Investigation uncovers warnings to close Afghanistan outpost prior to deadly attacks

Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, kept a remote U.S. base in the country manned last year at the local governor’s request, despite warnings from his field commanders that it should be closed because it was vulnerable and had no tactical or strategic value.

McChrystal’s decision to maintain the outpost at Barg-e Matal prompted the top American commanders in eastern Afghanistan to delay plans to close a second remote U.S. outpost, Combat Outpost Keating, where insurgents killed eight Fort Carson soldiers in an assault Oct. 3, a McClatchy investigation has found.

Another 22 Fort Carson soldiers were wounded in the Colorado base’s bloodiest day since the Vietnam War.

In a summary of a military investigation made public this month, Lt. Gen. Guy Swan said fewer than 70 Fort Carson soldiers from the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, repelled an enemy force of 300 and “distinguished themselves with conspicuous gallantry, courage and bravery.”

Keeping Barg-e Matal open also deprived a third isolated base of the officer who would have been its acting commander and left its command to lower-ranking officers whose “ineffective actions” led “directly” to the deaths of five American and eight Afghan soldiers in an ambush Sept. 8, according to a high-level military investigation.

In addition, an unidentified witness told the military investigators that the operations center that failed to provide effective artillery and air cover to the U.S. and Afghan force that was ambushed in the Ganjgal Valley was focused instead on Barg-e Matal.

That ambush inquiry and Swan’s probe into the Oct. 3 deaths at outpost Keating don’t mention that McChrystal’s decision to keep Barg-e Matal open made the combat outpost and the Ganjgal operation more vulnerable.

Instead, those inquiries hit lower-ranking officers — including two field commanders who had urged McChrystal for months to close Keating and Barg-e Matal — with administrative penalties.

The two officers, Col. Randy George and Lt. Col. Robert Brown, and other U.S. officials had warned repeatedly that the two outposts were worthless and too costly to defend, two American defense officials and a former NATO official told McClatchy.

Neither George nor Brown could be reached for comment.

“Political ramifications”

A spokesman for McChrystal said the U.S. commander had ordered American troops to remain in Barg-e Matal to prevent it from falling to insurgents while a local militia was being trained there.

Nuristan Gov. Jamalluddin Badr pressured the United States to keep troops in Barg-e Matal to prevent the village from falling to the Taliban before Afghanistan’s Aug. 20 presidential election. The two U.S. defense officials said McChrystal’s decision to keep the outpost open until the local militia was trained was intended to help Badr survive the political fallout had insurgents captured the village after an American withdrawal.

“Everyone knew why we were in Barg-e Matal,” one U.S. defense official said. “McChrystal . . . was not in favor of pulling out because of the political ramifications.”

The two American defense officials and the former NATO official said they wanted to discuss the matter because of what they considered flawed investigations that penalized the two field commanders but failed to hold McChrystal and other superior officers accountable.

They requested anonymity to avoid retaliation.

“Impossible to close”

They said that George, of the Army’s 4th Infantry Division, based at Fort Carson, had begun making plans to close Keating in January 2009, six months before his 4th Brigade Combat Team deployed to Afghanistan in June.

He briefed plans to close Keating and Barg-e Matal to McChrystal, other senior commanders and top Afghan officials at a July 17 meeting in Kabul, they said, and he and Brown briefed McChrystal again in early August at Brown’s headquarters at Forward Operating Base Bostick in Kunar province, they said.

“The Barg-e Matal operation made it impossible to close Keating,” the former NATO official said. George “had a whole schedule for coming down out of those COPs (combat outposts) accordion-style.”

George has received a letter of admonishment. Brown has received an official reprimand.

“They are screwing these two guys,” the first U.S. defense official said of the field commanders.

Penalizing the pair is even more egregious, the U.S. defense officials and the former NATO official said, because their plans to close the outposts were consistent with McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy of moving American troops from remote areas to economically important population centers.

The fact that officers in the field are being punished while no mention has been made of the role that their superiors played signals that those on the front lines always will take the blame when things go wrong, the first U.S. defense official said.