WASHINGTON — As one of the deadliest battles of the war in Afghanistan raged, Afghan soldiers ran, hid and even stole personal items from the American troops fighting and dying at a remote outpost.
When the Oct. 3, 2009, firefight at Combat Outpost Keating ended near the Pakistan border, eight U.S. soldiers were dead — among them Sgt. Joshua J. Kirk, 30, of South Portland, Maine — and 22 more were wounded. A military investigation released Friday said the 53 Americans at Keating fought heroically, repelling hundreds of insurgents, but the investigation also faulted U.S. ground commanders for leaving American troops in a vulnerable position. And the Afghan troops received a withering appraisal from troops who were interviewed by investigators.
The U.S. has spent billions of dollars since 2001 training and equipping the Afghan army and police. Afghan security forces capable of defeating insurgents and terrorists are an essential ingredient in the Obama administration’s plans to begin withdrawing American forces, and senior U.S. national security officials speak optimistically of progress.
But firsthand accounts from the battle at Keating, detailed in witness statements included in the investigation, provide a different, highly critical view.
One of the harshest came from two Latvian soldiers stationed at Keating and responsible for mentoring the three dozen Afghan troops at the base in mountainous Nuristan province. In interviews conducted after the attack, the Latvians told the U.S. investigators that the Afghan soldiers lacked “discipline, motivation and initiative.”
Close to 300 insurgents attacked Keating at dawn with rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and guns. As the chaos of combat enveloped the base, the Latvians said they saw three Afghan soldiers at the aid station waiting to be treated for minor scratches and cuts. An Afghan platoon sergeant was in a corner of the station, curled up in a fetal position, they told the investigators.
Later, they opened a door to one of the buildings and found several other soldiers and Afghan security guards sitting on beds “anxiously waiting.” None of them had weapons at the ready or made an aggressive move when the door swung open. In other buildings, they found Afghan soldiers “in ones and twos, hiding under blankets in the fetal position.”
Protein drinks, digital cameras and other personal items that belonged to the Americans were found in the overstuffed duffel bags of Afghan soldiers as they were being moved to another base on an Army helicopter after the battle had ended, investigators were told. “A majority of the duffels contained materials that had been pillaged from the US soldiers’ barracks rooms,” said a memo summarizing comments.
The investigation was led by Guy Swan, an Army general. In a summary of the findings, Swan said U.S. ground commanders had left the troops at Keating in a vulnerable position without adequate support. Swan recommended giving four officers letters of admonition or reprimand. A reprimand is more serious than an admonition. Both can negatively affect an officer’s career.
The documents show Stanley McChrystal, then the top American general in Afghanistan, approved the decision to punish the officers — a captain, a major, a lieutenant colonel, and a colonel. For their privacy, their names were removed from the copy of the report posted on U.S. Central Command’s website. The investigation said the soldiers from B Troop, 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry, were in a “tactically indefensible position” with an “unclear mission.”
The investigation said in the weeks before the attack there were reports of a large enemy force massing near Keating and preparing for an attack. Those reports were sent up the chain of command, “but there was an inadequate response and ultimately a failure of intelligence to prepare the unit for the enemy’s action,” according to the documents.
That failure probably resulted from commanders becoming desensitized to reports of pending assaults. The unit would frequently hear that as many as 100 enemy fighters were preparing to attack Keating and only a handful would appear. As a result, these reports began to be taken less seriously.
The investigation also said there were too few troops at Keating. And because the base had been scheduled to be closed, the construction of barriers and other defenses weren’t pursued “since improvements would be of limited duration,” the report said. Overall, the decision to abandon the base inadvertently “undermined base defense and preparedness” and made Keating an easier target for the enemy to attack, the investigation said.
But in agreeing with the punishments, McChrystal, who was removed last summer after a magazine article anonymously quoted people around him criticizing members of President Barack Obama’s national security team, praised the officers’ prior performance and acknowledged the tough circumstances they faced.
In a December 2009 memo, McChrystal said he recognized the “extremely difficult missions and extraordinary responsibilities we have given these officers in a challenging, complex combat environment.”
Even under the best of circumstances, defending Keating from a full-scale onslaught would have been daunting. The base was in a deep bowl, surrounded by high ground giving the enemy ample lines of fire. A nearby U.S. observation post called Fritsche, which was attacked at the same time, offered scant protection, the investigation said.
“Worst location I have ever seen in my 19 years for a fighting position,” a B Troop 1st sergeant told investigators. “This spot should not have been chosen even during the best of conditions.”
Names were removed from the witness statements.
The soldiers from B Troop weren’t supposed to still be at Keating when the attack occurred. McChrystal wanted to shut isolated bases and have U.S. forces focus on more populated areas in Afghanistan to protect civilians. Keating was to be closed in July or August of 2009. But the move was delayed when equipment and supplies needed to move the troops and their material were diverted to support operations by Afghan security forces in another area.
Keating was shut down three days after the attack.