The commandant of the US Marine Corps on Monday sacked two generals in the wake of a deadly attack last year by the Taliban on a major Nato base in Afghanistan.
The extraordinary decision came after a military investigation found Major General Charles Gurganus and Major General Gregg Sturdevant failed to take sufficient action to safeguard the base from a possible assault by insurgents, the Marine Corps said in a statement.
It was the first time an American general had been fired over battlefield negligence since the Vietnam war, officials said.
The September 14-15 assault on Camp Bastion in southern Afghanistan was one of the most brazen ever pulled off by Taliban insurgents. Two Marines were killed, eight others wounded and six AV-8B Harrier fighter jets destroyed.
Endorsing the probe’s findings, General James Amos, chief of the Marine Corps, wrote that while he was aware of the challenges faced by the Marines due to a troop withdrawal in Afghanistan, it was his duty “to remain true to the timeless axioms” that define a commander’s task.
“Responsibility and accountability are the sacred tenets of Commandership.”
Amos asked both officers to retire, the statement said. He also recommended to the Navy secretary that Gurganus’s nomination for promotion to the rank of Lieutenant General be rescinded and that Sturdevant receive a letter of censure.
Amos said he agonised over meting out discipline to officers whom he considered to be friends.
“This is the hardest decision I’ve had to make as commandant of the Marine Corps,” Amos said.
Amos said Gurganus, who had overall command of the base as head of Regional Command Southwest, bore “final accountability for the lives and equipment under his charge.”
According to Amos, the general “made an error in judgment when conducting his risk assessment of the enemy’s capabilities and intentions” towards the base, which included the British-run airfield at Bastion and a Marine installation, Camp Leatherneck.
Amos concluded that Sturdevant, who oversaw the aviation arm of the Marine force at the base, failed to “adequately assess the force protection situation” at Bastion and had responsibility to add his own security forces to the British contingent guarding the airfield if necessary.
“Marines can never place complete reliance for their own safety in the hands of another force,” Amos wrote.
In arriving at his decision, Amos “acknowledged the inherent risks of combat and the challenges faced by both commanders in striking the proper balance between aggressively pursuing the enemy and safeguarding their forces.”
However, Amos found that the commanders “did not exercise the level of judgment expected of General Officers” and had to be held accountable.
After initial investigations of the incident looked at overall security, Amos requested US Central Command, which oversees troops in the Middle East and Afghanistan, conduct a probe to assess “accountability.”
In the well-planned assault, 15 insurgents with wire cutters took advantage of reduced security around the base, including an unmanned watchtower. Troops from Tonga had been assigned the job of guarding the base’s perimeter.
The commandant acknowledged that the two generals had the difficult task of managing their mission with drastically reduced troop levels because of a drawdown mandated by President Barack Obama.
The number of US troops in the region under Gurganus’ command had declined from 17,000 when he took over in 2011 to 7,400 when the September last year attack took place.
But even with a smaller force, the generals should have taken more precautions to protect the base, Amos said.
“The fog of war, the uncertain risks of combat, and the actions of a determined foe do not relieve a commander of the responsibility for decisions that a reasonable, prudent commander of the same grade and experience would have made under similar circumstances,” Amos wrote.
The internal investigation had found that commanders were focused on the threat of insider attacks by Afghan soldiers turning on NATO-led troops.
Six months before the Taliban attack, an Afghan interpreter set himself on fire and drove a truck toward a line of officers waiting to greet the visiting US defence secretary. The truck crashed into a ditch.
One of the Marines killed in the September attack was Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Raible, a Harrier squadron commander, who confronted the Taliban fighters with his pistol.
Citing the two Marines killed in the assault, Amos said military leaders owed it to the troops who risked their lives on the battlefield to hold commanders to the highest standard.