By lex, on October 5th, 2009
On 31 January 1968, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese army broke a cease fire brokered for the New Year’s holiday, launching massive attacks throughout the south. Initially thrown back on their heels, the South Vietnamese defense forces and their allies rallied, delivering a crushing blow to the Communist forces. As an organized fighting force, the Viet Cong never fully recovered.
It was a massive defeat that became spun into a huge propaganda victory for the Communists. After Walter Cronkite surveyed the battlespace at Hue City and declared victory unachievable, President Johnson is quoted as having said, “That’s it. If I’ve lost Cronkite I’ve lost middle America.” Cronkite was the most trusted face in millions of American households, and public opinion – the strategic center of gravity for any democracy – turned sharply against the war.
The rest, as they say, is history.
On 13 July 2008, the Sky Soldiers of 2nd Platoon, Chosen Company, 2nd Battalion 503rd Infantry Regiment were rousted from their sleep at 0330 in preparation for a suspected Taliban assault from the hamlet of Wanat, Nuristan Province, Afghanistan. They had moved to their new positions from another village known as Bella a few miles closer to the Pakistani border, after what had been a more or less fruitless effort to interdict a Taliban ratline for personnel and material reinforcements just four days previously. The Sky Soldiers were too few to have much operational impact at Bella.
But their movement to Wanat seems to have been poorly supported. Material for building a defensive perimeter did not arrive, ammo was scarce, the soldiers lacked adequate water supplies and were working on the borderline of dehydration. Their only Predator drone was shifted to a higher priority area of operations. A helicopter assault on an insurgent train two days previously also killed doctors and assistants from the area’s only medical clinic. Civil engagement was not a priority, and the locals were – quite literally – up in arms.
The assault, when it came, was a bloodbath:
The first RPG and machine gun fire hit the forward operating base’s mortar pit, knocking out the 120mm mortars and exploding the stockpile of mortar ammunition. The insurgents next destroyed the TOW truck inside the combat outpost with RPGs. The explosion of the mortar shells hurled the anti-tank missiles into the command post. The attack concentrated on the base’s observation post, where nine soldiers were positioned on a tiny hill about 50 to 75 meters from the main base. Of those nine, five died, and at least three others were wounded, with four of them killed in the first 20 minutes of the battle. Three times teams of soldiers from the main base ran through Taliban fire to resupply the observation post and carry back the dead and wounded.
Coalition troops responded with machine guns, grenades, and claymore mines. Artillery support was provided from Camp Blessing; 96 155mm artillery rounds were fired in support of coalition forces. The Taliban briefly breached the wire of the observation post before being driven back. After almost half an hour of intense fighting at the observation post only one soldier remained. He fought alone and seriously wounded until reinforcments (sic) arrived to secure the OP. Some militants also managed to get into the main base’s earthen barriers. Two American soldiers, Lieutenant Jonathan Brostrom and Corporal Jason Hovater, were killed trying to deliver ammunition under fire to their comrades in the observation post who were running low. American soldiers were at times flushed out of their fortifications by what they thought were grenades, but which were actually rocks thrown by the attackers. Brostrom, Hovater, and another soldier may have been killed by an insurgent who penetrated the wire perimeter.
Coalition soldiers managed to repulse the attacking militants. AH-64 attack helicopters and a Predator unmanned aircraft drone equipped with Hellfire missiles responded to support the base with close air support about 30 minutes after the battle began. Later, a B-1B Lancer bomber, A-10, and F-15E aircraft were called in to strike militant positions. The militants withdrew about four hours later. After the militants retreated, mop up operations followed, and the Taliban withdrew from the town.
Nine U.S. soldiers were killed in the attack, mainly in the observation post, including platoon leader First Lieutenant Jonathan P. Brostrom, 24, of Hawaii. Between 21 and 52 militants were reported killed with another 20 to 40 wounded, but coalition forces found only two Taliban bodies after the battle. The attack was the highest death toll for American troops in the country since Operation Red Wing three years earlier.
The Army was sufficiently agitated that an 800-page report was generated, detailing the operational missteps involved in placing a single, unsupported platoon in an indefensible position in the midst of a hyper-religious, illiterate and hostile population. Former WaPo journalist Thomas Ricks wrote an analytical series based on the report that was harshly critical of brigade and divisional leadership.
Yesterday the Post personalized the fight in the name of young Lieutenant Jonathan Brystrom, 2nd Platoon Leader, “brave, reckless, impulsive” and 24 years old forever. Tonight CBS News – Walter Cronkite’s outfit – will run a special on Wanat, emphasizing the debacle even as the president and his advisers mull over the forward commander’s request for additional forces.
As analogues go, Wanat plays somewhat poorly as Tet. The Taliban were repulsed with very high casualties, but the combat outpost was abandoned. Unlike the Viet Cong after Tet, the Taliban movement remains unbroken. But although 2nd Platoon and it’s ANA allies suffered 75% casualties – a shocking rate for a successful defense, and a testament to the bravery of the soldiers that served there – at the end of the day 9 good men fell in battle, never to rise again. Each loss is a personal tragedy, but in proportion Tet was a far more significant campaign, with over 28,000 allied casualties including over 6000 killed in action.
But to dither over the tactical is to miss the strategic. General Stanley McChrystal has unveiled a new strategy that involves a more classic COIN “oil spot” strategy of clear, hold and build. This strategy places the protection of the Afghan population as its main effort, relegating kinetic engagement of hostile forces as a by-product of troop presence in protected areas. A more or less static defense over large areas will require many more soldiers than he currently deploys in sweeping operations from Forward Operating Bases and platoon-sized interdiction missions from Combat Outposts.
The media has a compelling need to help shape the public debate over Afghanistan. Their interest on last year’s battle makes for good history, but poor decision shaping. The questions they should be asking have less to do with last year’s physical terrain, and more to do with this year’s human terrain: Clear, hold and build worked well when adopted and resourced in the urban enclaves of Iraq, but the Afghan population is far more agrarian and widely dispersed. They are, in the aftermath of a more than ordinarily corrupt national election, manifestly dissatisfied with their government in Kabul.
The media ought to ask not whether 40,000 new troops is too many, but whether it is too few.
They ought to ask Washington, if it is to deny the general’s request for forces, what the alternate strategy will be, and follow up with penetrating questions on how exactly that strategy will add to our security.
Facing a number of difficult issues, some of which were indeed inherited – but many of which were self-inflicted – the administration has been given a friendly pass from the Washington press corps for some nine months now. But something has to change in Afghanistan, and it has to change soon. When change comes, it will come at the direction of today’s National Command Authority. Our political, military and media strategy going forward with troops fighting and dying requires something more than collegial good will and press room conviviality and it involves more than muck raking last year’s missteps. This is far too important to get wrong.
With 100,000 coalition forces already deployed to Afghanistan, the media’s focused coverage of a combat engagement of one platoon on 13 July 2008 makes for compelling theater, but not much else. Warfare is almost irreducibly complex. It will be tempting for many watching and reading to go from this specific enagement and draw sweeping conclusions about our prospects in Afghanistan.
Just as in 1968, those conclusions may be misinformed.