Refusing Accountability

by Joshua Foust on 2/18/2010 · 13 comments

How else are we to interpret this?

The absence of experienced senior leaders and inadequate action by officers in a tactical operations center, including a failure to provide effective artillery and air support, contributed to the deaths of five U.S. troops and nine Afghans in a Sept. 8 battle, an official investigation has found.

Three unidentified officers from the 10th Mountain Division from Ft. Drum, N.Y. received official reprimands following the inquiry into the clash, which erupted after Afghan security forces and U.S Army and Marine trainers were ambushed in the Ganjgal Valley near the border with Pakistan in northeastern Kunar Province.

Go on, read the whole thing. A reprimand! How punishing. What we’re finding now is that officer negligence—not just being unlucky or making the wrong decision (both of which are understandable) but an outright dereliction of duty to protect and lead the men underneath—is consistently killing U.S. soldiers. And the U.S. Army is refusing to do anything about it beyond some wrist-slapping.

While the attacks in Kunar and Nuristan receive a tremendous amount of attention—remember the officers not really punished for essentially leaving COP Keating defenseless and LTC Bill Ostlund admitting he held the people of Waigal in such contempt he didn’t see the need to listen to his own intellignece?—I worry this is pointing to a larger issue. It’s not the Rules of Engagement, necessarily, that are putting soldiers at such tremendous risk. What we’re seeing through these investigations that it is an environment of impunity at the O-5 level and above which is enabling dangerously irresponsible men to remain in decision-making positions without consequence.

That is surely more damaging than any broad directive requesting soldiers limit civilian casualties.

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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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Dane February 18, 2010 at 11:42 am

Isn’t there an incipient movement afoot to hold officers personally liable for casualties? There was a WaPo story not too long ago about this and a Brigadier General blogged on it recently.

Joshua Foust February 18, 2010 at 11:43 am

Incipient, yes. But so far it’s meant more slaps on the wrist, not much more.

Rugged 2 February 18, 2010 at 9:58 pm

There are different kinds of letters of reprimand in the Army. Some are held locally and might be called a “slap on the wrist”, but others follow the officer for the rest of his/her career. The latter is sort of the equivalent of saying “you’ll never work in this business again.” I don’t think the article makes it clear which sort of reprimand we are dealing with in this case, although I would suspect the latter. At any rate, I think it’s a bit premature to conclude that the officers in question got just “a slap on the wrist.”

anan February 18, 2010 at 12:19 pm

Josh, isn’t the US military too risk averse as is? I think the US military should take more risk; by embedding small units in ANSF.

In the long run the ANSF will not have combat enablers comparable to what Americans expect; they need to start planning for how to fight a low cost, low enabler support, war now. Notice that the Indian and Pakistani armies fight with far fewer combat enablers; and their militaries cost a lot less per soldier. Ditto with the Taliban, since they were formed and to some degree still lead by retired Pakistani Army and special forces.

Part of learning to fight with low budgets and enabler support means letting the ANSF plan and conduct their own operations; and letting ANSF mistakes risk the lives of their embedded ISAF advisors.

Josh, the largest objective of ISAF is increasing ANSF capacity. What you seem to be recommending is inconsistent with this objective.

“the inquiry into the clash, which erupted after Afghan security forces and U.S Army and Marine trainers were ambushed in the Ganjgal Valley near the border with Pakistan in northeastern Kunar Province.” Why don’t you write about the investigation into the ANSF leadership?

Joshua Foust February 18, 2010 at 1:01 pm


There is a huge difference between being overly risk adverse (which we are) and also negligent in protecting against reasonable risk. I’d argue we are very much the second as well – both unwilling to take necessary and appropriate risks to accomplish the mission, and simultaneously unwilling to discipline officers who negligently put their men at risk.

Those aren’t contradictory viewopints, they’re analogous ones. The Army right now is badly miscalculating its risk factors.

anan February 18, 2010 at 1:57 pm

I wasn’t clear in my point either. Your comment has merit for ISAF or American combat forces.

However, this was an ANSF unit that had embedded ISAF (in this case American) advisors. This was a failure in the ANSF chain of command. To some degree, the ANSF must be free to make its own choices and mistakes . . . even if they risk the lives of ISAF embedded combat advisors. Currently, ISAF embedded advisors have far too many force protection restrictions.

For example, why are American ANP advisors (PMTs) not sleeping with the ANP the way Canadian POMLTs are? Precisely because advisory commands are afraid of being reprimanded over incidents such as this one.

BruceR February 18, 2010 at 4:12 pm

I think the “sleeping with the ANSF” meme has caught on in a lot other places besides Canadian police advising, thankfully. A lot’s changed since I made that observation a year ago.

The systems in place clearly broke down in this case. What I thought was most interesting from the linked article, though, was that ISAF ROE were not considered a factor in the outcome, as the journalist embedded with the patrol claimed at the time… it was a straight-up leadership failure back at the supporting FOB.

Anan, there is no reason those supporting Afghan forces need to give up all our technological advantage. We wouldn’t have thought much of a firebase commander who openly said in this situation, “the ANA got themselves into this mess… they can get themselves out; maybe they will learn something by it.” One of the things we’re trying to impart, after all, one of the things that makes any army great, is the idea that when your allies are under fire, you move heaven and earth to help them. We failed to live up to our own principles in this case, and that only undercuts anything we were trying to show Afghans in the process.

anan February 18, 2010 at 5:10 pm

Good point. ISAF was negligent in setting up fire support for this ANA unit.

To what degree was this a failure of the ANA units’ battalion HQs failing to coordinate between its subordinate company and ISAF? If the advisors get reprimanded, shouldn’t the ANA officers get reprimanded as well? Is there an investigation taking place within the ANA?

I don’t follow why foreigners and Afghans alike don’t expect more from the ANA’s leadership and hold them accountable.

BruceR February 18, 2010 at 12:38 pm

Given that the inquiry established that the senior guy on the base at the time was a Major (O-4), I’m not sure it makes sense to blame the “O-5 level and above” for this.

Joshua Foust February 18, 2010 at 12:59 pm

I’m not so sure – these are decisions being made at even higher levels. It’s systemic, to be sure, but it starts at the top.

POed in MW February 21, 2010 at 6:50 am

If Marines weren’t killed in this incident 10th Mountain would have covered it up, surely. But this is a ROE problem! Last month the new BN went to Ganjgal again, again the TB and villagers shot up the Americans from THE SAME FIRING POSITIONS AS BEFORE, and we lost a SGT. No artillery support and 2 Kiowas flew around watching the whole thing without being able to fire.
This is maddening.

BTW Ganjgal and FOB Joyce are close, separated by a single modest ridgeline. God help us all.

Sergeant L.B., rest in peace.

Joe Harlan February 21, 2010 at 3:39 pm

I think there’s an issue here that needs to be addressed. Anan makes a good point, that you have long been making, that we are too risk averse. Criticisms that “we aren’t doing enough”, or that we are negligent in protecting our troops, will almost certainly lead to the military overreacting. We stay hunkered down on our bases as it is, and if the military does anything well, it’s to write new rules.

Perhaps, then, there is need to provide more detail in what you’re criticising: the quoted text notes that it was insufficient artillery and air support. Instead of just calling for ‘accountability’ — and sure, people should be held responsible for their decisions — this needs to be fed back into CALL and other Lessons Learned people who will (hopefully) recognize that what was lacking was initiative and decisiveness, not adequate defensive measures.

I suppose my warning, then, is to be careful what to get wound up about, and what refrain to lend your voice to. It shouldn’t be “protect our boys”, but instead “do things right”. I’d say you mostly do this, but as I had precisely the same initial reaction to your post as anan did, it might be good to be clear on this point.

Char Westbrook February 21, 2010 at 7:28 pm

“Is this a slap on the wrist or this is a very serious “reprimand?”

“Well Mrs. Westbrook, please know these officers will never work for the military and for that matter find work in the civilian sector. They have received a General Officer Memorandum of Reprimand”

BS! These “officers” do not have to write on their resume’ that they were ever in the military. The incompetency of these three officers took the lives of 5 fine young soldiers and forever changed the lives of so many family members and friends. My husband, SFC Kenneth Westbrook laid there bleeding after being wounded an hour and half into the ambush. AND after being told air support would be there in “5 minutes” when the initial shots were fired. When my husband was wounded they called for MEDEVAC and the response to the call? The response was, “Is it Marine or Army? Are they Marines or Army?” Who gives a crap! I thought Marines, Army, Navy and the Air Force all belonged to the US Military. Thank goodness for the embedded reporter, Jonathan Landay was there to witness and account for what happened that day. Otherwise I feel like it would have been “swept under the rug”. I hope these officers can sleep very well every night knowing they forever changed the lives of our three sons, it is unforgivable!

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