U.S. military launches probe into deadly assault in Afghanistan

The U.S. military has launched a formal investigation into whether a two-star Marine Corps general and his subordinates bear responsibility for lax security at a large coalition base in southwestern Afghanistan where a Taliban ambush killed two Marines and destroyed a half-dozen U.S. fighter jets.

Although the attack last year resulted in the largest loss of allied materiel in the Afghanistan war, Maj. Gen. Charles Gurganus, the top U.S. commander on the base at the time, did not order a formal U.S. military investigation into the security lapses.

The Washington Post reported last month that British forces, who were responsible for security on the side of the base that was attacked, handed off the job of manning watchtowers to Tongan soldiers, who left several of the towers unmanned. Security patrols of the perimeter, which were conducted by the Marines, also had been scaled back substantially in the months leading up to the attack.

Several officials with direct knowledge of the assault told The Post that those staff decisions made it easier for the Taliban to reconnoiter the compound and then enter without resistance. Once inside, 15 insurgents used grenades to destroy almost an entire squadron of Marine AV-8B Harrier jets, a loss estimated by military officials at about $200 million.

Gen. James F. Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, concluded this month that a formal investigation was needed. “Important questions remained unanswered,” he wrote in a May 9 letter to Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III, head of the U.S. Central Command, which will conduct the investigation.

Amos wrote that he is seeking to “determine accountability of the senior Marines involved” and to “prevent this type of tragedy in the future.”

The NATO regional headquarters that Gurganus commanded conducted two examinations of the attack, but neither were formal investigations that could have led to sanctions against U.S. personnel. Gurganus told The Post in April that he was unable to order a U.S. investigation because the base, Camp Bastion, is a NATO facility. But Amos disagreed, concluding that a formal investigation was warranted because of the loss of American lives and materiel.

The Marines killed in the attack were Lt. Col. Christopher Raible, 40, and Sgt. Bradley Atwell, 27. Raible commanded the squadron of decimated Harriers.

Gurganus was nominated by the Defense Department in March to receive a third star and serve as the Marine Corps staff director, a senior job in the service . A senior military official said the promotion has been “placed on hold pending the outcome of the investigation.”

Rajiv Chandrasekaran is a senior correspondent and associate editor. He has served as national editor and as bureau chief in Baghdad, Cairo and Southeast Asia.
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