“We are pinned down. We are running low on ammo. We have no air. We’ve lost today,” Marine Maj. Kevin Williams told his Afghan translator as Afghan soldiers repeatedly asked for helicopter support. American military trainers and the Afghan soldiers they were working with had been pinned down by intense machine gun, rocket-propelled grenade, and mortar fire for several hours, and the artillery support they had been promised was being withheld by commanders at a nearby forward operating base.
The combined force of 60 Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers, 20 Afghan border police, and 13 U.S. trainers set out before dawn on Sept. 8, 2009 to search the rugged Afghan village of Ganjgal in eastern Kunar province for weapons and to conduct a meeting with local officials. The town had just recently rejected the Taliban’s authority in favor of the Afghan government. The village elders had requested that Afghan troops would conduct the sweep, and the embedded American trainers were present in case air or artillery support was required.
As the unit approached the village, situated in a valley encircled by craggy mountains, the town’s lights suddenly turned off – a likely sign that the mission has been compromised. Minutes later, the first shots were fired at the column, and the force was quickly enveloped with heavy machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade fire. The Americans and Afghans took cover behind rock walls, and the enemy began an attempt to flank the pinned-down unit.
As a force of about 100-150 enemy fighters maneuvered to flank the unit, the American commander called for the helicopter and artillery support that had been assured before the men set out. Although the unit was informed that helicopter support would arrive within five minutes, a reporter who had embedded with the unit stated that helicopters didn’t arrive for 80 minutes after the call – the helicopters were fighting another battle in the nearby Shuryak Valley, and two pilots had reportedly been shot.
The unit was taking heavy casualties, surrounded on three sides, their radio only working intermittently, when they learned that the artillery support they had been promised earlier was not coming. Despite assurances that the requested targets were not near the village, officers at the nearby forward operating base came back on the radio and informed the Americans that new rules of engagement prevented them from allowing any artillery near the village in order to prevent civilian casualties. When the team requested smoke rounds to be fired to hide their retreat, the fire base did send white phosphorous rounds – 50 minutes later. Reports also state that commanders did not comply with repeated requests for reinforcements via the on-call quick reaction force.
To make matters worse, commanders may have known beforehand that the unit was walking into an ambush. On Sept. 3, a similar team of ANA, border police, and U.S. mentors visited the town of Dam Dara, one mile from Ganjgal. The team met the “cordial” village elders and performed a weapons sweep, but militants attacked the unit following the meeting as they passed near Ganjgal. No casualties were reported and the team withdrew from the area. The elders immediately renounced the Taliban and invited the team to return. U.S. commanders learned before the fatal mission that the Taliban had met in Ganjgal on Sept. 7, discussing an ambush on the U.S./Afghan force. 20 fighters were already in Ganjgal, and they expected 20 more.
Commanders did not want to dampen the spirits of the Afghan forces or endanger the village elders, so the Sept. 8 mission went forward as planned.
Five Americans lost their lives in the battle: Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class James R. Layton, 22, of Riverbank, Calif.; Marine 1st Lt. Michael E. Johnson, 25, of Virginia Beach, Va.; Gunnery Sgt. Aaron M. Kenefick, 30, of Roswell, Ga.; and Gunnery Sgt. Edwin W. Johnson, Jr., 31, of Columbus, Ga.. Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth W. Westbrook, 41, of Shiprock, N.M. died nearly a month later at Walter Reed Army Medical Center from wounds suffered in the attack. Westbrook was only one month from retirement.
Eight Afghan soldiers and an interpreter were killed, and 20 U.S. and Afghan troops were wounded.
The Marine Corps has reportedly recommended Dakota Meyer, 22, of Greenfield, Ky. for the Medal of Honor. Despite fighting so intense that helicopters were unable to land and armored vehicles were repeatedly driven back by rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, then-Cpl. Meyer charged into the kill zone in order to find four of his comrades. Although previously wounded by shrapnel, Meyer charged into the kill zone on foot, located the bodies of his teammates and carried each of them to safety, repeatedly braving heavy enemy fire.
Meyer has since fulfilled his four-year commitment to the Marine Corps and is now a civilian. If he is awarded the Medal of Honor, he will only be the second living recipient of the medal since the Vietnam War. It is rumored that another Marine could receive the Navy Cross, the nation’s second-highest award for valor. Others may receive Bronze Stars with a “V” for valor.
These warriors undoubtedly deserve to be honored, but their medals should never have been needed in the first place.
Following an investigation into the battle, investigators recommended that the officers who withheld the support each be given a written letter of reprimand. However, the Army will not disclose whether any reprimands were issued. Army officials have announced that “negligent” leadership at the battalion level contributed “directly to the loss of life which ensued” as officers denied repeated requests for artillery support and the failure to inform higher commands of the imperiled unit.
The only element of this fateful event that can be rationalized is the helicopter support: According to military reports, the helicopters were slated for another mission, and if necessary would break away in order to support the Ganjgal mission. Negligence may be to blame for much of the other contributing factors. From what we can ascertain from the military’s redacted reports, Ganjgal could be considered a perfect example of “Murphy’s Law:” inexperienced junior officers manning the operations center, radio malfunctions, air support that was unavailable, and so on.
Rather than pinning the blame on junior officers – the military has withheld the names and ranks of those involved – we owe it to these men to identify the root cause of the problem. While warriors are totally at the mercy of some factors, others are well within their military’s ability to influence. One contributing factor that has escaped relatively unexamined is the new rules of engagement (ROE) that were recently put in place by the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Just weeks before the Ganjgal ambush, Gen. McChrystal released a directive announcing new and more restrictive ROE, especially tightening rules for indirect fire weapons such as artillery. In previous conflicts, the unit would have been fallen under attack, and artillery rounds would have either killed the enemy or enabled the embattled unit to break contact. Either way, the artillery support would have helped the good guys and hurt the bad guys.
Whatever led the commanders to their decision, whether it be incompetence or their interpretation of Gen. McChrystal’s directive, three Marines and their corpsman, would have lived to fight the Taliban another day while a soldier would have been enjoying retirement with his family.
But taking a longer view, the ROE are merely a symptom of a larger disease that is our warfighting doctrine – counterinsurgency.
While minimizing civilian casualties on the battlefield is always a priority, under counterinsurgency, such an emphasis has been placed on winning hearts and minds in part by limiting civilian casualties that we see instances such as Ganjgal where commanders interpret Gen. McChrystal’s directive in such a way that they decide to withhold support from a unit that could potentially be overrun. As U.S. Rep. Walter Jones wrote in a letter to Army Secretary John McHugh, ““No service member should ever have to beg for support in the face of such terrible odds.”
But in a battlefield where much of the population supports the enemy – a recent survey shows that over 80% of Afghans support the Taliban – one has to consider where to draw the line between winning hearts and minds and breaking the will of your enemy. In fact, during the Gangjal battle, women and children were seen shuttling ammunition to the fighters. While the Afghan people may not like the Taliban’s barbaric rule, they tend to side with them on ideological grounds, while they largely view the Americans as the enemy, and the Afghan government, whom they consider corrupt.
Some hearts and minds are more easy to win than others, and it seems that our government failed to consider this crucial aspect when formulating their strategy.
In July, Gen. McChrystal was replaced by Gen. David Petraeus, who promised to look into the ROE. Nothing has changed. But don’t expect Petraeus to modify our warfighting doctrine that these problems stemmed from: Petraeus literally wrote the book on counterinsurgency – The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Field Manual on Counterinsurgency (FM 3-24).
One can only imagine that, had the rules not been so restrictive, and had the doctrine been more effective against this enemy, all of these men and many other American military members would still be alive rather than the militants who use our own rules against us.