Best Defense

The view from Firebase Chapman: Crazy monkeys and more

One great thing about CNAS is the quality of the interns. Over the weekend  my book researcher, Kyle Flynn, casually mentioned that he had done some Special Forces time at FOB Chapman, a small American outpost in Khost province near the Pakistani-Afghan border. Yes, that is the base where 13 CIA operatives were killed or ...

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images

One great thing about CNAS is the quality of the interns. Over the weekend  my book researcher, Kyle Flynn, casually mentioned that he had done some Special Forces time at FOB Chapman, a small American outpost in Khost province near the Pakistani-Afghan border. Yes, that is the base where 13 CIA operatives were killed or wounded last week in a suicide bombing attack.

I asked Kyle what memories of the base the attack brought back and what thoughts it provoked. This is his response: 

FOB Chapman has played a pivotal if semi-hidden role in this fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda since the war’s beginning. Having lived  there in 2005, the recent bombing evoked several memories of what made this tiny firebase unique: the downed Soviet aircraft that sit in ruins along one edge of the airfield; the crazy monkey that the spooks kept caged up behind their compound; and most importantly, the fact that we were "guests" at a non-military camp. (The ability to drive four kilometers to Green Beans’ coffee bar at Camp Salerno was a bonus as well.) It also brought back some thoughts about less unique aspects of the place–the frequent barrages of rocket attacks that rained down from somewhere along the AfPak border; the Haqqani network’s persistent efforts to bypass the camp’s security measures with suicide bombers; and the small yet adequate gym that was recently reduced to rubble.

If it is true that the bomber was a Pakistani informant well known to the CIA, driven through checkpoints by the Afghan head of security for the base, then there are only two explanations that I can think of for what happened:

1.)The informant had "no-escort" status on Chapman and simply walked into the most crowded place that he could find.

2.) The informant was on his way to a high-level meeting with Agency folks who somehow got complacent, probably due to good information that the source delivered in the past. If this option is true then heads will roll.

Yet I still can’t figure out why one person– even a high-level informant — would have access to or be meeting with thirteen operatives or contractors. But then again, what are the odds that this source could find this group together in the gym? For this reason, I go with number two. Even so, I’m still a bit surprised that the USG did not use its favorite phrase "government contractor" phrase in an attempted act of discretion.

Nevertheless, this incident, along with many others, underscores the risk posed to coalition personnel working in close partnership with Afghan nationals by Taliban sympathizers and informants. In this fight, our greatest asset, and our only chance at victory, is also our greatest liability: the Afghan and Pakistani people. So like many other unfortunate and perhaps preventable activities, last Wednesday’s attack is an inevitable part of war.

I  also am struck by the lack of discreetness given to the CIA by the media in the wake of Wednesday’s attack. Once upon a time, FOB Chapman was, at least in theory, a covert site, one of those off-the-radar firebases whose existence the CIA didn’t acknowledge, and which the media agreed not to publicize. Even though local Afghans–including the Taliban–most likely knew of the base, broadcasting the camp’s activities does neither the families of the fallen nor the incoming replacement team any good. Any insurgents who didn’t know fully what went on at Chapman before last Wednesday now probably have a much better idea, thereby making it a bigger target. Call me old-fashioned, but full-disclosure and plain conjecture in cases such as these cannot be beneficial to future military and intelligence operations conducted out of the base.

Update: Hard-working Joby Warrick reports in the Washington Post that the bomber of the base was Jordanian, and that his handler was a Jordanian intel officer.

So, smart, well-informed, experienced readers: Was this an ISI operation?

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1
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