The storming of Camp Bastion, the headquarters of British forces in Afghanistan, was, by any yardstick, a success and a great propaganda coup for the Taliban. Two US Marines were killed, adding to the large number of Western forces who had lost their lives, but more significantly for the auditing of the war, almost an entire squadron of the US Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier jets was destroyed at a cost of $200m – the largest single loss of aircraft in the current Afghan conflict.
At the time, the British media focused on Prince Harry, who had arrived at the base amid enormous publicity. The operation was apparently designed to assassinate him, although no evidence of this has emerged since. Later there were “revelations” that he had been “stashed away” in a safe house, which was untrue.
There had, however, been an extremely serious failure of security, the severity of which was shown by the sacking last week of two US generals, Charles M Gurganus and Gregg A Sturdevant – the first time since the Vietnam War that a general, let alone two, had been dismissed by the US military while in combat.
I remember watching Camp Bastion being built in the middle of the wilderness in 2006. “Please don’t say this will turn into our Dien Bien Phu,” said a senior officer in the Royal Engineers involved in the construction. It was, indeed, never besieged as the French forces were at another base in Vietnam, a key part in their losing the war. Instead it just grew and grew to the size of a large town, with a US camp, Leatherneck, mushrooming alongside.
At the end, the breaching of Bastion in September 2012 was due to the haste at which the US and British governments had begun to cut and run from Afghanistan. The force numbers had been slimmed down and the British, who were in charge of Bastion’s security, assigned the task of manning the watchtowers to troops from Tonga, one of the 49 countries which form coalition of the willing – and sometimes inexperienced – making up Isaf (International Security Assistance Force).
On the night of the attack, the Tongans had failed to man the tower closest to the Taliban breach, the result of miscommunication and the lack of a clear combined chain of command for security in Bastion and Leatherneck.
After his dismissal, Gen Gurganus, a man once seen as heading for the top, was sanguine: “When you’re fighting a war, the enemy gets a vote,” he said. On this particular occasion, however, the enemy were given a helping hand to the polling station, not least by the government in London insisting on too quick a withdrawal of British troops for a conflict they had decided was a burden.Reuse content