The Marine Corps commandant 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-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 Taliban ground attack. 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," Gen. Amos said.
"It was unrealistic to think that a determined enemy would not be able to penetrate the perimeter fence," he added.
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 U.S. 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 for 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 Taliban breach, according to a U.S. Central Command investigation.
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," Gen. Amos wrote in a memo accepting the investigation.
Troop reductions also affected security measures. When Gen. Gurganus took command in 2011, about 17,000 U.S. troops were in his operations area. By the time of the attack, in September 2012, the U.S. contingent had dropped to 7,400 because of troop withdrawal requirements President Barack Obama imposed. 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.
Gen. Gurganus did seek permission in the summer of 2012 to add 160 troops to protect Bastion and Leatherneck, but his Kabul superiors rejected the request because the military had hit a forces limit the White House set.
Even so, Gen. Amos said Gen. Gurganus should have reallocated troops from elsewhere to protect the encampments. "The commander still has the inherent responsibility to provide protection for his forces," the commandant said. "Regardless of where you are in a [troop] drawdown, you're required to balance force projection with force protection."
Despite the reductions, several officers then stationed at Leatherneck said many idle Marines could have been assigned as guards. Instead, some took online courses, as others worked out in a gym twice a day.
In interviews this year, Gen. Gurganus characterized the attack as "a lucky break" for the Taliban. "When you're fighting a war, the enemy gets a vote," he said. But when Gen. Amos informed Gen. Gurganus that he was being relieved, the commandant said Gen. Gurganus told him, "As the most senior commander on the ground, I am accountable." Gen. 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. Col. 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.
Before seeking the Central Command investigation, Gen. Amos had nominated Gen. Gurganus to receive a third star and serve as the Marine Corps staff director, the service's third-ranking job. His nomination was put on hold once the inquiry began.
Since his return from Afghanistan, Gen. Sturdevant has been the U.S. Pacific Command's director of plans and policy.
Gen. Amos said the decision to fire the generals was the most agonizing choice he has had to make as Marine commandant. Gen. Gurganus and Gen. Sturdevant are friends of his, he said, and their collective time in uniform totals almost seven decades.
Gen. Gurganus and Gen. Sturdevant will be allowed to retire, but Gen. 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, relieved of command in 1971 after a North Vietnamese attack on a U.S. outpost that killed 30 soldiers, military historian Thomas Ricks said.