Afghan police aided attack on U.S. troops

Large Taliban assault in July cost lives of 9 Americans

November 04, 2008|By New York Times News Service


An internal review by the American military has found that a local Afghan police chief and another district leader helped Taliban militants carry out a July 13 attack in which nine U.S. soldiers were killed and a remote American outpost in eastern Afghanistan was nearly overrun.

Afghan and American forces had started building the makeshift base five days before the attack, and villagers repeatedly warned the American troops in that time that militants were plotting a strike, the report found. It said the warnings did not include details and troops never anticipated such a large and well-coordinated attack.

The assault involved about 200 fighters, nearly three times the number of the American and Afghan forces defending the site.

As evidence of collusion between the district police chief and the Taliban, the 44-page report cited large stocks of weapons and ammunition that were found in the police barracks in the adjacent village of Wanat after the attackers were repelled.

The stocks were more than the local 20-officer force would be likely to need, and many of the weapons were dirty and appeared to have been used recently. The police officers were found dressed in "crisp, clean new uniforms," the report said, and were acting "as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred."

The attackers were driven back in a pitched four-hour battle after American artillery, warplanes and attack helicopters were called in. Still, the militants fought in ways that showed imaginative military training, if not sophisticated weapons.

In the midst of the battle, American soldiers were at times flushed out into the open when they fled what they thought were grenades but were in fact rocks thrown by Taliban attackers, the report said. The day before the attack, the militants began flowing water through an irrigation ditch feeding an unused field, creating background noise that masked the sounds of the advancing fighters.

The base and a nearby observation post were held by just 48 American troops and 24 Afghan soldiers. Nine Americans died and 27 were injured, most in the first 20 minutes of the fight. Four Afghan soldiers were also wounded.

The intensity of the attack was so fierce, the report said, that U.S. soldiers shot at insurgents as close as 10 yards away, often until their weapons jammed, and at militants who climbed trees overhanging their positions to shoot at the Americans.

The attack on the outpost near Wanat caused the worst single loss for the American military in Afghanistan since June 2005, and one of the worst overall since the invasion in late 2001. It underscored the vulnerability of American forces in Afghanistan, as well as the continuing problem posed by uncertainties over the loyalties of their Afghan allies, especially the Afghan police.

The military investigating officer, an Army colonel whose identity was not disclosed in a redacted copy of the report provided to The New York Times, recommended that the police chief and the district governor be replaced, if not arrested.

But the senior American commander in eastern Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Schloesser, decided after conferring with American forces that relieved the unit, that the district governor had probably been acting under duress and had been cooperative with American troops, according to the general's spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Rumi Nielson-Green.

Nielson-Green said in a telephone interview yesterday that while the governor had been absolved, it was unclear whether the police chief in Wanat was complicit.

A spokesman for Afghan Defense Ministry officials said the Americans had never discussed these complaints with them.

Hajji Abdul Halim, deputy governor at the time of the Wanat attack and now the acting governor of nearby Nuristan province, said both officials had been detained briefly and then released.

"We suspected them after the incident, but the American forces released the district governor after two days of custody," he said by telephone.

The report, completed Aug. 13 and declassified to allow military officials to brief family members of those who were killed, did not assign blame to any commanders of the unit involved - the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Combat Brigade Team - which was in the final days of a 15-month deployment when the attack took place.

"The actions by leaders at all levels were based upon sound military analysis, proper risk mitigation and for the right reasons," the report said.

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