- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Nick Francona
Best Defense guest columnist
After reading Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s article about the Sept 14, 2012, attack on Camp Bastion/Leatherneck, I wanted to respond to comments made by Maj. Gen. Gurganus.
There is an apparent attitude that this attack occurred because of a failure of British and Tongan troops to secure their side of the perimeter near the Bastion airfield. It may well be true that Tongan troops would sleep on post, however, this does not excuse Marine commanders from inspecting and enforcing rigid standards. Force protection is the responsibility of the commander and because Maj. Gen. Gurganus had hundreds of troops stationed on the Bastion side of the base, he is responsible for overseeing a solid plan to protect his Marines and his aircraft. It is unacceptable and beneath a Marine general to chalk this up to a Tongan failure.
I have spent time at Leatherneck and Bastion as a transient, on the way in and out of parts of rural Helmand. It was obvious to even a casual observer that many of the posts were unmanned and were comically left with a "green Ivan" silhouette target as a half-hearted attempt at deterrence. The fact that there was dead-space around the largest U.S. military installation in the province is a fundamental failure and simply unacceptable. Additionally, it was widely known that there were issues with undocumented TCNs (third-country nationals) on the base that represented a major counterintelligence challenge. It was naive to think that the enemy would be unaware of the existence of unmanned towers.
From the article:
"You can’t defend everywhere every day," Gurganus said in response to a question about the attack. "You base your security on the threat you’ve got." He said the Taliban caught "a lucky break."
"When you’re fighting a war, the enemy gets a vote," he said.
While it is indeed impossible to mitigate all risks, even on large bases, I vehemently disagree with Maj. Gen. Gurganus’ assertion that you can’t defend everywhere every day in this context. It is indeed understandable to have VBIED and suicide bomber incidents at entry control points (ECPs) of bases, but it is another story entirely to have a dismounted assault penetrate your perimeter and stroll onto your airfield. His claim that you base your security on the threat you’ve got is the root cause for the environment of complacency that enabled this tragic event to occur. His statement about the enemy getting a vote is absurd in this context. Indeed the enemy does get a vote, but so do you, especially when it comes to defending nearly all Marine aviation assets in the region and a large concentration of personnel. Precisely because the enemy gets a vote, he has an obligation to anticipate and counter the enemy, and act like it is a war zone and actively defend his men and assets. The enemy’s "vote" is not akin to a hall pass to stroll onto the base.
The most offensive of his statements is coining the attack a lucky break. The attack only occurred because of an egregious failure in basic infantry practices. The enemy may have been lucky to exploit these failures, but neglect was the precondition that set the stages for this attack. Intelligence analysts should not have to issue a warning of an impending frontal assault on a major military base for the base to be prepared.
There is an appalling lack of accountability and introspection that is evident in Maj. Gen. Gurganus’ comments about this incident. It is painfully obvious that this attack would not have been successful, or likely even attempted, if not for multiple security failures at Leatherneck/Bastion. This single episode highlights a much larger problem of accountability in the Marine Corps. It is nearly impossible to get fired for incompetence.
We need to stop treating the Marine Corps like a teachers union and demand excellence and accountability from our officer corps.