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U.S. Military Faults Leaders in Attack on Base

Published: February 5, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan — The United States military issued its long-awaited report Friday on how insurgents managed to overrun an American combat outpost in eastern Afghanistan in October and kill eight soldiers in the worst single ground attack in the last year and a half.

The report’s findings are damning. Combat Outpost Keating in Nuristan Province had “no tactical or strategic value,” the report said.

It was overdue to be closed, and measures to protect it were lax, even though it had been attacked 47 times in the preceding five months. Intelligence reports of a major attack went unheeded.

A detailed chronology in the report noted that air support did not arrive until long after the action started, and that a quick reaction relief force did not get there for 13 hours, by which time about half of the defenders had been wounded or killed, and most of the base destroyed.

Relatives of those killed in action were notified about the results of the investigation on Thursday. They were told that “the report also recommended administrative actions for some members of the chain of command to improve command oversight.” Citing privacy reasons, the military did not reveal what those actions were, how many officers were penalized, or who they were.

The outpost, in a deep ravine surrounded by mountains, housed a small United States Army unit, Troop B, Third Squadron, 61st Cavalry, and a smaller contingent of Afghan National Army soldiers, as well as civilian Afghan guards.

Next to it was the village of Kamdesh, with a mosque and an Afghan National Police post.

About 3 a.m. on Oct. 3, insurgents ordered all villagers to leave the area; none of them warned the Americans.

Using the high ground to their advantage, the insurgents opened fire from all sides of the outpost just before 6 a.m., immediately putting the Americans’ mortar pit out of action.

Simultaneously, other insurgents attacked a nearby combat outpost, Fritsche, to prevent soldiers there from coming to Troop B’s assistance.

The Taliban later took responsibility for the attack, but the area is also frequented by other antigovernment militias.

The attackers quickly overran the base, entering at three points: through a latrine area close to the perimeter wire; at the main entrance, where civilian guards were quickly overwhelmed; and from the eastern side, where Afghan National Army soldiers were stationed.

In Kamdesh, insurgents occupying the local police station and the mosque also fired into the outpost.

Once inside the wire, the attackers set fires that burned down most of the barracks and managed to wound 22 soldiers and kill 8, in total half of the approximately 60 Americans there. Insurgents also captured the outpost’s ammunition depot. Eight Afghan soldiers were wounded, along with two Afghan private security guards.

Some of the defenders took refuge in armored vehicles, but at least two were killed by shrapnel from rocket-propelled grenades that breached their turrets, the report said.

Within the first hour, the defenders had “collapsed their perimeter” to the immediate area around the command post, which became “their final fighting position.”

“Soldiers and junior leaders fought heroically in repelling an enemy force five times their size,” the military said in a separate statement about the report. It said 150 of the 300 attackers were killed in the action.

“The investigation concluded that critical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets which had been supporting COP Keating had been diverted to assist ongoing intense combat operations in other areas, that intelligence assessments had become desensitized to reports of massing enemy formations by previous reports that had proved false, and needed force protection improvements were not made because of the imminent closure of the outpost,” the statement said. “These factors resulted in an attractive target for enemy fighters.”

Because the version of the report that the military released was heavily redacted, it was unclear why relief was slow to get to Keating, although bad weather was cited in part.

Quick reaction forces sent from larger bases, by air and on foot, did not reach Keating until 7 p.m., while insurgents were still inside the outpost as late as 5:10 p.m., the report said.

Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar, Afghanistan, an employee of The New York Times from Lashkar Gah, and Elisabeth Bumiller from Washington.