Maj. Gen. Charles M. Gurganus, then-commander of I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward), speaks with Commandant Gen. Jim Amos, right, at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, in February 2013. At Amos' request, U.S. Central Command is investigating whether Gurganus or his staff bear responsibility for the Sept. 12 attack on Bastion that killed two Marines and destroyed six jets. (Sgt. Mallory S. VanderSchans / Marine Corps)
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The U.S. military will investigate whether a two-star Marine general and other members of his staff bear responsibility for flimsy security on a major base in Afghanistan that was the site of a spectacular and deadly attack last fall, a Pentagon official said Thursday.
The probe will examine, in part, whether Maj. Gen. Charles “Mark” Gurganus, the top commander in southwestern Afghanistan at the time, should be held accountable for an attack on Camp Bastion by 15 insurgents, who killed two U.S. Marines and destroyed six AV-8B Harrier jets. The Sept. 14 incident marks one of the most brazen and high-profile security incidents on a major forward operating base in more than 11 years of war in Afghanistan.
The investigation was launched this month after Marine Commandant Gen. Jim Amos sent a letter to Gen. Lloyd Austin, chief of U.S. Central Command, said the Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue. Amos said in the letter that “important questions remained unanswered” and that he wanted to “determine accountability of the senior Marines involved,” according to a piece published by the Washington Post on Thursday.
Hundreds of Marines and other coalition forces scrambled to find and kill the well-trained enemy fighters after they breached the wire at Bastion under cover of darkness, opening fire on parked aircraft, military personnel and civilians. Marine officials have credited the quick response with preventing a precarious situation from getting worse, but some have criticized perceived complacency for allowing the attack to occur in the first place.
Killed in the attack were Lt. Col. Christopher Raible, 40, and Sgt. Bradley Atwell, 27. Raible was the commanding officer of Marine Attack Squadron 211, the Harrier squadron deployed at Bastion, and is credited with leading a counterattack that ultimately cost him his life, Marine officials say. He was posthumously nominated for the Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest award for combat valor.
The attack was particularly striking because of where it occurred. Camp Bastion abuts Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province. Togethjer they form a single, fortified base that is home to more than 10,000 deployed coalition troops. It serves as the main hub of British and U.S. Marine operations in Afghanistan. Along with Camp Shorabak, an adjacent training facility for Afghan forces, the complex covers about 36 square miles in Helmand’s desert, Marine officials said.
Gurganus, the commander of I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) and Regional Command Southwest last year, has defended decision making ahead of the attack, saying changes were constantly made to keep the enemy off balance.
“You do your best to cover all the bases, but you concentrate primarily on what your primary threats are and what is most likely, even while you’re guarding against what is the most dangerous,” Gurganus told reporters in April during a breakfast with journalists in Washington.
The Post reported in April that the towers closest to where the insurgents breached were unmanned the night of the attack. Gurganus also had approved reducing the size of the force patrolling outside Leatherneck and Bastion one month prior to the attack as the U.S. drew down forces across Afghanistan, Marine officials told the Post.
After the attack, Gurganus decided not to launch a full investigation that could have led to discipline for U.S. personnel because Bastion was run by British forces, rather than Americans, but Amos disagreed, the Post reported. Gurganus was nominated in March to pin on a third star and become chief of Marine Corps staff at the Pentagon. It wasn’t immediately clear whether that promotion will be put on hold while the investigation is conducted.
Other Marine officials with oversight in the region at the time include Maj. Gen. Gregg Sturdevant and Col. Stephen Sklenka. Sturdevant led aviation operations across the region as commander of 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Fwd.). Sklenka led the Corps’ logistics component in Helmand, Combat Logistics Regiment 15. Gurganus’ deputy commander with I MEF (Fwd.) was British Brig. Gen. Stuart Skeates.
Amos’ request for an investigation comes as he cracks down on accountability for commanders across the Corps. At least six Marine commanders, ranging in rank from captain to colonel, have been relieved for cause since mid-March. In each case, general officers have cited only a loss of confidence as the reason.
In one case, Amos decided to relieve the commander of Officer Candidates School, Col. Kris Stillings, on April 22 after three enlisted Marines died in March in an apparent murder-suicide on the school’s campus at Quantico, Va. Critics have questioned that decision; some have specifically noted that while it can be difficult to predict that kind of violence at home, no one had been relieved following the attack at Bastion.
In a May 9 letter to all Marines, Amos said his increased emphasis on accountability did not reflect a desire to establish “a zero-defects culture,” but he said preparing for combat must remain the service’s top focus. Commanders, he wrote, bear 100 percent of the burden for what happens in their commands.
“In the most cohesive units,” he wrote, “Marines proudly and willingly share the risks and rewards with their commanders.”