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U.S. command errors preceded Taliban attack on Afghan outpost

The military's inquiry in the Oct. 3 onslaught in remote eastern Afghanistan calls for sanctions against at least two commanders, officials say. Soldiers are praised for their actions.

February 06, 2010|By Laura King

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — A series of command errors set the stage for a Taliban attack on a remote American outpost that left eight U.S. soldiers dead four months ago in one of the war's most lethal ground assaults, according to a U.S. military report released Friday.

The investigation of the Oct. 3 onslaught at a small installation in eastern Afghanistan's Nuristan province calls for sanctions against at least two commanders, according to officials familiar with the report. Only the report's executive summary was made public.

The report praised soldiers and their junior officers at Combat Outpost Keating for "heroically" repelling an attack by an insurgent force five times their number. It also concluded that measures needed to protect the outpost had not been taken, leaving it vulnerable to attack. It cited key lapses in surveillance, and said intelligence gatherers had become "desensitized" to reports of insurgents massing in preparation for an attack.

At the time of the onslaught, the outpost, in rugged terrain near the Pakistani frontier, was already slated to be closed. The military had concluded that it did not serve any purpose in halting cross-border infiltration by insurgents, who merely made slight alterations in their route to avoid it.

The planned shutdown was in line with orders by U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who had taken over in midsummer as commander of Western forces in Afghanistan, to pull troops out of isolated areas and divert those resources to protecting population centers.

However, the uprooting of Combat Outpost Keating was delayed for several months by logistical problems. In the meantime, word that the base was soon to be abandoned spread among villagers in Kamdesh district and insurgents operating in the area. That rendered it an "attractive target for enemy fighters," the military said.

About 300 attackers, who struck before dawn, almost overran the outpost, which was defended by just 60 troops. After hours of chaotic fighting, the insurgents were driven off by airstrikes. About 150 of the attackers were killed, the military said.

The incident was similar to an attack on an outpost in eastern Afghanistan in 2008. Nine American soldiers were killed in that confrontation, which came to be known as the Battle of Wanat. The fighting, which triggered two major investigations, is now considered a textbook example of command misjudgments in assessing the threat to a small outpost.

laura.king@latimes.com

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