“The Wanat Investigation” Report

by Joshua Foust on 11/7/2008 · 12 comments

Eric Schmitt obviously had other sources. A friend forwarded on the unclassified “Wanat” incident report, which I posted (pdf) here (part 1) and here (part 2).

Overall, it’s not very insightful. It seems to misunderstand the structure of the government of Afghanistan, as it treats the different levels of government as if it was a federal, rather than unitary, system. My friend wondered this, too:

If the dispersed presence leads to incidents where civilians get caught in the cross-fire, their shops, residences and mosques are used by insurgents to attack Coalition forces and destroyed as a result, and civilians security is reduced rather than improved then what’s the way forward?

Does a VPB have to be adjacent to a built-up area like a bazaar to accomplish its purpose?

It is an interesting question to ponder: is our standard, cookie-cutter COIN strategy going to work in Afghanistan? It’s is an idea I’ve attacked repeatedly, though obviously the question is a complex one. So what is the purpose of a VPB? Is it to provide “presence,” security, offensive capability, some combination of the above, or none of the above? Is community dispersion really the best and only way to achieve our goals?

I see our fundamental problem, again being manpower: we do not have the people to properly disperse, so the fewer bases we have are more cut off and more reliant on air power. In general, air power has been counterproductive in Afghanistan if nothing else than as an IO problem headquarters has yet to solve.

Last note: the report sheds light into why the military continues to insist on Want (they still call it “Wanat”) being a part of Kunar: their primary sources of local knowledge seem to be Pashtuns near Manugai and Nangalam, near Camp Blessing. The Pashtuns have been pushing into Nuristan’s valleys for decades—Schuyler Jones (for example) wrote about this extensively in the 1970s. It would make sense that Pashtuns would claim Kalasha land for their own.

Update: For an example of how complex this is, but also for how the military is gaining a better understanding of the governance issues facing the area, see footnote 5 on page 2 of part 1:

Effective governance is complicated by the fact that the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan considers Wanat [sic] to be part of Kunar Province while the people of Wanat [sic], the shuras and even the provincial government consider Wanat [sic] to be the District Capital of Waygal District and a part of Nuristan. The population in Wanat [sic] is primarily Nuristani as opposed to Pashtuo as well. See Exhibit 61, Statement of LTC (b)(3) (b)(8) dated 16 Jul 08 wherein he notes there is “no road access to either [Aranas or Bella] [sic] no government present, or security forces present.” [sic]

This helps to highlight the problems commenter David repeatedly notes about the extreme centrality of the Afghan government.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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anonymous November 8, 2008 at 3:42 pm


I think the military writes “W-a-n-a-t” because that is what is written on all the maps the military uses. This town is not a unique case in this regard. The maps show the letters “A-m-e-s-o-z-a-h” for a place that the locals call “Ham-shoes”. And where the locals call a town “Muldesh”, the map shows “Muladesh.” And “Khowst” is actually pronounced “Koosht.” And “Aranas” is actually pronounced “Ah-rans.” And so on.

The fact is that the maps the military use have certain combinations of letters on them to name certain places, but those place names in reality are not pronounced as phonetically spelled on the maps.

So, it’s pronounced “Want.” But if you look for it on the most commonly used maps, it’s written “Wanat.” If you say “Wanat” to a local, he’ll wonder where you’re talking about. But if you write “Want” in a report to people who read it in Kabul while looking at a map, they’ll wonder where you’re writing about. Kind of like the Massachussetts town we know as “Woos-tuh.”

Similarly, the maps all show Want/Wanat in Kunar province. They also show the upper reaches of the Watapor Valley in Kunar. Neither area is historically or demographically Kunari, but that’s where they’re shown on the maps. Again, these are not isolated cases — there are plenty more examples of gaps between the map, the societal reality, and the governmental arrangement.

I’m not sure the notion that Wanat is in Kunar stems from Kunari Pashtuns. Despite all the Pashtuns’ encroachment up the Waygal in the past decades, I don’t think a single Kunar government official or Safi elder (all Pashtuns) who would admit that spot on the map to be in his purview. Despite what the military’s maps say, the locals are all happy to let the problems in the Waygal lie in someone else’s lap. They might covet the land, but they don’t think it’s theirs right now.

Just my two cents.

Joshua Foust November 8, 2008 at 9:08 pm

Anonymous, I think you’re right. But that doesn’t make it right, if you know what I mean.

As for the bit about “Kunari Pashtuns,” they’re Safis (let’s be honest). Though there are also Pechi and Korengali Pashai nearby, I’d be willing to bet money the main troublemakers are Safis. They just lost a court case over possession of that land, and Klimberg, Edelberg, Jones, and Strand have all written about the acrimonious if still symbiotic relationship the Safi have had with the Kalasha. I think it makes perfect sense for them to try to claim control of prized pastureland.

anonymous November 9, 2008 at 2:25 am

Absolutely they’re Safis, Joshua. My point was merely that the difference between what’s shown on the map (that Wanat is in Kunar) and what’s true on the ground (that Wanat is Nuristani) gives government officials and tribal elders the flexibility to claim whatever’s most useful at the moment. I don’t think it’s unlikely for the Safis to claim the pasturelands that they have long coveted – but I do think it’s unlikely they’d do so to an American officer who is conducting an investigation about a very big, recent problem.

I presume that’s what’s meant in your post by “main troublemakers” being Safis – that they persuaded the investigator that Wanat is in Kunar. However, if by main troublemaker you meant the Safis were responsible for the particular attack under investigation, I feel very confident in disagreeing.

If, on the other hand, you meant that Safis are main troublemakers in intertribal relations in general in these areas, I’d agree happily, Joshua — and go on to say that such a ‘troublemaker’ category is a wide one indeed in these places!

Joshua Foust November 9, 2008 at 10:41 am

Yeah, I defo didn’t mean the Safis were responsible — I’ve seen local reporting to the opposite. I also don’t really think they’re any more aggressive or temperamental than anyone else there. We just happen to have lots of information about their neighbors, who don’t care for them much. Best I can tell, David Edwards is the only one to have studied any Safi to any depth at all, and he really only focuses on a single family — nothing on the other Safi along the Kunar-Nuristan interface, and certainly nothing about the Safi in Laghman, Nangarhar or Kapisa. So there is a lot of selection bias involved if one is to argue that they are troublemakers in a general sense.

Here by the term I don’t mean that they persuaded the investigator… but I do mean that, despite their court loss they haven’t relinquished their claim to the land. Thus, I don’t find it implausible at all that they’d take an innacurate map (do we know who the cartographers and informants were for the AIMS and CF maps?) and try to work it to their advantage. That I see as quite plausible.

David November 9, 2008 at 5:46 pm

Many of the names on Afghan maps in wide circulation are, not surprisingly, derived from what is used by the dominant population in the region. So, in this case it’s the Pashtuns. And it’s always a crapshoot as to what name appears on the map since there is tremendous dialectical variation in mountainous regions. Transliteration from Pashto or Dari adds another degree of confusion. The U.S. Board on Geographic Names is making an effort to address this. Its October 2007 publication, “Geographic Names Standardization Policy for Afghanistan,” seeks to describe the state of play and bring some consistency.

Nuristanis have their own names for different communities so that Aranas is Zhonchigal, Amesozah is Ameshdesh, Kun-Killi is Akun or Chimi, and the like. And even among the different Nuristani communities within the Waygal valley the names the locals use to refer to other communities are not consistent. That adds another element of confusion although most Nuristanis recognize that outsiders, whether Pashtuns or foreigners will likely use the Pashtun variants.

Then there’s the additional ‘Americanization’ of place names where our military adopts spellings and pronunciations that have little if any correspondence to anything which is spoken or written or will be understood by anyone on the ground.

Our military and others who are active in a region should make an effort to move beyond the AIMS and CF maps to understand which areas are claimed by whom, whether it be a local land dispute or confusion between provinces.

Suppose, for example, there’s a matter of concern in a particular area and the Coalition seeks to engage the provincial officials about it. If they are convinced based on their maps that a spot is in one province but it is regarded by local administration officials as in another province then it’s going to add unnecessary confusion to their efforts.

In western Nuristan, the PRT based at Kalagush has been active funding projects in a region that is clearly considered by the locals and the provincial and district officials as in Alingar district of Laghman province. That, in itself, isn’t a problem but it should be understood by all that just because the AIMS maps put that area as in Nuristan province, that doesn’t make it so.

Anonymous November 10, 2008 at 6:40 am

All very good points. These are useful discussions.

I think the name problem comes down to a matter of requiring a convention but finding trouble in establishing one among the variations in local names, the variations in local pronunciation, the troubles of transliteration, and the Americanized pronunciation of whatever’s on the map. Clearly, the first step is to be aware of the variations. However, establishing a widely used convention seems difficult and time-consuming, considering all the groups whose words would need to be reconciled. In the short- and mid-term, then, I think the key is to educate all involved and to constantly guard against the almost inevitable confusion. This is obviously an imperfect answer…

In the case of administrative borders, the problem should be simpler, but never seems to be. The difference between the socially recognized boundaries and the administrative boundaries presents many opportunities for government officials to claim resources they don’t rate, or to wash their hands of issues they find intractable. So, again, the chance to establish a convention is more remote than one might expect.

On a totally separate note: David and Joshua, you might find Andrew Klavan’s “Five Days At The End Of The World” (www.city-journal.org) interesting – if not for the theme, perhaps merely because the author gets right the name of the town next to the Nuristan government seat!

Joshua Foust November 10, 2008 at 9:19 am

Anonymous, I owe you a beer should I ever find out who you are and happen to be in the same town. That’s an excellent article. I plan on gushing about it in its own post.

Chrs November 10, 2008 at 11:23 am

Could you please repost the link for the unclass doc? It does not seem to work here & I’ve been going crazy trying to find it. Thanks

Joshua Foust November 10, 2008 at 1:33 pm

Chris, thanks for letting me know. I think I got the link fixed. If not, I’ll just email it to you and reconsider my options.

Daniel Green November 11, 2008 at 2:26 am

I noticed that you only had the 2nd half of the report on your PDF link. I don’t know how to add the report to my post but you can find part 1 and part 2 at http://www.battlefieldtourist.com/content/2008/11/07/the-road-to-want-wanat-part-2/

Joshua Foust November 11, 2008 at 5:21 am


Thanks. My contact had emailed me the other half; I just haven’t had the chance to post it here.

kral November 13, 2008 at 3:31 pm

thanks my contact had email

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