Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post reports today that the U.S. Army’s official history of the tragic battle in Wanat, Afghanistan, places blame upon junior officers. Nine American soldiers were killed in the fight, which took place in July of 2008. General Petraeus ordered an investigation led by two combat-tested generals. Petraeus then issued letters of reprimand to a captain, a lieutenant colonel, and a colonel. Another Army general then rescinded the letters, asserting they would have a chilling effect upon performance in battle. An Army historian, Walt Cubbison, wrote a terrific, detailed analysis of the battle. His initial draft was later changed to expunge his criticisms of the senior officers.
In my forthcoming book, The Wrong War, I describe Wanat in the larger context of a multi-year struggle for control of the mountainous region of eastern Afghanistan. Grave tactical and operational errors culminated in the Wanat battle. In The Wrong War, I conclude that at the operational level of war, Wanat “provided the classic case study of how insurgents conquer a superior foe. . . . The Americans intended to separate the people from the insurgents. Instead, the insurgents succeeded in separating the people from the Americans.”
Reporting from the Wanat area on Monday, Jaffe quoted the on-scene U.S. battalion commander as saying, “We fight here because the enemy is here. The enemy fights here because we are here. The best thing we can do is to pull back, and let the Afghans figure this place out.” The essential problem in the valley that includes Wanat was not a tactical mistake. The vexing nature of the tribal loyalties in eastern Afghanistan along the Pakistan border far transcends the conduct of a single battle.
The Army, however, was heavy-handed and obtuse in handling the reviews of the Wanat battle. Many officers disagreed with the reviewing generals who recommended the reprimands, and others disagreed with Cubbison’s draft. Combat veterans can make a reasonable case one way or the other. But for the Army as an institution to zig-zag invites criticism and raises unhelpful suspicions.
At a larger level, the incident illustrates the inherent problem in the promotion system of all the services. Errors happen in every war. Often victory goes to the side making the fewer mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes: Washington at Great Meadow and later Long Island, Lee at Gettysburg, Halsey and the typhoons, Chesty Puller at Peleliu, MacArthur and the Chosin, etc.
One of the three officers at Wanat cited by Petraeus for reprimand is a superb officer; I believe he would make a fine field general. It should be possible for a selection board to assess a reprimand, place it in balance against an entire career and continue to promote an outstanding officer. In business, CEOs fail miserably and are rewarded, illustrating the selfish, back-scratching nature of too many corporate boards of trustees; in the military, the services demand that an officer receive upwards of 40 fitness reports without a blemish in order to qualify for general officer selection. The services thus institutionally tend to reward the cautious, rather than the bold.