Senators summon McHugh to explain exoneration of battle commanders

Five senators are pressing Army Secretary John McHugh to meet with them and explain the Army’s decision to override the findings of an independent investigation into a deadly battle in Wanat, Afghanistan.

Nine U.S. soldiers were killed during the four-hour firefight at a remote outpost in Wanat in northeastern Afghanistan on July 13, 2008. The battle — which was prompted by a surprise insurgent attack — also left more than 30 U.S. and Afghan troops wounded.  About 200 enemy fighters attacked the troops as they were working to set up a combat outpost.

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Following a request from Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), the U.S. Central Command conducted a three-month independent investigation of the battle, which faulted the company, battalion and brigade commanders for poor planning. The investigation concluded the commanders were “derelict in the performance of their duties through neglect or culpable inefficiency.”

As a result of these findings, the Army initially issued letters of reprimand to all three officers, but then reversed its decision and annulled all three letters following further review. The families of the nine soldiers killed at Wanat are trying to fight the Army’s decision not to reprimand the commanders, and have some strong congressional allies to back their efforts.

Sens. Webb, Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) on Friday wrote to McHugh urging him to meet with them to justify the Army’s decision to exonerate the officers which “has raised a number of troubling issues.”

“Family members of the deceased who have contacted our offices have expressed their concerns over what they see as the Army’s failure to hold commanders accountable and the resulting likelihood that similar tragedies will occur,” the senators wrote to McHugh. “Given the depths of their concerns, we consider it necessary for you to address them, to inform us of your views on the principle of command accountability, and to describe how the Army is applying the lessons learned at the battle of Wanat.”

The families of the fallen soldiers were briefed in June about the CENTCOM investigation at Fort McPherson, Ga. It was during the same meeting that Gen. Charles Campbell, now the former head of Forces Command, told the families that he was reversing the decision to punish the officers, according to media reports. Campbell was assigned to review the CENTCOM investigation prior to his retirement. 

Campbell justified his decision to exonerate the three officers on the basis that they exercised “a degree of care that a reasonably prudent person would have exercised under the same or similar circumstances.”

Some family members have since called for McHugh or Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to reverse Campbell’s decision.

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