Friday, 21 September 2012

The Battle of Bastion: a good day for Terry

US Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier at Bastion, 2 weeks earlier
It is impossible to disguise the Taliban's spectacular success scored last Friday (14/9/12) against Nato ISAF's Camp Bastion. The suicide raid in Afghanistan's Helmand province – dubbed the Battle of Bastion by media – has overturned previous assumptions that Bastion was impregnable.

The Taliban's debit of 19 fighters killed and one captured in the attack was easily worth the impressive material results and the even greater intangible consequences of the assault.

Nato ISAF casualties during the insurgents' raid included: two US Marine Corps servicemen killed in action in the early stages; followed by several British RAF Regiment force protection troops lightly wounded in the subsequent mopping up phase.

Damage scored to equipment on the base was particularly heavy: six US Marine Corps AV-8B Harriers destroyed and two more damaged; AH-1 Cobra gunships and other helicopters damaged; aircraft maintenance structures damaged; and fuel storage facilities set ablaze. Totalling up the cost of all of that  physical damage means a bill easily in excess of $250m.

The biggest loss sustained is intangible and irreplaceable: the perception of Bastion as a secure base. Even the name implies safety. It will be a shock for Nato that the Taliban could even get anywhere near the base’s fortified boundaries. 

The relatively lightly armed attackers were dressed in US Army uniforms and equipped with explosive suicide vests, PKM machine guns, and their ubiquitous AK-47 assault rifles and rocket propelled grenades (RPGs).

The attack itself began by insurgents approaching the outer fence at 22:15 local time, apparently unopposed, and blasting a 5-foot hole through using explosives, likely delivered by a suicide bomber at the head of the 20-strong squad.

Once through, the nineteen-strong Taliban attack force split into three teams and streamed forward towards the airstrip, at which point the US Marines casualties and damage to planes and equipment rapidly ensued. However, it looks like the attackers' ranks were further thinned at this point if they were using suicide vests to target the parked aircraft around the runway. 

The remaining raiders were eventually mopped up over the course of two to three hours by responding teams from 2/10 Battalion US Marine Corps attacking from the north, and UK 51 Squadron RAF Regiment force protection troops with four Jackal vehicles, advancing up the runway from the south.

Aircraft scrambled included one MQ-9 Reaper drone, as well as one British Army Apache gunship, which reportedly fired bursts from its 30mm chain-gun in the battle.

One Taliban fighter was reportedly taken prisoner after this belated show of force, while the others that hadn't already blown themselves up were cornered and killed. British ground troops reportedly fired 10,000 rounds in the fire fight.

How the attackers were able to approach the outer fence – even at night – without being seen and destroyed is still unanswered. Who was on watch; where were the patrols?

The inference is that the sophisticated day/night vision cameras and sensors ringing the camp must either have suffered from a blind spot, or else belief in Bastion’s invulnerability had led to complacency, allowing watch-keeping and sentries to become lax. Perhaps all of these.

Intelligence about such weaknesses in Bastion’s otherwise formidable defences was probably relayed from Afghan informers within the camp – ANA traitors or moles among local contractors.

The Telegraph cites initial reports that the Taliban had been monitoring the south-east side of Camp Bastion for at least two weeks and had been posing as farmers working in a nearby maize plantation.

We are well used to bad news from Afghanistan, but Friday’s attack adds to Nato’s sense of insecurity, particularly when viewed together with the rising trend of so-called “Green-on-Blue” attacks on ISAF troops by their supposedly friendly Afghan National Army (ANA) or police colleagues.

In this respect, the attack on Bastion is particularly damaging. The camp had been considered impregnable, and the Taliban has shown this to be untrue.

In 2006 the British Army chose the site specifically for its isolation, under pressure from Taliban offensives in Helmand’s lawless towns. Back then it was a base of tents and a 100-metre dirt airstrip.

In the six years since, it has developed to cover 20 square miles, and housing 28,000 troops in several subdivided camps: Bastion 1; Bastion 2; the US Marines’ Camp Leatherneck; and Camp Shorabak for the ANA. The airstrip has expanded to two runways handling around 600 fixed and rotary wing aircraft flights each day.

The camp’s supposed invulnerability was a crucial factor in the decision to allow Prince Harry – the British monarchy’s “spare heir” – to deploy for his second tour in Afghanistan, having trained as an Apache pilot. Harry was in the camp when the attack took place.

A Taliban spokesman has even claimed the attack was aimed at killing Harry. This seems fanciful, but saying it alone fuels press speculation over Harry’s safety or whether the prince should stay or go, with obvious propaganda value for the Taliban.

The same Taliban spokesman also said the attack was part-motivated by the much-hyped (and very silly) anti-Muslim video produced in a Californian garage, which has sparked street violence across the Middle East.

Again this is fanciful. The Taliban are not moronic or spontaneous street protestors, but careful planners, especially in this case. Just saying this stuff throws further fuel on to debates already raging online and on the Arab street.

Fuelling fear and speculation through such empty words is a natural extension of the main aim of the Taliban strike – to stoke a growing sense of insecurity at the heart of Nato ISAF – in its relationships with the ANA, and within the heart of bases like Bastion.


  1. Update with some detail from RAF regiment here. 5 harriers destroyed, though I'm told the Americans had replaced them very quickly.

    "It was utter chaos, we could see everything erupting, but we didn’t know what was happening, or what to expect. It was just a case of get into the vehicles and get going.

    "It was total darkness and the only thing that was illuminating the area was the burning aircraft and fuel. They’d totaled 5 Harriers and a fuel storage area.

    "At first I thought we were getting mortared. It was quite a challenge. I took an instant decision to get the lads in the vehicles with every weapon system we had."


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