"The sky is not falling," Col. Charles "Chip" Preysler, commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, said Saturday from Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
Preysler spoke via telephone less than a week after his paratroops and their Afghan allies were involved in a fierce attack at a small post near the village of Wanat. In the July 13 battle, nine of his men were killed and 15 others wounded.
But the attack is not a sign of conditions worsening in the country, he said.
The battle occurred just after dawn at a temporary vehicle patrol base near Wanat. A platoon-sized element of Chosen Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne) soldiers and a smaller Afghan National Army force were occupying a hastily built area as they had done many times over the 15 months they’d been in country, Preysler said. The soldiers were there on a reconnaissance mission to establish a presence and find a good location to connect with the local government, populace and Afghan National Police, he said.
The small outpost had been built just days before the attack and consisted of protective wire and observation posts surrounding strategically placed vehicles. "That’s all it was, a series of vehicles that went out there," Preysler said.
"People are saying that this was a full-up [forward operating base]/combat outpost, and that is absolutely false and not true. There were no walls," Preysler said, latter adding, "FOB denotes that there are walls and perimeters and all that. It’s a vehicle patrol base, temporary in nature."
But that doesn’t mean the soldiers were not prepared to take on the enemy, he said.
"Now, obviously when you halt, you start prepping your defenses, and in this case we had [observation posts] and protective wire, we had the vehicles deployed properly to take advantage of their fields of fire, and we set up like that all over the place, and we do it routinely," he said.
The Army did not "abandon" the base after the attack, as many media reporters have suggested, Preysler said.
He said the decision to move from the location following the attack was to reposition, which his men have done countless times throughout their tour, and to move closer to the local seat of government.
"If there’s no combat outpost to abandon, there’s no position to abandon," he said. "It’s a bunch of vehicles like we do on patrol anywhere and we hold up for a night and pick up any tactical positions that we have with vehicle patrol bases.
"We do that routinely.... We’re always doing that when go out and stay in an area for longer then a few hours, and that’s what it is. So there is nothing to abandon. There was no structures, there was no COP or FOB or anything like that to even abandon. So, from the get-go, that is just [expletive], and it’s not right."
He also didn’t like the media’s characterization that his men were "overrun."
"As far as I know, and I know a lot, it was not overrun in any shape, manner or form," an emotional Preysler said. "It was close combat to be sure — hand grenade range. The enemy never got into the main position. As a matter of fact, it was, I think, the bravery of our soldiers reinforcing the hard-pressed observation post, or OP, that turned the tide to defeat the enemy attack."
Though Preysler and his staff have seen several reports on the fight and numbers of enemy, he said true specifics still remain unclear.
"I do not know the exact numbers. But I know they had much greater strength than one U.S. platoon," he said. "I believe the enemy to number over 100 in that area when he attacked. I don’t know the casualties that he took, but I know that it’s got to be substantial based on the different reports I’m getting. We may not know the true damage we inflicted on the enemy, but we certainly defeated his attack and repulsed his attack and he never got into our position."
Preysler and his staff also object to media reports that because of the size of the attack, it could be a harbinger of change in the way militants fight in eastern Afghanistan.
"I think people are taking license and just misusing statistics, and I refuse to do that," he said. "We’re in the middle of the fighting season. When we first got here last summer and started fighting here in June, we were only seeing the enemy and engaging him first about 5 percent of the time. Now we’re between 25 and 40 percent. We see the enemy, and we’re engaging him first."
When the 173rd arrived last summer, it marked the first time that a brigade-sized element operated in the upper provinces near of the Pakistan border, allowing for a much larger presence.
"By sheer numbers and sheer volume of patrols — I mean this [battalion] has had 9,000 patrols in 15 months — we’re out there taking the fight to the enemy," We’re out there taking the ground that he used to own exclusively, and we have separated him from the people in many locations," Preysler said. "This is one area that is still contested, and we’re going to have to go back in there and fight hard to separate the insurgents from the population, and that is exactly what we’re going to do.
"Now, the problem is we are in the middle of a transition, [but] I would not characterize this as anything more than the standard fighting that happens in this area in good weather that the summer provides. The harvest is in, and it’s the fighting season. I don’t see massive enemy pushes into our area. The sky is not falling, and this is what we’ve been facing all along in the summer."
Preysler ended the interview by lauding his soldiers.
"I get emotional about this, you’ll have to forgive me," he said. "These guys have fought for 15 months, and they have fought harder, and I mean this literally, they have fought harder and (had) more engagements, more direct-fire engagements, than any brigade in the United States Army in probably the toughest terrain. These guys are absolutely veterans and they know what they’re doing and they have that airborne spirit and they fought a very, very tough battle and held the ground and did everything they were supposed to do.
"I would like to also say I wish my guys who were wounded a speedy recovery and obviously condolences to the families, and that’s very close and personal to us. It’s tough to take casualties toward the end of any combat tour for any unit, but it signals that we’re in a fight, and we’re going to continue to fight."