More than a year has passed since an Afghan police commander turned on coalition forces and helped insurgents carry out a surprise attack that killed nine Americans, wounded more than 30 United States and Afghan troops and nearly resulted in the loss of an allied outpost in one of the deadliest engagements of the war.
Within days of the attack, Army historians and tactical analysts arrived in eastern Afghanistan to review the debacle near Wanat, interviewing soldiers who survived the intense battle, in which outnumbered Americans exchanged gunfire for more than four hours with insurgents, often at distances closer than 50 feet.
Now, that effort to harvest lessons from the firefight of July 13, 2008, has contributed to a new battlefield manual that will be delivered over coming days to Army units joining the fight in Afghanistan with the troop increase ordered by President Obama.
The handbook, “Small-Unit Operations in Afghanistan,” strikes a tone of respect for the Taliban and other insurgent groups, which are acknowledged to be extremely experienced fighters; even more, American soldiers are warned that the insurgents rapidly adapt to shifts in tactics.
In page after page, the handbook draws on lessons from Wanat and other missions, some successful and some that resulted in death and injury for American and allied forces. The manual can be read as an effort to push the nuances of the complex counterinsurgency fight now under way in Afghanistan down from the generals and colonels to newly minted privates as well as to the sergeants and junior officers who lead small units into combat.
Copies of the 123-page handbook, produced by the Center for Army Lessons Learned, are being distributed throughout the service and are available to NATO allies and other nations with troops in Afghanistan. A copy was provided in advance to The New York Times by an official involved in the distribution, who said consideration was being given to a broader public release.
The manual includes a chapter titled “Cultural Engagements,” offering guidance to small-unit leaders on building relationships with wavering village elders and trust among distrustful village residents — a process that cannot be left to senior officers who may be back at headquarters.
Implicit in the instructions is a warning that troops are at risk if they are aloof from the locals and uncaring of their needs — and of the certain dangers if intelligence sources are used incorrectly.
One lesson of Wanat was that American troops, who had set up the firebase five days before the attack, were caught unaware of collusion between the district police chief and the Taliban.
The manual describes how to train better for the defense of remote forward operating bases in harsh Afghan terrain, especially in contested areas where the loyalties of local people are uncertain. The detailed “how to” lists include instructions on such battlefield techniques as deploying mortars more effectively than soldiers did at Wanat, where they did not take into account terrain that provided cover for attackers.
In the fight now under way in Afghanistan, even small platoons may be expected to patrol areas and conduct both combat operations and civilian reconstruction missions traditionally assigned to much larger combat units.
“Every soldier or leader involved in command post operations is one less soldier or leader available to send on patrol, provide security, or staff a quick-reaction force,” the handbook says. One lesson of Wanat was that the primitive forward firebase was understaffed.
The handbook’s publication days after the first anniversary of the Wanat battle was first noted by a blog operated by the Combined Arms Center, the Army’s headquarters for advanced learning and leader development at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
The blogger, Frontier 6, said the handbook drew together lessons of successes in Afghanistan, as well as what has been gleaned from operations when Americans left the battlefield badly bloodied.
“Although the losses at Wanat were tragic, a close scrutiny of the action with an eye to lessons learned can save lives in the future,” the blogger wrote, noting that the handbook also built on analysis from an insurgent ambush of American troops this past April in the Korangal Valley, also in eastern Afghanistan.
It is perhaps one of the worst-kept secrets in the Army, but Frontier 6 is the Internet alias of Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the Fort Leavenworth commander and occasional blogger, who previously served as the top military spokesman in Iraq.
Combat commanders acknowledge how much they rely on the analysis and lessons-learned manuals sent from headquarters back in the United States. “The education of our force is the best weapon we have,” said Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the new commander in Afghanistan. “Counterinsurgency is complex, nuanced and ever-changing, and success is dependent on a fighting force that can recognize these changes and adapt to them.”
In distilling lessons into practical advice for the troops, General Caldwell is building on an effort brought to popular attention by a predecessor, Gen. David H. Petraeus, now commander of American forces in the Middle East.
Under General Petraeus’s leadership at Fort Leavenworth, the military released a counterinsurgency field manual credited with helping turn around the war in Iraq and ending the armed services’ focus on heavily armored conventional warfare.
With that manual’s release, the American military was forced to embrace the messy irregular warfare that had been the core competency solely of a small specialty branch in the armed services — the Army Special Forces, known as Green Berets.