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U.S. Central Command’s investigation into a deadly attack last year on one of the largest coalition bases in Afghanistan has included interviews on the West Coast and in theater, said the commandant of the Marine Corps.
Gen. Jim Amos told reporters on Wednesday that the investigation began about two weeks ago, and will likely take about another 45 days to complete. The investigation was launched after Amos sent a letter in May to Gen. Lloyd Austin, CENTCOM’s commander, asking for the inquiry, said the Pentagon official. Amos, speaking at a Defense Writers Group breakfast in Washington, said the investigation is led by a three-star general, with assistance from a two-star Marine officer. He didn’t name either individual.
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.
Gurganus returned to Camp Pendleton, Calif., this spring with I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) as their one-year deployment concluded. He was nominated to pin on a third star and become the chief of Marine Corps staff at the Pentagon, but the promotion was put on hold pending the results of the investigation.
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. He 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. Together 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 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 with that decision, the Post reported.
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 came as he cracked 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.