not located along any infiltration route or near areas of interest for the traditional "Taliban."

Videos captured after the previous attacks (some are on Liveleak I believe) in the valley show a talented enemy conducting detailed planning including the construction of terrain models and rehearsals. Most individuals and certainly the leaders in the videos could be distinctly identified as from the villages of the Waigal Valley. Bill Roggio and others love to suggest that such effective attacks could never be orchestrated by dumb Afghans and therefore must be the work of the legendary, if not mythical Al Qaeda "055 Brigade" or Chechens, but centuries of Afghan military effectiveness suggests otherwise.

Building upon Robs comments, I think we havent well defined what we hope to achieve with our presence in the Waigal Valley, much like the vaunted Korengal only 17 kilometers to the south. Its hard to leave a valley where 20+ American lives have been lost in its defense, but ultimately, if you try to secure everywhere in Afghanistan, youre going to end up securing nothing. If we dont want to lose the entire country, the hard decisions to reallocate based on priorities must be made.



Your comment above is similar to the one you left at my own analysis of the battle of Wanat. I appreciate the perspective and agree with your [brief] assessment (and also agree with Gian's comments - I usually do).

While I am still reading the study (in fact, I am not yet half way through), I suppose my perspective on it is as follows:

(1) First, I had the study a while back, but chose not to release it or comment on it, not even referring to it in a blog post (this may change now that it has gone public). While the historical facts of the engagement are more than a little interesting to me (having put so much effort into a study of this particular battle and things that led to it), the report engages in lessons learned that do get a bit personal, and I don't entirely agree with the some of them. I do believe in the right of the historian to engage in his art and bring his own presuppositions to the table. That's good historiography. But when it redounds to affect on careers like this could, that's another issue. I won't publicly chide Ricks for "outing the study." I'll just say that also being in possesion of a copy of the study, it's a choice I rejected. It's not just that I would have made another choice. Sometimes bloggers are in possession of the same sources reporters are. I actually did make another choice and kept quiet about it.

(2) I agree with your assessment. There are a number of tactical failures, in my opinion. The first and biggest is the lack of control over the physical terrain, viz. OP Top Side. Most of the men who perished that night did so either at Top Side or attempting to relieve Top Side. Your comment at my blog and above are spot on. There was a risk associated with having created this VPB and OP, and they didn't sufficiently mitigate that risk. Another failure was in the negotiation with tribal elders in this area for almost one year prior to emplacement of this VPB. These tribal elders didn't want to be seen negotiating with the U.S., and in fact requested that the U.S. just come in and do it without their "approval." Population-centric COIN ruling the day, however, caused our lethargy, and after having negotiated this VPB for a year, the Taliban had managed to do what they have done in other engagements: mass troops to near Battalion size force. COIN doctrine might have harmed us in this instance. What the tribal elders really wanted be damned, we were going to get their approval for the VPB no matter how long it took.

My friend Niel Smith will have to give me some latitude here, because my next point has nothing per se to do with Marines v. Army or any kind of internecine rivalry (this is just the quickest easiest example I know of). I am certain that both the Marines and Army have started COPs just like the example below:…

It's simply another paradigm on how to do this. For Wanat, they negotiated for a year. In the example above, it happened overnight and the locals were told the next day why it was done. I prefer the later model instead of the former.

(3) Please see the last page of Col. Ostlund's paper for a rundown of kinetic engagements and other contact.

Now. Whereas the author of the study also discussed this in detail, he concluded that the sheer magnitude of kinetics v. the softer side of COIN caused a debilitating affect on the campaign:

"TF Rock was unable to provide commensurate statistics for Shuras conducted, VETCAPS and MEDCAPS performed, quantities of Humanitarian Supplies distributed, economic development projects initiated, schools constructed, or similar economic, political and diplomatic initiatives."

I think that this misses the point. Once again, I believe that a single focus (tipping the hat to Clausewitz) in a campaign is misguided. I believe in lines of effort, kinetics being one of them. There is no reason to place protecting the population (or other soft parts of COIN) over against killing the enemy, no matter what the current COIN cult-like mantra says. It isn't a rational approach. Further, such an approach doesn't allow for phases of a campaign (e.g., heavy kinetics early on, followed by more government- and population-centric lines of effort later after security has been established, if that is in fact what works in a particular instance).

(4) I believe that comparisons of this unit's particular engagement with the previous unit's work are faulty for the simple reason that the Pakistani "treaty" with Baitullah in South Waziristan allowed a congregation of anti-Afghan forces in this and adjacent areas, thus leading to the rapid influx of fighters just prior to and alongside the deployment of Rock.

I have so much more to say about this issue that it cannot possibly be said here. I'll save it for another day and perhaps a blog post. But suffice it to say that I am not convinced that any lessons learned have anything to do with failure to apply the principles of COIN. I believe that while the individual who has done this study is quite a scholar indeed, he might be drawing lessons that perhaps I would not draw. And I think that Ricks is drawing the wrong lessons from it.

As I will say every time I discuss these men, in summary I will comment on what remarkable bravery these men displayed throughout their deployment. They are heros one and all. While I might comment from a position of safety on how long it took to open VPB Wanat and the physical location of OP Top Side, I will also comment that I have the utmost respect for each and every one of these men. God bless them one and all. They make America proud. They make me proud.


Mon, 07/27/2009 - 3:27pm

COL Gentile,
As I have yet to read the study, I am curious if it addresses the tactical disposition of the VPB and its associated OP? After reading the initial 15-6, and listening to a brief from COL Ostlund to MCCC and BOLC students, I can't help but feel that the mantra of "population-centric" helped lead to the platoon's dire situation. They gave up control of the dominant physical terrain in order to locate next to the population center, and suffered the consequences when the enemy occupied the high ground. I feel like some of the basic tactical lessons of this engagement are getting drowned out in the shouting match over whether or not TF ROCK "got" COIN. I think the Army, and the ground combat community as a whole, needs to take another look at this from the perspective of when leaders should assume risk in their unit's defensive posture in order to be "population-centric". I wonder that if by assuming greater risk and putting themselves in a vulnerable position, the TF ROCK soldiers did the people of Wanat even less good than if they had established a more suitable defensive position more removed from the population.

Anonymous (not verified)

Sun, 07/26/2009 - 11:54pm

Reading it and looking at the map provided by nd, I have to wonder about what guidance from higher was provided to the various commands about an AOR like this.

What were the expectations of ISAF and CJTF RC EAST that the BDE would accomplish? What was the CMD endstate envisioned for their deployment that the BDE and its subordinates would nest their own in?

What metrics in terms of desired changes in conditions for specific villages, local security forces, key individuals, etc. were provided from their higher for them to develop a plan that was feasible, acceptable and sustainable? What were the reporting requirements on the metrics that might reflect the desired changes in conditions?

I'd consider what COL Gentile has to say on this one ref. the process of historical analysis. It seems to me there might be some Wanat's out there that could happen even when you think you are doing everything right but because it might not be enough of what was right, or it might be that the enemy decided he was going to do more than you they may happen anyway.

Unless there was specific guidance that was well understood by the various commands as to what the real problem was in the area, what conditions needed to be changed in order to get after the problem, and what tasks would be best to affect those conditions, then targeting a single BDE or a single BN seems like we are really avoiding the real issue(s).

I read the Mil Review article, the final couple of paragraphs left me wondering about how we measure effort, sacrifice and success. I can't say if these are indicative of what that CDR was handed, but I do wonder. It seems to me had there been some specific guidance as to what mission success looked like in that AOR, then those paragraphs may have read differently.

More broadly I think it may be a systemic problem, not of failure at COIN, but of doing the hard work to identify and understand problems that cannot be approached in a uniform, templated manner, and which occasionally require us to slow down, do less and sometimes even decide if the problem is such that its beyond our current means. Knowing that the "clock" is ticking, and knowing our aversion for saying "no" at all levels (after all we know what happens when someone says "no"), I might offer that perhaps the clock can be extended by doing the right things correctly at the right tempo. This by the way is not a burden the BCT or its subordinates should be taking on (except for their piece), but one that is owed to them in predeployment and throughout their time on the ground I think.

Just from reading what is out there, I think the failures we should really be looking for are the systemic ones which created the conditions, and some of those probably go back further in time then just this unit's time on the ground, and beyond a valley in Afghanistan. I hope this does not turn into a "witch hunt" for a failure at COIN. Instead I hope this helps us look at what is really required at all levels to support the folks on the ground with the best guidance and understanding required to help solve the right problems by changing the right set of conditions and ensuring we are doing the right tasks.

Best, Rob

gian p gentile (not verified)

Sun, 07/26/2009 - 8:40pm


But it does, which is the problem with the study. As I said recently in my critique to the author of the study (and which I posted above on this thread) there is much value to the study. It is excellent for a detailed description of the sequencing of actions that led to the engagement and to the engagement itself. Most importantly, the study brings out clearly the bravery, skill, and fighting prowess of the men of Chosen Company who were in action at Wanat.

But as I have been saying, it is deeply marred by the other half of it which argues that the battalion failed at Coin, yet does not have the primary evidence to prove that assertion.

Michael C

Sun, 07/26/2009 - 11:02am

As some of the commentors to this specific section know, I was in the ROCK, 2nd-503rd during OEF VIII. I primarily want to thank COL Gentile for this line:

"First, the narrative portion reads like a hatchet job against Ostlund and parts of his subordinate leadership. It reads as if you are putting him in the docket and have him on trial, and have then judged him to be guilty of a failure at Coin."

As the report has not been released, I can only speculate on what it contains. However, I refuse to believe that the report can both critique Chosen Company's performance in the Battle of Wanat and criticize COL Ostlund's entire train up and performance of COIN throughout their fifteen month deployment. They seem to be two completely separate issues and I have a feeling Mr. Cubbison's conclusions are not supported by a single battle. Whether or not Wanat was a failure, what the 2-503rd did throughout an entire deployment in an AO that would have been extremely kinetic no matter how much COIN went on.

Kevin R.C. O'Brien (not verified)

Fri, 07/24/2009 - 6:36pm

The problem with the COIN-centric critique of this operation, and it's a problem with almost everything that comes out of the armchair wallahs and McNamara whiz-kid wannabees at CNAS, is that it assumes that our friendly units are the only actors and that everything is a reaction to them.

Not so. As non-armchair wallahs know, the enemy has a vote. Between the end of 2001 and the events at Wanat the enemy situation changed enormously -- for one thing, he has been granted an essentially inviolable sanctuary, certainly as secure as North Vietnam was, and he has been able to tend his logistics unmolested in that sanctuary. Not surprisingly, areas where one could wander about on his own with a handgun and a native friend or two are now teeming with hostile forces. This puts a crimp in one's COIN possibilities.

Certainly the Nuristan AO was well understood by intel elements and human terrain advisors, not to mention Special Forces and other human-oriented assets. The physical and human terrain are a bear. (The only successful conquest of Nuristan I'm aware of was by Abdurrahman in the 19th Century, but various armies have forced passage over the centuries). I would be astonished if this information was not actively sought out and taken on board by then-LTC Ostlund and his leaders. I have always found Army and Marine leaders at all levels keen to learn and absorb all they can about local populations.

Finally, even if we were to take COIN theory as ex cathedra dogma (as Ricks et al. would have us do), the fundamental bedrock of successful COIN is security. You cannot deliver services or even security to the population when large enemy units roam unchecked. Further, security hinges upon logistics as much or more than it does upon feats of arms. (And commanders in theater are publicly reported to have been told, "no mas" by the NCA).

As a thought exercise, put yourself in the thinking cap of that enemy commander. What would you fear? What would you try to disrupt? What is your opportunity?

j2hess (not verified)

Fri, 07/24/2009 - 4:57pm

First let me acknowledge to LTC Gentile and many others here that your experience on the ground gives you knowledge and authority that I will never have, and commend your willingness to engage in this discussion with me.

Second, I am not big on religious dogma whether it comes from a cathedral or a war college. Once doctrine turns into dogma it dies and looses its value - particularly when your mission depends on it and lives are on the line.

Gentile has it right - you can do everything by the COIN book and have no guarantee the it will bring people to the government. People have to believe the government has legitimacy. People have adhered to movements that were likely to get them killed - there is no necessary connection between security and legitimacy. Security enables people to work with the government if they view it as legitimate but it doesn't cause people to view the government as legitimate.

Legitimacy, in many if not most cases, is an over-the-hill objective. I prefer Petraeus' more limited formulation: my goal is at the end of the day there are fewer people willing to risk their life to kill me that there were at the beginning.

Building infrastructure, re-opening shops and schools, enlisting local cops - this reduces COIN from a strategy to a laundry list. I never meant to imply that Gentile's commitment or efforts were shallow. Rather, what is being peddled on the street as COIN seems shallow, if Gentile accurately describes the COIN doctrine.

That one of Gentile's men was killed by a sniper while providing security for a street crew, however, doesn't discredit COIN. It is not designed to protect the lives of our soldiers. The more you succeed, the more of a threat you are to the insurgents, and the more they will attempt to discourage you. And I rather suspect that in the bigger picture he succeeded more than he here admits.

Gentile says "I am not hostile to Coin, I am hostile to the religion that has been built around it that accepts a half-baked theory ..." Sir, if COIN is a half-baked theory, it deserves your hostility, and I will be happy to second you.

The great military minds don't offer dogma, they model a strategic way of thinking about your mission and how to achieve it. The COIN manual shouldn't be regarded as more than a tool to provoke you to think strategically. (I can say that, not being subject to the chain of command.)

You don't plan an operation without assessing the terrain. In COIN, the human terrain is what matters. Did anybody map the human terrain before planning the operations in the Waygal valley? If not, it wasn't COIN. If the US forces didn't have the preparation and resources to do COIN, how many times do we have to prove that playing wack-a-mole is worse than useless?


You make an interesting point about the statement on ROE. I will note though that the enemy wasn't engaged early on when deploying to attack COP Kahler even though they had been detected.

Ken, as always, I appreciate the perspective of an old horse like yourself who has seen a thousand times what I will ever see. I don't want to hog the discussion, so any further comments I have will be limited to my own blog. By I'll conclude by saying that I disagree concerning your assessment of the value or worth of the discussion. For a web site which discusses (and perhaps even molds) strategy, I frankly cannot imagine a more fruitful and salient conversation topic than the viability of indigenous forces. Fruitless? Not by a long shot, even if you disagree with my approach or my selection of data or its interpretation.

Ken White (not verified)

Tue, 08/04/2009 - 5:49pm


I did not say that discussion of the viability of indigenous forces was fruitless. It is a very valid topic.

What I did say was that discussion of <u>this Wanat firefight</u> in terms of absolutes was fruitless as none of us were there and we can only guess, we cannot know.

I also said that in my observation, the guys on the ground tended to get it right more often than do the kibitizers, and phrased somewhat differently, that war isn't like anything else I've ever experienced -- you can do everything 'right' and still lose; you can do everything 'wrong' and still win. Clausewitz called it friction, it has a host of other names but whatever one calls it -- my combat imponderables -- it exists and cannot be discounted.

There are few absolutes.

Phil Ridderhof (not verified)

Tue, 08/04/2009 - 11:02pm

I agree that going over the Battle of Wanat is interesting and will most likely become a book (or several books) in the next few years. However, beyond recounting the bravery of soldiers and the tactical lessons, I beleive that Ken is correct that we could argue endlessly over it and come no nearer to the "truth."

What I believe is useful is the case study aspect for looking at a COIN campaign in this terrain and population, and against this enemy--the decisions that drove us to Wanat and other sharp engagments. I repeat my earlier question: What do you do if you don't have the security forces in sufficient numbers to provide the close in protection of the population? Is there some way to achieve something like forward progress by going on the offensive in the hills, or do we just take an economy of force approach where we don't have the resources? What are the options?

Economy of force is what I'm hearing (I've heard that GEN McCrystal talked of giving up some areas), but we historically haven't done that well--its hard to send servicemen into harms way over an extended period of time for what we know is just a holding action. It doesn't play well with morale and it doesn't play well with public opinion. It would be even worse in this type of fight to wholesale substitute fires for ground forces in a certain area. We tend to start out with the best of intentions to limit the resources, but we end up pouring more and more--maybe not to the degree where we really change the situation, but enough so we appear to be doing better and, more importantly, we deny resources to stated main efforts.

j2hess (not verified)

Thu, 07/23/2009 - 8:09pm

Is this valley somehow different from others in this part of Afghanistan? The import of several comments seems to be that COIN is simply not feasible. But - here the argument seems to imply that it is the physical geography that rules out COIN, ignoring altogether any account of the human geography that concerns COIN.

Gentile is hostile to COIN and patronizing of the locals: "You seem to accept without question that if a combat outfit is nice to the locals, if it buys them things, if it says nice things about them .... my own personal experience suggests to me that one can be nice, build bridges, understand culture, etc and bad things still happen."

Of course! People act in their own perceived self-interest; a shallow show of niceness or a bridge won't change that. Turn the formulation of COIN on its head: how can you make it their self-interest to protect YOU?

If you can't figure that out, your best course is to build yourself a little frontier fort and hole up in it until your relief comes. You won't do any good, but you won't do much damage either.

Boatspace (not verified)

Thu, 07/23/2009 - 6:50pm

Good commanders recognize when they've been handed an untenable mission and see to it their subordinate units are at least provided the best organic support they can be given, which doesn't seem to be the case in this instance at Wanat, as I understand it.

Ostlund has been advanced to Colonel? I don't find that reassuring.

IntelTrooper (not verified)

Thu, 07/23/2009 - 4:23pm


<i>So criticize ISAF and CJTF RC EAST for not resourcing the mission they chose with the proper forces, but spare LTC Ostland and his Battalion for supposed improper application of dubious population centric COIN tactics in the most extreme of environments.</i>
I think this is the real lesson that everyone should take away from the incident. The 503rd guys were set up for failure by Kabul/Bagram.

SWJED (not verified)

Thu, 07/23/2009 - 3:50pm

Per Gian's comment above - <a href="… Leader Lessons Learned in Afghanistan: Operation Enduring Freedom VIII</a> by Colonel William B. Ostlund, U.S. Army. Colonel Ostlund is the deputy commander for the 75th Ranger Regiment at Fort Benning, Georgia. He earned a B.S. from the University of Nebraska at Omaha and an M.A.L.D. from Tufts University in Boston, MA. Colonel Ostlund has served in a variety of command and staff positions in the United States, Korea, Europe, the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan; most notably as commander of 2d Battalion (Airborne), 503d Infantry, in Vicenza, Italy, and Kunar Province, Afghanistan, during Operation Enduring Freedom VIII.

nd (not verified)

Thu, 07/23/2009 - 3:45pm

I think this is an important study and I'm glad they did it, but I hope it includes an extensive background section outlining the history and challenges of "counterinsurgency" in the Waygal Valley. I look forward to reading the full report, but Ricks' ill-informed criticism and reflexive mantra of population centric COIN without a understanding of the environment to which it was to be applied continues to disturb. You will find few stronger advocates of population centric approaches when applicable to METT-TC than I, but Wanat is simply not an example of tactical COIN failure or abuse.

I've said this before here, but LTC Ostland didn't pick the Waygal Valley mission and would almost certainly have preferred to utilize his forces elsewhere. However, they had a mission and had to execute. The map below I scanned from Schuyler Jones' book "Men of Influence in Nuristan" about the Waygal valley, illustrates the spatial difficulty of conducting population centric COIN in the valley. Wanat (Want) is only one of several major Waigali villages located in the Waygal Valley or one of its capillary valleys. The valley itself has a population of perhaps 22,000, most residing in the major villages and speaking a unintelligible dialect of Nuristani.

Each of the villages are so remote and in such extreme terrain, U.S. forces can almost never visit most of them including the most important and largest village, the eponymous Waygal. Occupying a position in each of the villages would require the better part of the forces of an entire rifle battalion and a rotary-wing company for resupply. Below is a picture I scanned from Lennert Edelberg's book "Nuristani Buildings" showing Muladish, a typical village in the Waygal Valley. Talking about application of the principles of COIN in Wanat is easy, but the practice in such an environment is much more difficult as you might gather from the photo.

If the forces aren't present to execute and the conditions doesn't support, a different approach is required. I have yet to see the critics suggest a better way to apply the 2/3rds of infantry company dedicated the Waygal mission. So criticize ISAF and CJTF RC EAST for not resourcing the mission they chose with the proper forces, but spare LTC Ostland and his Battalion for supposed improper application of dubious population centric COIN tactics in the most extreme of environments.

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gian p gentile (not verified)

Thu, 07/23/2009 - 3:40pm

Since Tom Ricks has outed Mr Cubbison's report and has highlighted it so significantly and extensively on his blog as if to prove what he said before about the engagement was right, I am pasting below a critique of the study that I sent to its author, Mr. Douglas Cubbison, last month. I should also point out that Colonel Ostlund has an excellent summary of his 15 months in Afghanistan in the current issue of Military Review that can be read online.

I recommend to the readers of SWJ that they certainly do not take Tom Ricks's word as the last one, since his is in condemnation of Colonel Ostlund and other leaders in the Brigade and Battalion as was Cubbison's. There are alternative interpretations of the Wanat engagement to Tom Ricks's that should be considered and thought through.

What follows is my critique of the Cubbison study that I sent to him last month after reading it. I have modified it just a bit for readability on this blog.

"In many ways this is a superb study. Its level of detail and description of events is excellent and very useful for students of the tactics and methods of this kind of warfare. Not sure why, but the study is in dire need of sketches and maps; perhaps you have just not yet included them but they are drastically needed for the reader to make sense and relate the narrative of events to a clear conception of the ground.

Many of your conclusions and analyses are, I think, correct, relevant, and useful. Especially your point about the battalion setting up the outpost while it was in the middle of transitioning to a new battalion is an important one to make and insights can be drawn from it.

There are a few serious flaws, however, to your work. First, the narrative portion reads like a hatchet job against Ostlund and parts of his subordinate leadership. It reads as if you are putting him in the docket and have him on trial, and have then judged him to be guilty of a failure at Coin. You at the same time elevate to sainthood the previous unit under Colonel Cavoli. Although I don't doubt the competency of Cavoli's outfit you seem to discard some facts and conditions that muddles the clean break between the two that you set up. For one, Cavoli himself has stated in other forums the large numbers of kinetic actions that took place in the valley under his watch. Your narrative suggests that almost as soon as the new battalion (Ostlunds) gets in, because it hadn't been properly prepared, and because they didn't get coin, that it was those conditions that led to the drastic turn around combined with other things to produce the Wanat engagement. Yet your own narrative points out that the months before the transition between the two battalions and even during it there was a huge amount of enemy activity which suggests to me that Cavoli's unit for all of the successes it had really didn't pacify the area using proper coin techniques; that is was violent under his watch and that violence simply continued under the new battalion's.

The study reads like a primer for the true believers of population centric coin religion. That is to say, Douglas, you seem to accept blindly the whole set of theories, propositions, and assumptions that premise this religion. You seem to accept without question that if a combat outfit is nice to the locals, if it buys them things, if it says nice things about them in reflection, then that indicates that the unit gets coin and therefore their actions will produce certain effects. Well I don't think your study shows in practice that theory at all and my own personal experience suggests to me that one can be nice, build bridges, understand culture, etc and bad things still happen.

Finally, your assertion that "the battalion commander and his key subordinates suffered from hubris" is simply unfair and inconclusive based on your evidence. I don't want to wave the bloody shirt at you, but imagine how any battalion especially this one after their Wanat engagement and how they all reflected on it in their interviews with you might feel and think? There is a milieu of things that goes through a commanders mind after a year plus in this kind of place. To reduce it all down to hubris and then argue that they didn't get coin is unfair and I think not supported by your evidence.

IntelTrooper (not verified)

Thu, 07/23/2009 - 2:30pm

I hate to make light of this incident, especially since I remember the night it happened. However, this:
<i>senior U.S. military commanders... didn't understand counterinsurgency doctrine</i>
is something of a hilarious understatement.