Official assurances that British commanders are not responsible for security failings which left Camp Bastion vulnerable to a deadly Taliban attack fail to recognise damning criticisms in a major investigation by the US army, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.
The findings of a recently released US army report and papers into the assault on the British-run base last September, in which 18 soldiers were killed or wounded, and almost an entire squadron of Harrier jets destroyed, were dismissed by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) after a cursory review last week.
Yet serious shortcomings by the British are implicit in the US report, which prompted the sacking of two US generals earlier this month. While it did not assess “any potential responsibility of other coalition forces,” it states that Britain was responsible for protecting Camp Bastion and refers to “limitations of the coalition forces responsible for protection of the Camp Bastion perimeter.” The report cites “inadequate observation” with “unobstructed freedom of movement once past the perimeter fence guard towers” and “unimpeded pedestrian access to the airfield.”
A series of official warnings had been made to senior British and American officers that the base was vulnerable to attack - including specific recommendations to protect the airfield. And the lack of an “integrated, layered, defence-in-depth” caused the attack, it concludes.
The patrolling effort was “inadequate to detect, deter, or counter enemy forces seeking to attack.” Weeks before the attack there were several breaches of the perimeter - two captured on video. In one case, someone was able to get in and explore an empty watch tower before leaving.
The UK had just 50 personnel to guard the 37 kilometre perimeter of Camp Bastion. Only five out of the 24 watch towers were actually occupied by British soldiers on the night of the assault.
One US commanding officer, whose name is redacted, describes the British as: “not the most cooperative for getting information. We did not believe with some of their scheduling and manning.” They added: “The UK, prior to the attack, had three breaches where they found their wire cut down in the southern end of Camp Bastion... we asked them to man more towers.”
Commenting on Britain's refusal to pay for a protective fence recommended by British army engineers months before the attack, an unnamed US commander said: “With the 100 million plus that we spent on that airfield, springing for an additional million dollars on a fence didn't seem unreasonable, but the UK really got wrapped around the axle on not waiting to pay for that fence.”
Since the attack, the US has taken over responsibility for security at the base.
In contrast to the fate of their American colleagues, British commanders have since been promoted.
An MoD spokesman said: “We are confident that we have identified all significant lessons and acted upon them and consequently we are content with our earlier assessment that no further UK action is required.”
But Colonel Stuart Tootal DSO, a former British commander in Afghanistan, said: “I think there was complacency. The perimeter was undermanned - clearly someone was asleep at the wheel.” He added: “Perhaps the key point is that in the US military if someone makes a mistake someone at a senior level takes the can for it.”