Maybe, Finally, Some Accountability?

The village of Kamdesh, seen from above.

by Joshua Foust on 2/5/2010 · 2 comments

(For background on the COP Keating attack, also called the Battle of Kamdesh, see here, here, here, and here.)

Let’s summarize the Army’s report on the Battle of Kamdesh:

  • Because the outpost was located in a deep bowl surrounded by high ground, the attackers were able to pin down defenders and prevent them from using mortars to repel the initial attack. Air support was at least 45 minutes away.
  • Critical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets which had been supporting C.O.P. Keating had been diverted to assist ongoing intense combat operations in other areas.
  • Intelligence assessments had become desensitized to reports of massing enemy formations by previous reports that had proved false.
  • Needed force protection improvements were not made because of the imminent closure of the outpost.
  • Combat Outpost Keating no longer had a mission other than protecting itself from attack and the military had decided to close it in July 2009.
  • The equipment needed to dismantle it was diverted elsewhere to support combat operations.

In other words, the base was poorly positioned, almost indefensible, the S2 shop had decided to disregard reports of a massing enemy, and command had forced the soldiers inside to adopt a seize mentality and no longer take an active role in their own defense while the materials required to dismantle the base—along with other forms of combat support—were diverted elsewhere. They were set up to epic fail, which is what happened (the actual soldiers are not in question, just their questionable leaders).

While we shouldn’t belittle the logistical side of this combat outpost—it is, literally, in the middle of nowhere, and extremely difficult to get to—we also shouldn’t minimize how badly the Army failed the men inside this base. In this video, for example, we can see the difficulty in bringing in a single power generator:

An informed commenter explained last October why Keating was built where it was:

As to why we build where we do, it’s all driven by logistics and the need for a steady flow of fuel tankers and other heavy trucks to be hauling material to the bases. Efforts to support the base at Kamdesh foundered because the road linking Kamdesh to Barikot was never improved and secured so that the base could be supported by a ground line of communication. That is the same reason that the Nuristan PRT is located at Kalagush which is many kilometers from the provincial center. Kalagush’s only virtue is that it’s accessible by a good, relatively secure road to the outside world. So it’s not surprising that the bases are down by the rivers which is where most decent roads are.

While that is understandable in a general way, it doesn’t explain how it makes tactical sense. It is nonsensical to build a base in a hostile area, then force its soldiers to hunker down without any additional support. In fact, doing so is downright negligent, and shows a bizarre disrespect for the common soldier. As the report above illustrates, such an arrangement lends itself to what I call forced vulnerability.

In a counterinsurgency, the force protection paradox says that the more you get off your base—the more you make yourself vulnerable, living among the people—the better off you are. You trade more casualties in the short term for significantly fewer casualties and, in theory, increased local support, in the long term. If you instead hunker down in your base, you might sustain fewer casualties in the short term, but you lose a strong chance of reducing them over the long run through continued on-the-ground engagement.

The valley near COP Keating in Kamdesh.

The valley near the COP at Kamdesh.

In Kamdesh, it seems, the Army leadership forced the soldiers at COP Keating into all of the disadvantages of forced vulnerability with none of the long-term advantages one gets from ground-pounding. It is, from the top down, a failure of leadership. However, in a very welcome change, Greg Jaffe indicates those responsible for deliberately placing the soldiers into danger for no real reason (they had planned on closing the base and forbidden off-base movement for months before the attack) might actually be held accountable.

The U.S. military has reprimanded an unusually large number of commanders for battlefield failures in Afghanistan in recent weeks, reflecting a new push by the top brass to hold commanders responsible for major incidents in which troops are killed or wounded, said senior military officials.

As many as five battlefield commanders have received letters of reprimand in the past month or have been the subject of an investigation by a general who recommended disciplinary action. A sixth commander received a less-severe formal letter of admonishment. None of the investigations or letters of reprimand has been released publicly.

The investigation into the Battle of Kamdesh does not condemn the base commander, but unlike his soldiers he is not praised, either. We can only hope the Army chain of command will face some sort of accountability for their failure to make responsible decisions.

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This post was written by...

– 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 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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Joshua Foust February 5, 2010 at 11:55 am

I’m leaving mostly unsaid (until now!) my belief that letters of reprimand are not enough for screw ups of this magnitude. Commanders are being lazy and arrogant, and it is costing U.S. lives by the dozen. That should be unacceptable.

But the last few months of watching General McChrystal traipse through counterinsurgency for undergraduates tells that, while people really need to be fired and discharged for the number of innocent lives they’ve thrown away through their own arrogance and negligence, for the time being I’ll settle for baby steps. Perfect being the enemy of good and all that.

Sailani February 6, 2010 at 6:40 am

I hear you, but do we really have time for baby steps here? Kamdesh was a monumental screwup in terms of location, defences, and posture, and while they were indeed unlucky to be hit by such a cohesive and motivated force (who barely faltered under concentrated CAS once it arrived) the base should never have been breached and more or less overrun IMO. Plan for the worst, plan for the worst, plan for the worst.

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