Battle of Wanat

Battle of Wanat
Part of the War in Afghanistan
Battle of Wanat.jpg
U.S. Army soldiers guarding Vehicle Patrol Base Kahler the day before the battle.
DateJuly 13, 2008
Location
Result

Indecisive

  • Tactical Coalition victory
  • Strategic Taliban victory
Belligerents
 United States
 Afghanistan
Taliban
Commanders and leaders
Captain Matthew Myer Sheikh Dost Mohammad[1][2]
Maulavi Uthman
Sadiq Munibullah
Units involved

 U.S. Army

Afghan National Army emblem.svg Afghan Army
No specific units
Strength
48 soldiers
24 soldiers
Close-Air Support[3]
200[3]–500[4] fighters
Casualties and losses
9 killed, 27 wounded[5]
4 wounded[6][3]
21–65 killed,
45 wounded
(U.S. claim)[7][8][9][10]

The Battle of Wanat took place on July 13, 2008, when around 200 Taliban insurgents attacked American troops stationed near Quam, in the Waygal district of Afghanistan's far eastern Nuristan province.[11] The distant position was primarily defended by United States Army soldiers with 2nd Platoon, Chosen Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne), 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team.

The Taliban encircled the remote base and its observation post, attacking it from Quam and surrounding farmland. They destroyed much of the U.S. troops' heavy munitions, broke through their lines, and entered the main base before being finally repelled by artillery and aircraft. The United States claimed to have killed at least 21 Taliban fighters for nine of its own soldiers killed and 27 wounded, together with four Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers wounded.[12]

One of several attacks on remote outposts, the Battle of Wanat has been described as among the bloodiest Taliban attacks of the war.[13] In contrast to previous assaults, from roadside bombings to haphazard ambushes, this attack was well-coordinated; fighters across different insurgent groups were able to precisely target key equipment, such as a wire-guided missile launcher, through a sustained and disciplined effort.

The battle became the focus of debate in the United States, generating "...a great deal of interest and scrutiny among military professionals and from outside observers..." mainly due to the relatively "...significant number of coalition casualties..."[14] Several investigations were launched into events leading up to the battle. The initial investigation was completed in August 2008. In July 2009, Senator James Webb requested that the U.S. Army formally investigate the battle and previous investigation. Lieutenant General Richard F. Natonski conducted another investigation in late 2009 which led to orders of reprimand for the chain of command. In June 2010, the U.S. Army revoked the reprimands. They stated that no negligence was involved and said of the soldiers that "...by their valor and their skill, they successfully defended their positions and defeated a determined, skillful, and adaptable enemy."

Background

Waygal District in the Nuristan Province in Afghanistan

In 2008, NATO forces in southeastern Afghanistan deployed sub-company-sized patrols to the Pakistan border to disrupt supplies flowing to the Taliban from the Federally Administered Tribal Regions of Pakistan.[4] They established small patrol bases, which came under regular attack by Taliban forces.[15]

Rock Move OPLAN July 8–9, 2008. The result of the move was the establishment of a Coalition outpost at Wanat
Proposal for COP at Wanat

In June, a small contingent of 48 American and 24 Afghan troops, 72 in total, were operating in and around Wanat, a mountain Quam that was the center of the Waygal District government and about 5 miles (8.0 km) from the coalition military base Camp Blessing.[8][9][16] On July 4, a U.S. Army helicopter attacked vehicles they claimed were firing on them and killed 17 people. Locals claimed those killed were civilians, including doctors and nurses from a local clinic. Both sides reported Forward Observation Base (FOB) Bella was under attack by indirect fire. Intelligence reports said that the FOB was going to be overrun from within the base as well. The helicopter attack was in response to the indirect fire received from a mortar tube that was being fired from the bed of a Toyota Hilux pick-up. The initial Taliban radio transmissions that were intercepted reported that the "...big gun [mortar tube] had been hit..." and the Taliban commander had been killed. A few hours after the helicopter attacked, with the Chosen Company commander and the troops in contact confirming the targets, the Taliban radio reports changed to "...they killed the shop keeper [that had the same name as the Taliban commander], the big gun was not damaged, and all the enemy wounded and KIA were civilians."[17]

Five days before the battle, on July 8, a platoon from the Second Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team established Vehicle Patrol Base (VPB) Kahler and a separate observation post called OP Top Side near Wanat. 2nd Platoon, Chosen Company, departed from Camp Blessing after sunset in a ground assault convoy for the 90-minute-long drive to Wanat. The convoy contained five M1114 armored Humvees. There was one for each of the three rifle squads, a vehicle for platoon headquarters, and the last vehicle containing the TOW missile squad. The Humvees mounted heavy weapons, two with 50-cal machine guns, and two with MK-19 40mm automatic grenade launchers in protected cupolas to provide extra firepower and protection.[14] Their goal was to create a Combat Outpost (COP) to connect with and provide security for the local populace, coordinate $1.4 million in reconstruction projects, and disrupt Taliban activity.[18] The brigade was to be relieved by a newly arriving U.S. Army unit in two weeks.[19]

The patrol base was situated on an open field about 300 meters long by 100 meters wide surrounded on two sides by buildings which composed the Quam. July 9, a six-man engineer squad arrived by Chinook helicopter. They brought a Bobcat loader and a shipping container with engineer equipment. The soldiers reinforced the base with existing terrain, sandbags, barbed wire, and used the Bobcat to fill a number of HESCO barriers (essentially wall-sized sandbags) around the three squad positions and to create a firing pit for the big 120-mm mortar.[14] However, the Bobcat broke down for one day, and could not lift high enough to place barriers to a 7-foot (2.1 m) height, but were placed to just a 4-foot (1.2 m) level, which would make it vulnerable to direct fire from guns or rockets which the attackers would exploit. The troops dug many of the fortifications and trenches with hand shovels.[20] Still in preparation at the time of the attack, some areas were only protected by a barrier of concertina wire, but with no posts or stakes; the wire was simply stretched out on the ground.[3]

The Afghan company contracted to bring heavy construction equipment delayed its arrival to until July 13. It was decided that soldier labor — with the aid of an engineer squad and a Bobcat front-end loader already at Bella — would be good enough to prepare an initial defense in the six days until heavier equipment arrived. The number of men at the base was judged adequate to defend against intelligence estimates that placed the insurgent forces in the local area at about 150 experienced fighters, though they did not know that attackers would be backed up by other guerrilla groups from neighboring regions as far away as Pakistan and Kashmir. While they thought it was possible the base might be attacked while the camp was being prepared, they thought it unlikely. Platoon Sergeant Dzwik later remarked "I was expecting harassing fire from any one of the high ground in every direction. I did not think the village itself would let the AAF [Anti-Afghan Force] turn their village into a battle zone.[21]

Soldiers at the base noticed warning signs, including groups of men watching the construction from the nearby village, which was set at a higher elevation than the outpost, and other groups of men moving through nearby mountains. At a dinner meeting in the village, a villager told the Americans that they should shoot any men seen in the mountains, and asked them if U.S. UAVs were keeping watch nearby.[3][22] The day before the attack, militants began flowing water through an irrigation ditch feeding an unused field, creating background noise that masked the sounds of the advancing fighters.

Although the Americans believed that 100 or 200 attacked the base, a senior Afghan defense ministry official who did not reveal his name told Al Jazeera that he had information it was between 400 and 500 fighters. Tamim Nuristani, former governor of Nuristan, believed that numerous Taliban and Pakistani militant and terrorist groups banded together from surrounding regions including Kunar and the Bajaur tribal agency in neighboring Pakistan. According to U.S. intelligence, groups operating in the region included Taliban, al-Qaeda, Kashmir-based Lashkar-e-Taiba and Pakistan-based (as of 2013 still located in one of many strongholds in the Bajaur agency of F.A.T.A.-Federally administered Tribal areas in Kunar and Nuristan of Afghanistan) Hezb-i-Islami. According to the Long War Journal, Al Qaeda's senior leadership including Ayman al Zawahiri and Osama Bin Laden were thought to shelter in the region (Bin Laden was actually in Pakistan at the time).[4] Taliban spokesman stated "The fighting in Afghanistan is getting heavier. When the Americans drop bombs on civilians, ordinary people want revenge – that's why they are joining the Taliban, strengthening us," pointing out their "...ability to enter the bases and kill Americans." A NATO spokesman believed that the Taliban had moved into and expelled a nearby Khel (small village-tribe subdivision) for the attack. On the evening of July 12, Taliban soldiers moved into Wanat and ordered the villagers to leave. Undetected by the I.S.A.F./A.N.S.F. soldiers, they set up firing positions inside Kors and a mosque next to and overlooking the perimeter.[3]