The commandant of the Marine Corps on Monday took the extraordinary step of firing two generals for not adequately protecting a giant base in southern Afghanistan that Taliban fighters stormed last year, resulting in the deaths of two Marines and the destruction of a half a dozen U.S. fighter jets.
It is the first time since the Vietnam War that a general, let alone two, has been sacked for negligence after a successful enemy attack. But the assault also was unprecedented: Fifteen insurgents entered a NATO airfield and destroyed almost an entire squadron of Marine AV-8B Harrier jets, the largest single loss of allied materiel in the almost 12-year Afghan war.
The commandant, Gen. James Amos, said the two generals did not deploy enough troops to guard the base and take other measures to prepare for a ground attack by the Taliban. The two, Maj. Gen. Charles Gurganus, the top Marine commander in southern Afghanistan at the time, and Maj. Gen. Gregg Sturdevant, the senior Marine aviation officer in the area, "failed to exercise the level of judgment expected of commanders of their rank," Amos said.
"It was unrealistic to think that a determined enemy would not be able to penetrate the perimeter fence," Amos said.
The incident brings into stark relief the unique challenges of waging war in Afghanistan. The withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops over the past two years has forced commanders to triage, sometimes leading them to thin out defenses. The U.S. military also has been forced to rely on other nations' troops, who often are not as well trained or equipped, to safeguard American personnel and supplies.
The attack occurred at Camp Bastion, a British-run NATO air base in Helmand province that adjoins Camp Leatherneck, a vast U.S. facility that serves as the NATO headquarters for southwestern Afghanistan. Because Leatherneck does not have a runway, the Marines use Bastion as their principal air hub in the country. Several hundred Marines live and work on the British side, and dozens of U.S. helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft are parked there.
The British are responsible for guarding Bastion, which is ringed by a chain-link fence, triple coils of razor wire and watchtowers from which sentries can scan the horizon for any potential attackers. British commanders had assigned the task of manning the towers to troops from Tonga, which has sent 55 soldiers to Afghanistan.
On the night of the attack, the Tongans left unmanned the nearest watchtower to the point of the Taliban breach, according to an investigation by the U.S. Central Command.
Other aspects of the U.S.-British security plan were "sub-optimal," the investigation found, with no single officer in charge of security for both Bastion and Leatherneck. The security arrangement created command-and-control relationships "contrary to the war-fighting principles of simplicity," Amos wrote in a memo accepting the investigation.
Troop reductions also affected security measures. When Gurganus took command in 2011, about 17,000 U.S. troops were in his area of operations. By the time of the attack, in September 2012, the American contingent had dropped to 7,400 because of troop-withdrawal requirements imposed by President Barack Obama.
In December 2011, 325 Marines were assigned to patrol the area around Bastion and Leatherneck. In the month before the attack, that number was cut to about 110.
Gurganus did seek permission in the summer of 2012 to add 160 troops to protect Bastion and Leatherneck, but his superiors in Kabul rejected the request because the military had reached a limit on forces set by the White House.
Even so, Amos said Gurganus should have reallocated troops from elsewhere to protect the encampments. "The commander still has the inherent responsibility to provide protection for his forces," Amos said. "Regardless of where you are in a [troop] drawdown, you're required to balance force projection with force protection."
Despite the overall troop reduction, several officers stationed at Leatherneck at the time said that many Marines with idle time could have been assigned to guard duty. Instead, some of them took online college classes and others worked out in the gym twice a day.
In interviews with The Washington Post this year, Gurganus characterized the attack as "a lucky break" for the Taliban. "When you're fighting a war, the enemy gets a vote," he said.
When Amos informed Gurganus that he was being relieved, Amos said Gurganus told him, "As the most senior commander on the ground, I am accountable." Gurganus did not return email messages seeking comment.
Two Marines, Lt. Col. Christopher Raible and Sgt. Bradley Atwell, were killed trying to fend off the attack. Raible, a Harrier squadron commander, charged into the combat zone armed with only a handgun. Eight other Marines were wounded in the fighting. The cost of the destroyed and damaged aircraft has been estimated at $200 million.
Although Gurganus ordered a review of security on the bases after the attack and a British general conducted a brief investigation for the NATO headquarters in Kabul, the Marine Corps waited eight months to ask the Central Command to initiate a formal U.S. investigation. Amos's decision followed inquiries from the Pentagon's Joint Staff, congressional staff members and a front-page article in The Washington Post that detailed the unmanned watchtower and the reduction in troops patrolling the perimeter.
Amos said Monday that he wanted to wait for reports from NATO and the Central Command before requesting a formal investigation.
Before seeking the investigation, Amos had nominated Gurganus to receive a third star and serve as the Marine Corps staff director, the service's third-ranking job. His nomination was placed on hold once the inquiry began.
Since his return from Afghanistan, Sturdevant has been serving as the director of plans and policy for the U.S. Pacific Command.
Amos said the decision to fire the generals was the most agonizing choice he has had to make as Marine commandant. Gurganus and Sturdevant are friends of his, he said, and their collective time in uniform totals almost seven decades.
Gurganus and Sturdevant will be allowed to retire, but Amos said it will be up to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to determine their final rank. If allowed to retire as major generals, they would be eligible to receive an inflation-adjusted annual pension of about $145,000.
The last two-star general to be fired for combat incompetence was Army Maj. Gen. James Baldwin, who was relieved of command in 1971 following a North Vietnamese attack on a U.S. outpost that killed 30 soldiers, said military historian Thomas E. Ricks.