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Afghan battle probe a reminder of war's challenges

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[October 05, 2009]  WASHINGTON (AP) -- As President Barack Obama grapples with the way ahead in Afghanistan, a decision to launch a new investigation into a deadly firefight is a painful reminder of the challenges the U.S. faces in a country known as the graveyard of empires.

RestaurantFought in the small village of Wanat near the Pakistan border, the battle claimed the lives of nine American soldiers and wounded 27 others after their platoon-sized unit was attacked by as many as 200 insurgents during the early hours of July 13, 2008. Accounts of the battle indicate senior commanders may have made serious mistakes, leaving the soldiers short-handed and without critical support needed to blunt such an intense raid.

On Saturday, just days after Army Gen. David Petraeus ordered the inquiry, U.S. forces in Afghanistan endured a stark echo of that tragedy: eight U.S. soldiers were killed when several hundred militant fighters struck two American outposts in the same rugged region in northeastern Afghanistan where the earlier assault occurred.

The emerging story of the 2008 battle along with Saturday's attack adds new weight to calls by Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top officer in Afghanistan, for thousands more American forces to deal with the dicey political, cultural and geographical conditions there.

McChrystal has warned that the Taliban-led insurgency is becoming more potent and that the U.S. is in danger of losing the war unless more troops are sent to turn the tide against a formidable opponent.

But the president's top national security adviser is downplaying those concerns. Gen. James Jones, a retired Marine Corps general, said Sunday in television interviews that Afghanistan is not in imminent danger of falling to the Taliban and that al-Qaida's presence in the country is "very diminished."

Jones credited Pakistan's government and army with doing a much better job in recent months of going after insurgent forces along the porous border between the two countries.

But on Wednesday, U.S. Central Command, the military organization run by Petraeus, announced a Marine Corps general had been appointed to take a third look into what happened at Wanat. The move came after Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, urged a new investigation because of discrepancies in the two prior reviews, his spokesman said.

The first was conducted by the Army. The account, completed in August 2008, praised the "courage, valor and discipline" of the platoon from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. It also said the actions taken by the military leaders involved at all levels were based on "sound military analysis" and there was no reason for any adverse action.

This last conclusion didn't sit well with family members of the soldiers who were killed. They viewed the Army's review as an attempt to deflect blame for what they believe were numerous shortcomings that unnecessarily put the unit in harm's way. Several, including David Brostrom, whose son Jonathan was killed during the attack, began pressing for a more rigorous and independent inquiry.

Brostrom, a former Army colonel who retired from military service in 2004, said "something just doesn't sit right" when 200 insurgents can take an entire Army infantry platoon by surprise. On the day of the attack, fewer than 50 U.S. troops, along with two dozen Afghan soldiers, were stationed at the remote Wanat outpost.

The efforts of Brostrom and others gained momentum when a military historian at the Army Combat Studies Institute in Kansas wrote a detailed account of the battle at Wanat, based on soldiers who were there, that contradicts many of the service's conclusions. The 238-page study by Douglas Cubbison, though not yet officially released, was obtained by The Associated Press and other news organizations.

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Cubbison's report details a growing hostility toward the Americans in Wanat and a failure by higher-level commanders to recognize the tension when they ordered the unit to the village just a few weeks before the attack.

Concern had been expressed by 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, a platoon leader, about the number of troops he had and the mountainous terrain surrounding the outpost, Cubbison was told during the interviews.

The commanders withdrew airborne intelligence-gathering assets from Wanat to another location one day before the attack despite vehement protests from the unit. The reasons, according to Cubbison's report, were that "nothing of consequence" had been detected in Wanat and the equipment was needed elsewhere.

The soldiers at Wanat also had shortages of water, fuel, food and ammunition. According to Cubbison's report, a lack of construction equipment meant troops had to use picks and shovels to dig their fighting positions and fill sandbags.

But like the Army's report, Cubbison says the troops performed valiantly.

Brostrom and two other soldiers, Cpl. Jason Hovater and Cpl. Pruitt Rainey, appear to have been killed as they were trying to direct machine gun fire at their attackers, according to Cubbison's report. Hovater died while reloading his M-4 carbine.


On the Net:

U.S. Central Command: http://www.centcom.mil/

[Associated Press; By RICHARD LARDNER]

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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