Maj. Gen. Gregg Sturdevant, left, and Maj. Gen. Charles 'Mark' Gurganus (Sturdevant: Lt. Cmdr. Denver Applehans / PACOM; /)
WASHINGTON — The Marine Corps commandant said Monday he has asked for the retirement of two general officers in the wake of an attack last year in which 15 insurgents breached a fortified coalition base in Afghanistan, killing two Marines and destroying or damaging more than a dozen coalition aircraft.
Gen. James Amos, the commandant, said the two commanders did not take adequate security measures or exercise the high level of judgment expected of general officers.
“In their duty to protect their forces these two generals did not meet that standard,” Amos said in announcing his decision.
The attack on Camp Bastion last September constituted a major security breach and was among the more brazen insurgent assaults in Afghanistan.
Amos said he has asked for the retirement of Maj. Gen. Charles “Mark” Gurganus, who was commander of Regional Command Southwest in Afghanistan, and Maj. Gen. Gregg Sturdevant, who was commander of the Marines’ aviation wing in the region.
Amos also recommended that Gurganus’ nomination to the rank of lieutenant general be rescinded and that Sturdevant receive a letter of censure from the secretary of the Navy.
It’s rare that general officers are censured for actions in war.
Amos said it was the “hardest decision I have had to make as commandant of the Marine Corps” and that he had served with both men in combat, calling them “extraordinary Marine officers.”
Amos has made accountability a hallmark of his tenure at the top of the corps and said that the command is a “sacred responsibility.”
In May Amos had requested that Central Command, which oversees U.S. operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East, to conduct a more thorough review of the attack on Camp Bastion, focusing on determining accountability.
Several investigations had already been conducted into the September 2012 attack, but they did not adequately address issues of responsibility.
The attack’s boldness took the coalition by surprise. Using wire cutters 15 insurgents cut through a fence under the cover of darkness and used a dry stream to creep toward the flightline. They were dressed in U.S. Army uniforms and were heavily armed.
The insurgents were divided into three groups, each with a different objective. They targeted the Marine Harrier jump jets, helicopters and what they believed to be a living area for troops, according to the investigative report.
The attack was devastating. The insurgents completely destroyed six AV-8B Harrier jets, which cost about $24 million each, and severely damaged two others. Six other aircraft were also damaged.
More than 100 coalition troops responded to the attack, triggering a furious counterattack that lasted at least four hours.
One of the Marines killed in the counter attack was the Harrier squadron commander, Lt. Col. Christopher Raible, 40, who charged at the insurgents armed only with his sidearm. Marine Sgt. Bradley Atwell, 27, was also killed in the attack.
The one insurgent who was not killed in the counterattack was taken into custody and was interrogated.
The report found that a guard tower which looked over the area where insurgents breached the fence was unmanned and that patrols outside the perimeter had been reduced.
The attack occurred as the United States was reducing the number of its forces in Afghanistan. When Gurganus took command in 2012 there were 17,800 Marines in Regional Command Southwest, which includes Helmand province. By the time of the attack the number was down to 7,400.
Gurganus had made a request to the command headquarters in Kabul for 205 more Marines to help protect the base complex but it was denied, according to the report.
Still, the report said that would not absolve a commander of responsibility to protect his force.
The question of responsibility was complicated because Camp Bastion, a mostly British base, is part of a complex of bases that included Camp Leatherneck, a largely U.S. Marine facility, and a Afghan compound.
Security on Camp Bastion was a British responsibility under an existing agreement between U.S. and British commands. “This arrangement effectively created two different camps with two different protection standards,” the report said.
Before the attack Gurganus recommended that the structure be unified into a single unified command, but the proposal was rejected.
The intelligence at the time centered on threats coming from inside the compound and not a force breaching the perimeter.
The coalition’s view of the threat was partly shaped by a March 2012 incident in which a civilian on Camp Bastion stole a vehicle on drove on to the airfield at Camp Bastion just as then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was arriving for a visit. He then drove into a ditch and set himself on fire.
By contrast, the September attack had been planned for months and required extensive rehearsals and knowledge of the base. The fighters were recruited from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The report said commanders should still have been prepared for a range of attacks and that Gurganus and Sturdevant underestimated the enemy.
“It was unrealistic to think that a determined enemy would not be able to penetrate the perimeter fence,” Amos said.
Sturdevant was faulted in the report for not having his squadrons better integrate their security into Camp Bastion’s defenses and instead “assumed” that other units would provide protection.
Amos said battle commanders face a difficult challenge of balancing the need to accomplish the mission through “force projection” while still establishing defenses to protect troops.
U.S. forces had established outposts throughout Helmand province as they worked to build up Afghan security forces and protect the civilian population. That work cannot be done from behind fortified walls. But that forward posture necessarily thins out forces at large bases and exposes troops to more risks.
That balance becomes particularly treacherous during a drawdown.
Amos said commanders need to make an assessment of how much risk they are assuming as they strike that balance.
“In this case they misjudged,” Amos said.