Force protection is Job One in Afghanistan

The News TribuneOctober 2, 2013 

U.S. Marines stand before the helmets, weapons, dogtags and boots of two fallen Marines during an April 2008 ceremony at Camp Bastion in southern Afghanistan.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS, 2008

Two U.S. Marines killed and six aircraft destroyed in a Taliban raid last year; two major generals held responsible and forced into retirement this week.

That’s what real accountability looks like. Marine Commandant Gen. James F. Amos deserves credit for following the trail of a deadly blunder to the very top of the food chain.

The two-star generals he cashiered, Charles “Mark” Gurganus and Gregg Sturdevant, were reportedly highly competent officers and personal friends of Amos. Neither fact dissuaded the commandant from forcing their resignations Monday. Would that all of the military — and all public agencies and corporate boards, for that matter — were so adamant about good judgment at the top.

The devastating attack that killed Lt. Col. Christopher Raible and Sgt. Bradley Atwell is a cautionary tale for commanders managing the rapid drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

As combat troops — including Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers — are being thinned out on the ground, protecting them gets progressively harder. There are fewer of them to watch each others’ backs, so commanders must be extra vigilant about providing adequate force protection.

The debacle at Camp Bastion on Sept. 14, 2012, is a case study in what happens when commanders let their guard down.

Marines and British forces were jointly responsible for guarding the large NATO base, which included a squadron of Marine Harrier jets. Both militaries were slipshod about it. The British reportedly failed to put reliable guards in the base’s watchtowers, and the Marines reduced the strength of their patrols from 325 to 100 in the months preceding the raid.

High-ranking officers had underestimated the Taliban, who aren’t short of courage or ingenuity. The insurgents spent months rehearsing a plan to penetrate Camp Bastion, which proved something less than a bastion. Fifteen infiltrators, dressed in U.S. uniforms, broke through the barbed wire perimeter with relative ease and battled hundreds of NATO troops for almost five hours.

Using rocket-propelled grenades, they demolished six $24 million Harrier jets and damaged most of the others, effectively destroying the entire squadron — the biggest single blow to U.S. air power since the Tet offensive of 1968.

Raible, the squadron commander, was killed charging the infiltrators with only a pistol; Atwell was killed in the same counterattack. Their heroics were impressive, but they should never have been forced to burnish Marine tradition with their blood.

American commanders have presumably learned their lesson. The fact that we’re winding down our war against the Taliban doesn’t mean the Taliban are winding down their war against us. U.S. troops in Afghanistan will be increasingly tempting targets as they grow fewer and weaker. Their superiors should be lying awake at night worrying about how to protect their lives.

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