July 24, 2009

Wanat: The Unasked Questions (updated)

The questions into what happened at Wanat a year ago have gathered pace thanks to the blogging of my colleague Tom Ricks and a new study for the Combat Studies Institute. I read a draft of this study a while back, actually, but did not blog about it because it had not yet been released and I do not like to blog on unfinished documents. A criticism of the study that a COIN-skeptic friend of mine had -- for the sake of anonymity, I will refer to him as "Fran Frentile" -- was that the report included a largely subjective night-and-day judgment about the previous commander in the area as compared with the commander at the time of the incident. The previous commander -- U.S. Army Col. Chris Cavoli, now standing up a new light infantry brigade at Fort Bliss -- was portrayed by the author of the study as everything you could possibly want in a counterinsurgency strategist and commander. As it happens, I am a friend of Chris, think immensely highly of him (despite the fact that he went to Princeton), and rather like to think that my friends are indeed God's gifts to counterinsurgency warfare. (Chris is The Man, in my opinion, and comes off as such in Dave Kilcullen's book for those of you who have read it.) But there is probably something to Fran's criticism of the study as being a bit cartoonish in the way it highlights the difference between Chris and the commander at the time of the incident -- Bill Ostlund.

That said... at the time of Tom's original posts on what happened at Wanat, a whisper campaign started suggesting the U.S. Army was not looking more closely into the Wanat incident because it was trying to save the career of Ostlund -- a man I do not know but an officer of whom many people think quite highly. Ostlund is part of that Social Sciences mafia which includes a number of COIN luminaries -- including my boss. People really like the guy, and I have no reason to think he isn't a capable and intelligent officer. I did not blog on the whisper campaign at the time, but in light of this new report, can we now say there was nothing to it and that the U.S. Army is indeed capable of criticizing even its supposed golden children?

If so, then we can perhaps start to draw lessons from what happened at Wanat, and they might not have as much to do with personalities of commanders as they do with how we employ counterinsurgent forces in Afghanistan. How, exactly, do you operationalize a population-centric counterinsurgency strategy when you can't use joint security stations in the way we used them in Baghdad in 2007? One hint might be found in the way that a brother battalion commander of Ostlund's in the 173rd, Col. Chris Kolenda (disclosure: also a friend I admire), managed the fight in AO Saber during the same time period and in a year when violence dropped 90% in his AO. Considering the fact that Kolenda is now one of Gen. McChrystal's advisors, I suspect those lessons are already being internalized and processed.

Update: I have been writing back and forth with "Fran" this morning, and he noted that he had published his criticisms of the report on SWJ yesterday. I disagree with most of what Gian has to say regarding counterinsurgency doctrine and its employment, and I am not going to get into those disagreements here. Instead I want to focus on a concern Gian has that I share, which is the danger of quickly dividing officers into two neat categories of those who "get" COIN and those who do not. This blog has probably exacerbated that trend, for which I apologize. And although I fear Gian himself is in danger of becomming the go-to apologist for any and all commanders who go to Iraq or Afghanistan and do a crappy job, I think it is indeed a negative tendancy of COIN gurus to pass hasty judgements on commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan before a more careful study can be conducted on what did and did not take place and why. (That said, I am not convinced the U.S. Army's OER system is any less subjective or hasty in its judgement of officers.) Anyway, here is part of Gian's criticique:

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 (Ostlund’s) 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.

Update II: Click here to read Ostlund's take on his battalion's year in Afghanistan.