The Stars and Stripes has a dramatic account of the attack by approximately 200 Taliban on an American combat outpost in Kunar province. An initial map recon of the battlefield was featured in an earlier post, On the Pakistani Border. For those who didn’t read that post the Google terrain map showed the village of Wanat, the approximate location of the engagement, to be in the middle of a deep valley about with higher ground looming on every side. Keep that picture in mind when reading the Stars and Stripes account.
The first RPG and machine gun fire came at dawn, strategically striking the forward operating base’s mortar pit. The insurgents next sighted their RPGs on the tow truck inside the combat outpost, taking it out. That was around 4:30 a.m. …
The next target was the FOB’s observation post, where nine soldiers were positioned on a tiny hill about 50 to 75 meters from the base. Of those nine, five died, and at least three others — Stafford among them — were wounded.
The attacking Taliban force was far larger than the entire American force in the forward operating base, manned by a platoon-sized element, but it especially outnumbered the even smaller complement manning the observation post. It was upon this small unit that the brunt of the enemy assault fell.
Immediately, a grenade exploded by Stafford, blowing him down to a lower terrace at the observation post and knocking his helmet off. Stafford put his helmet back on and noticed how badly he was bleeding.
Cpl. Matthew Phillips was close by, so Stafford called to him for help. Phillips was preparing to throw a grenade and shot a look at Stafford that said, “Give me a second. I gotta go kill these guys first.” …
The firefight intensified. Bullets cut down tree limbs that fell on the soldiers. RPGs constantly exploded.
Back at Stafford’s position, so many bullets were coming in that the soldiers could not poke their heads over their sandbag wall. Bogar stuck an M-249 machine gun above the wall and squeezed off rounds to keep fire on the insurgents. In about five minutes, Bogar fired about 600 rounds, causing the M-249 to seize up from heat.
At another spot on the observation post, Cpl. Jonathan Ayers laid down continuous fire from an M-240 machine gun, despite drawing small-arms and RPG fire from the enemy. Ayers kept firing until he was shot and killed. Cpl. Pruitt Rainey radioed the FOB with a casualty report, calling for help. Of the nine soldiers at the observation post, Ayers and Phillips were dead, Zwilling was unaccounted for, and three were wounded. Additionally, several of the soldiers’ machine guns couldn’t fire because of damage. And they needed more ammo.
The observation post was within an ace of being overrun; in fact the Taliban had entered part of the tiny unit’s perimeter. Then reinforcements came — in the shape of a few men from the platoon less than 100 meters away. Thus augmented, they counterattacked and attempted to get all the survivors into the main position. Small groups of men went back and forth looking for survivors. One man who was given up for dead, Sgt Ryan Pitts, was actually holding out in an isolated part of the position and surprised everyone by calling in alive. Driven by this news, the platoon mounted a 3 man rescue mission to bring back Pitts, which bogged down in the face of Taliban machine gun and RPG fire. Then “air support arrived in the form of Apache helicopters, A-10s and F-15s” and suddenly the tables had been switched on the Taliban.
The rest of the account should be read in its entirety. Not everything is explained and some readers might fill in the blanks with their imagination; guess the Taliban achieved tactical surprise; intended to knock out the platoon mortar, pin down the main position and then take and massacre the outpost. They might deduce from the large number of RPGs that the attack was orchestrated by the enemy higher command and wonder at why, with surprise and numbers on their side, the large enemy force failed to annihilate the 9-man observation post. But until the history of the assault is written, what happened a Kunar will simply be a story based on a Stars and Stripes account written by a correspondent from interviews given by men who had survived the fight.
But in the strange world of the War on Terror stories are important; this was a tale whose ending the Taliban had hoped to write themselves. The entire purpose of the operation — what the Taliban hoped to achieve by their extraordinary exertion was probably not simply the death of 9 infidels — but press headlines saying ‘American unit massacred in Afghanistan’ or ‘Airborne outpost annihilated on the Pakistani border’. Had they succeeded in provoking those headlines the fight in Kunar would have become the focus of talking points in Congress, the subject of talk shows on the networks and speeches on the Presidential campaign trail. It was a story that many Taliban were undoubtedly prepared to give their lives to project. But they failed.
They failed because a new ending to the story was written at the last minute by the men of the 173rd Airborne. In the nature of the media coverage it will not necessarily be portrayed as a victory for US forces, but at least it won’t be trumpeted as a victory for the Taliban. What happened in Kunar was not only a saga of arms under desperate conditions but a defensive victory in the war of information. In many mosques and madrassas around the world people will notice that on an early morning in Afghanistan, the magic of 173rd Airborne was more puissant than that of Osama bin Laden.