Afghan officials aided an attack on U.S. soldiers

Posted in United States , Afghanistan | 04-Nov-08 | Author: Eric Schmitt| Source: International Herald Tribune

A damaged U.S. military vehicle is seen at the site of a suicide attack on U.S. military convoy in Behsood district of Nangahar province, east of Kabul, Afghanistan.

WASHINGTON: An internal review by the American military has found that a local Afghan police chief and another district leader helped Taliban militants carry out an attack on July 13 in which nine United States soldiers were killed and a remote American outpost in eastern Afghanistan was nearly overrun.

Afghan and American forces had started building the makeshift base just five days before the attack, and villagers repeatedly warned the American troops in that time that militants were plotting a strike, the report found. It said that the warnings did not include details, and that troops never anticipated such a large and well-coordinated attack.

The assault involved some 200 fighters, nearly three times the number of Americans and Afghans defending the site.

As evidence of collusion between the district police chief and the Taliban, the report cited large stocks of weapons and ammunition that were found in the police barracks in the adjacent village of Wanat after the attackers were repelled. The stocks were more than the local 20-officer force would be likely to need, and many of the weapons were dirty and appeared to have been used recently. The police officers were found dressed in "crisp, clean new uniforms," the report said, and were acting "as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred."

The attackers were driven back after a pitched four-hour battle, in which American artillery, warplanes and attack helicopters were ultimately called in. Still, the militants fought in ways that showed imaginative military training, if not sophisticated weapons.

In the midst of the battle, American soldiers were at times flushed out into the open when they fled what they thought were grenades, but were in fact rocks thrown by Taliban attackers, the report said. The day before the attack, the militants began flowing water through an irrigation ditch feeding an unused field, creating background noise that masked the sounds of the advancing fighters.

The base and a nearby observation post were held by just 48 American troops and 24 Afghan soldiers. Nine Americans died and 27 were injured, most in the first 20 minutes of the fight. Four Afghan soldiers were also wounded.

The intensity of the attack was so fierce, the report said, that American soldiers shot at insurgents as close as 10 yards away, often until their weapons jammed, and at militants who shimmied up trees overhanging their positions to shoot at the Americans.

The attack on the outpost, near Wanat, caused the worst single loss for the American military in Afghanistan since June 2005, and one of the worst over all since the invasion in late 2001. It underscored the vulnerability of American forces in Afghanistan, as well as the continuing problem posed by uncertainties over the loyalties of their Afghan allies, especially the Afghan police.

The military investigating officer, an Army colonel whose identity was not disclosed in a redacted copy of the report provided to The New York Times, recommended that the police chief and the district governor be replaced, if not arrested.

But the senior American commander in eastern Afghanistan, Major General Jeffrey Schloesser, decided after conferring with American forces that relieved the unit, that the district governor had probably been acting under duress and had been cooperative with American troops, according to the general's spokeswoman, Lieutenant Colonel Rumi Nielson-Green.

Nielson-Green said in a telephone interview on Monday that while the governor had been absolved, it was unclear whether the police chief in Wanat was complicit.

A spokesman for Afghan Defense Ministry officials said the Americans had never discussed these complaints with them.

Hajji Abdul Halim, deputy governor at the time of the Wanat attack, and now the acting governor of nearby Nuristan Province, said Monday that both officials had been detained briefly and then released.

"We suspected them after the incident, but the American forces released the district governor after two days of custody," he said in a telephone interview.

The report, which was completed on Aug. 13 and declassified in recent days to allow military officials to brief family members of those who were killed, did not assign blame to any commanders of the unit involved - the Second Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Combat Brigade Team - a unit that was in the final days of a 15-month deployment when the attack took place.

"The actions by leaders at all levels were based upon sound military analysis, proper risk mitigation and for the right reasons," the report said.

It concluded that despite reports earlier in July that 200 to 300 militants had been massing to attack another remote outpost in the vicinity, the commanders at Wanat had no reason to expect such a large frontal assault.

"The enemy normally conducts probing attacks prior to conducting an all-out, large-scale attack," the report said, quoting the investigating officer as concluding that it "was logical" to think that an initial probing attack would involve only about 20 militants seeking to gauge defenses and the reaction of American and Afghan forces.

However, the report criticized the "incredible amount of time" - 10 months - it took the NATO military authorities to negotiate arrangements over the site of the outpost, giving adversaries plenty of time "to plan coordinated and complex attacks."

Some details of the attack have been described in recent months by publications including The New York Times, The Army Times and Vanity Fair. But the 44-page report offers the most extensive account so far.

At the time of the attack, American and Afghan forces were still building fortifications of sandbags and earthen barriers around the main outpost and a small observation post about 100 yards away. In some places, those troops were protected only by strands of concertina wire and a ring of gun-mounted, armored Humvees, the report said.

The militants apparently detected the vulnerability and moved to exploit it. On the evening of July 12, the militants slipped into the village, undetected by the Americans, ordered the villagers to leave and set up firing positions inside houses and a mosque.

At 4:20 a.m. on July 13, the militants struck with a fusillade of heavy machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades, destroying the Americans' most potent weapons: 120-millimeter mortars and a TOW missile launcher.

At the same time, the militants blasted the small observation post 100 yards from the main base with rifle fire and more grenades. Within 20 minutes, all nine Americans inside the observation post were dead or wounded.

Three times, teams of soldiers from the main base ran a gantlet of hostile fire to resupply the observation post and carry back the dead and wounded. Within 30 minutes, American fighter-bombers were blasting the militant positions, followed by Apache helicopter gunships.

Just days after the attack, American forces abandoned the outpost at Wanat, but Nielson-Green said the military continued to patrol in the region from a larger base four miles away.

"This was a complex attack carried out by militants who clearly knew the terrain and maintained radio silence," she said.