Revealed: How defence cuts helped Taliban devastate Camp Bastion

UK’s failure to invest in security led to disaster at Afghan camp as two US Marines killed, 16 soldiers injured and eight American aircraft worth more than $200m either destroyed or damaged

Jonathan Owen
Monday 07 October 2013 18:30
British and Afghan troops at Camp Bastion in 2010
British and Afghan troops at Camp Bastion in 2010

Military recommendations to strengthen security at Britain’s main base in Afghanistan, made six months before an attack last year in which 18 soldiers were either killed or wounded, were rejected by the Ministry of Defence on cost grounds, The Independent can reveal.

The attack in September saw 15 Taliban fighters dressed in American uniforms walk past an unmanned watch tower and on to the airfield at Camp Bastion, where they opened fire with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. When the assault was quelled more than five hours later two US Marines lay dead, a further 16 soldiers were injured and eight American aircraft worth more than $200m had been either destroyed or damaged.

The revelations are made in newly released documents by the US military previously marked “secret” and come as British forces prepare to leave Afghanistan by the end of next year. A US general who was forced to retire in the aftermath of the attack said today that the British commanders of the base, who were in charge of all security at the joint facility which houses around 30,000 coalition forces, “screwed up” in failing to protect the troops from the assault. More than half the guard towers were empty when the insurgents launched the strike.

The revelation that the Government decided not to pay for greater protection for the base comes just days after Prime Minister David Cameron used his speech to the Conservative conference to praise the bravery of the armed forces and lead a standing ovation in the conference hall.

Tonight the MoD was urged to investigate the actions of British officers, with political and military figures insisting that the commanders of the base share the blame for the security lapses. On Monday two generals from the US Marines, Maj-Gen Charles Gurganus and Maj-Gen Gregg Sturdevant, were forced to retire when the report was published but as yet none of the British officers in charge at the base has faced any sanction.

The US Army investigation – which had a defined remit to investigate the actions of American officers – blamed senior US personnel for disregarding warnings of possible attacks and not doing enough to increase security. But security at the base was in fact the responsibility of British officers, some of whom have since been promoted.

Maj-Gen Gurganus’s former deputy, Stuart Skeates CBE – who was awarded a Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Service in the operational honours announced yesterday – has been elevated from brigadier to major-general and is now the Commandant of the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. Jeff Portlock, the Bastion base commander on the night of the attack, has been promoted from group captain to Air Commodore.

Secret papers released in conjunction with the US report reveal that the MoD refused to pay for a fence to protect the airfield despite British officers’ recommendation in March 2012 that one be installed following an attempted suicide attack on the runway where a plane carrying the US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta had just landed.

“A statement of requirements (SOR) was generated to request the preferred course of action: the installation of an airfield perimeter fence ... This SOR was initially sent through UK chain of command for approval; however, it was denied on the basis of cost [vs] security gains,” the review by the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) reads.

In another document, a senior US officer, whose name is redacted, states: “Every airfield that I’ve ever been [to] has a fence around to help protect it.” The ease with which the base was penetrated was “directly correlated” to Britain’s “inability to finance something that would be routine to us, and that is putting a fence around the flight line”, the officer is quoted as saying.

A statement by Maj-Gen Sturdevant reveals that he did not realise until after the attack that “there were unmanned towers out there... The Brits were embarrassed,” he says.

“It took a while for the real story to come out,” the statement continues, “and some of my folks are still pretty pissed off about that. It was unfortunate, and it was not a pretty story. For the tower to be unmanned with the terrain out there, I questioned that.”

In the aftermath of the assault, the US took over responsibility for security. “I told them that we were no longer willing to accept not being in charge of overall security. The attack definitely changed the environment. They knew that they had screwed up,” Maj Gen-Sturdevant says.

In response to the report, an MoD spokesman said that it would be looking into the US report’s conclusions.

“The UK has contributed fully to a number of Isaf, US and UK reviews; as a result, force protection measures at Camp Bastion have been reviewed and are appropriate to current threat levels,” the spokesman said.

“The US review was intended to examine US actions only and not those of coalition forces. However, the UK will consider the findings of this review to confirm our earlier assessment that no further UK action is required. It would be inappropriate to comment further at this time.” But Colonel Richard Kemp, a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, said that Britain must accept responsibility for failing to protect the base.

“There is no doubt that security failings on the part of both British and American forces contributed to the attack on Camp Bastion,” he said.

“If British commanders were culpable then, like their American counterparts, I would expect disciplinary action to be taken. Questions do need to be answered.

“If a fence was required but not built due to cost this is a very serious matter. Several times the Prime Minister has assured us that adequate funds will always be provided for operations in Afghanistan.”

Madeleine Moon MP, a member of the Commons Defence Select Committee, said that the report showed the “ongoing risks associated with the drawdown of UK and US forces”.

“Sadly I doubt the MoD’s willingness to be as robust [as in the US] in identifying its mistakes and the senior officers, including those at Permanent Joint Headquarters, who failed to take the appropriate actions to ensure the protection of Camp Bastion,” she said.

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