GWEN IFILL: Next, we turn to the unprecedented fallout from a deadly strike on U.S. forces in Southwestern Afghanistan.
On September 14, 2012, 15 Taliban insurgents mounted a surprise attack on a huge coalition base in Helmand Province. Two Marines were killed, eight wounded, and half-a-dozen fighter jets were destroyed. Yesterday, the commandant of the Marine Corps fired two generals in connection with the incident, Charles Gurganus and Gregg Sturdevant. It was the first time such high-ranking officers have been fired for negligence since the Vietnam War, forced out for failing to provide adequate security.
For more on this rare punishment, we turn to the reporter who first uncovered details of the attack, Rajiv Chandrasekaran of The Washington Post.
Thank you for joining us, Rajiv.
Tell us the story of what happened at Camp Bastion that night.
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN, The Washington Post: This was a remarkable, audacious Taliban assault.
What happened here was, 15 insurgents dressed in U.S. Army uniforms literally walked on to this coalition air base. It was a NATO airfield that was supposed to be protected by both British soldiers, as well as U.S. Marines. And they managed to get on the flight line and destroy $200 million worth of U.S. fighter jets and other equipment, the largest single loss of allied materiel in the 12-year-long Afghan war.
And the allegation here that has been substantiated now by investigation is that, as the Marines were drawing down their forces from that part of Afghanistan, they cut back on the number of troops to patrol the area around that base, and so they left the area around that base pretty much uncovered.
GWEN IFILL: Who was supposed to be covering that area around the base?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: It was a combination of both British troops, soldiers from the nation of Tonga, who were supposed to be manning watchtowers, and the watchtower closest to the point of entry was left unmanned on the night of the attack. But then American Marines were supposed to be patrolling the areas around it, a broad perimeter of desert where there were a number of sort of encampments that had been set up by poor Afghan farmers.
And these insurgents managed to get in those encampments and surveil the base, and they weren’t seen, in part because those patrols had been cut back on.
GWEN IFILL: They actually had maps of the base?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Sophisticated maps, yes.
GWEN IFILL: Now, General Gurganus presumably told you and told The Washington Post that maybe the Taliban just got lucky that night. That was the first initial response to this. Did they not do their own investigation?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: There wasn’t really much of an investigation done. General Gurganus ordered a review of security on the base.
And the top NATO commander at the time ordered a British general to go and look at security and do an investigation for NATO. But what you had was essentially a British general evaluating the role of British troops. You had General Gurganus looking at his forces, but nobody else to really come in and look at whether General Gurganus himself and other senior officers were negligent in all of this.
No investigation was done in the initial months after this attack that could have held American service members to account. It wasn’t until members of Congress started to ask questions. It wasn’t until senior officials at the Pentagon said, hey, wait, why isn’t this being looked at more thoroughly, and an article in The Washington Post that helped then lead Marine officials to order this investigation.
GWEN IFILL: Now, let’s go back a moment. This wasn’t the first incident of this kind of at this base. So that should have sent up red flags.
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Certainly not.
There was an incident called the burning man incident where a British — an Afghan translator working for British forces tried to drive a van, and rammed a plane carrying then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. And when he missed, he almost ran over General Gurganus, who later on essentially told an untruth to reporters who were on the plane with Panetta, saying, oh, there was no real incident.
That translator drove his van into a ditch and then tried to light himself on fire. So, there was already a heightened concern about attacks on that base.
GWEN IFILL: Is security in Afghanistan, at bases in Afghanistan a different ball of wax than other places we have been, in part because of the ongoing withdrawal of troops?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, it certainly complicates the matter.
As troops are being reduced, and yet bases remain open, there is a need to protect those facilities and protect all those lines of communication, as the military calls them, all those roads that are being used to pull equipment out.
Unlike the withdrawal in Iraq, which proceeded rather peacefully, Afghanistan is still very contested, very hostile in areas where we’re reducing forces. So it adds a whole ‘nother complication for American commanders, and they want to be focused on training the Afghan army, conducting combat operations. At the same time, they need just as many soldiers in many cases as they did a year or two or three ago to protect their bases.
GWEN IFILL: So what is it about this particular offense that brought such a severe punishment? We know that once an investigation finally got under way, they must have discovered something to lead to the firing of two generals, something so unusual.
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, what the investigation — and I have read an unclassified copy of it — found was just a systemic pattern of failure by these two generals in terms of assessing the threat, taking it seriously, requisitioning the necessary resources to protect the base, accepting what was a dysfunctional arrangement with coalition forces for who was to protect the compounds.
And so this investigation was pretty hard-hitting, pretty scathing. And you had the commandant of the Marine Corps wanting to demonstrate that he was going to seek accountability at all levels of the service. It is just coming days after, Gwen, the commandant has taken steps to try to increase discipline in the barracks on bases for junior officers. The Marines have faced their share of disciplinary challenges in Afghanistan.
Some Marines have been brought up on charges for urinating on the corpses of dead Taliban insurgents. And so I think what you also had here was the commandant saying, look, I’m going to seek accountability at all levels of my service.
GWEN IFILL: Rajiv Chandrasekaran, thanks for your reporting.
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Good to talk to you.