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OPINION: Outraged? Look at the Bastion attack

Hopefully all the loud congressional posturing over the Benghazi attack is being matched by quieter oversight of the decisions that preceded the Taliban raid three days later at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan.

Sgt. Bradley Atwell, 27, and Lt. Col. Christopher Raible, 40, died Sept. 14 in the Taliban's raid on Camp Bastion. Credit: Marine Corps

Insurgents crept up to the base in three groups and used old-fashioned wire cutters to penetrate the fencing. They destroyed six American Harrier jets and seriously damaged two others. Two U.S. Marines were killed in the fight to keep the insurgents from reaching their main objective, the base’s flight line.

Bastion has received less public attention than Benghazi because it lacks political spoils. That’s fine, so long as the oversight is happening. Congress should be piqued after appropriating billions of dollars for equipment and people to prevent exactly this kind of spectacular attack. Lawmakers can help by pushing for public release of the investigative report on the raid, which is the subject of Freedom of Information Act requests.

So far, the military’s public narrative would have us believe this was more of a Taliban success than a force protection and intelligence failure.

The only on-the-record description of the protections in place that night comes from an October press briefing in Afghanistan by Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Charles M. Gurganus. His regional command includes the Bastion-Camp Leatherneck-Shorabak complex and flight line. This hub of aircraft, trucking, training and management activities was supposed to be as safe as any place in Afghanistan. Afghan recruits learn basic warfighting skills at Shorabak. British, American and coalition troops use the complex as a haven on their way to and from more dangerous locations in Helmand Province.

Gurganus said insurgents chose a “night when there was absolutely zero illumination” from the moon. He said there were “guard towers with guards in ’em” but that the attackers “came up in an area that was pretty much obscured from a lot of the towers.” The base also had sophisticated surveillance systems, but these “can’t see everywhere all the time,” he said in a video of the briefing. He said the fence wasn't alarmed.

This admission of vulnerability to a night-time attack ought to shock members of Congress. The U.S.-led coalition is supposed to rule the night – not fear it. Billions of dollars were appropriated for wide area surveillance cameras, night-vision goggles, drones and aerostats. Laser-equipped planes were flown over Afghanistan to create precise digital elevation models of the terrain.

In terms of force protection, aerostats were supposed to be a big breakthrough with their ability to look down for days at a time. The 24/7 bird’s eye view was meant to address exactly the vulnerability to terrain described by Gurganus.

One question is why the aerostat at Bastion wasn’t able to stop the attack, if it was airborne and operating. For some reason, Bastion's aerostat wasn't selected to receive one of the $5 million day-night wide area surveillance cameras the Pentagon began sending to Afghanistan in February.

Could a Kestrel wide-area system have made a difference?

Each uses multiple cameras to snap pictures of city-sized areas during the day or night. When movement is detected, force protection specialists are supposed to zoom in to identify the object using the finer resolution full motion video cameras on the aerostats.

“There are only so many to go around,” a U.S. military official said of the Kestrels. The coalition has about 100 aerostats in Afghanistan, and the first batch of Kestrels went to eight sites.

Military officials cautioned against reading too much into the decision not to send a Kestrel to Bastion. Classified wide-surveillance options might have been available, one official said. If so, why didn’t those help?

The bottom line is we don’t yet know what mistakes precipitated the attack. It could have been human error, a lack of human intelligence, a shortage of technology, or some combination of those factors.

Lawmakers should demand answers with the same fervor they’re pursuing Benghazi. Releasing the investigative documents would provide the intelligence community with an unclassified case study to improve training and decision making. With American troops expected to remain in Afghanistan after 2014, there is no time to waste.

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