The September 14 attack on the heavily fortified Camp Bastion complex that houses more than 20,000 US, British and other coalition troops was repelled with minimal coalition casualties. The “well-coordinated attack” involving 15 “well equipped, trained” insurgents resulted in the deaths of two US Marines.
The Bastion attack would seem like a terrible bargain for the Taliban, who lost 14 of the attackers (the 15th is injured). But like much of the war in Afghanistan, if we focus on the wrong metric, we lose sight of the bigger picture.
From the Taliban perspective, the Camp Bastion attack was not about producing coalition casualties, taking over the base or regaining ground lost in the 2009 Marja offensive. It was, however, about producing maximum hardware damage.
Take, for example, the ISAF press release, which explains the attack thus:
Dressed in U.S. Army uniforms and armed with automatic rifles, rocket propelled grenade launchers and suicide vests, the insurgents attacked Coalition fixed and rotary wing aircraft parked on the flight line, aircraft hangars and other buildings. [Emphasis mine]
When they breached the base, they didn’t go for human targets, just straight at the airplanes. What was the result?
Six Coalition AV-8B Harrier jets were destroyed and two were significantly damaged. Three Coalition refueling stations were also destroyed. Six soft-skin aircraft hangars were damaged to some degree.
I’m not an aviation hardware expert, but it’s reasonable to conclude the damage was significant if not cripplingly extensive. It is also reasonable to conclude that the damage will significantly affect the activities at Camp Bastion — one of the busiest military airbases in the world — that sustains tens of thousands of coalition troops by transporting soldiers, food, military equipment, medical supplies, etc.
CNN’s Barbara Starr asks an interesting question that helps put into perspective the extent of the Camp Bastion damage:
When is last time US mil lost six aircraft to enemy fire on one day? Vietnam? WWII? #Bastion
— Barbara Starr (@barbarastarrcnn) September 16, 2012
Another important aspect of the attack is the 15 insurgents wearing US military uniforms: All previous “insider attacks” have soldiers in Afghan army or police uniforms. That a group of 15 insurgents used US military uniforms to attack the base will certainly add to the complexity surrounding “insider attacks.” It will also take a psychological toll on coalition soldiers. My friend and US Air Force veteran Fred Wellman of ScoutCommsUSA puts it succinctly:
@ahmadshuja war isn’t just about killing and holding ground. It’s psychological too & this kind of stuff supports them.
— Fred Wellman (@FPWellman) September 16, 2012
Also disturbing is that the insurgents are using tactics that have been used by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or the Pakistani Taliban. Pakistani militants have launched similar attacks on sensitive Pakistani bases on at least two occasions, the latest being this last August. Let’s compare the attacks’ anatomy. First the PNS Mehran attack last year:
On Sunday evening at 2230 (1730 GMT), militants stormed three hangars housing aircraft at the Mehran naval aviation base, according to officials.
However, eyewitnesses say the attackers were dressed as naval officials and were aware of the security protocol at the base and carried themselves like soldiers.
Their first targets were aircraft parked on the tarmac and equipment in nearby hangers, says the BBC’s Syed Shoaib Hasan at the scene.
The militants used rocket-propelled grenades to damage and destroy several warplanes, witnesses said. These included the Pakistan navy’s premier anti-submarine and marine surveillance aircraft – the US-made P-3C Orion.
Now, the attack from August:
One security official was killed and a plane damaged in the pre-dawn assault at PAF Base Minhas.
The Air Force said seven to eight attackers with rocket propelled-grenades and suicide vests attacked the base, home to to the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex that assembles Mirage and JF-17 fighter jets, at 2:00 am (2100 GMT Wednesday).
That gunmen disguised themselves in uniforms and got inside the facility just 60 kilometres (37 miles) northwest of Islamabad will renew questions about security, particularly at a base which has been attacked twice before.
Heavily armed militants dressed in military uniforms attack a base, directly targeting military hardware instead of military personnel — the signature of these three attacks is similar enough to indicate a cross-pollination of ideas between both countries’ militants. The groups are highly adaptable and the osmosis of fighters, literature and propaganda material among them is strong enough to indicate the Afghan insurgents are learning from the TTP’s attacks. But the coordination might be stronger than just Afghan insurgents copying Pakistani militants; it might also involve Pakistanis training Afghans, but we have not direct evidence in this case.
For the Afghan insurgents, this attack represents a qualitative leap, a significant change in tactics. Like most large coalition bases, Camp Bastion routinely comes under random, haphazard rocket attacks that usually does little to no damage. This is the first highly sophisticated attack of its kind on an airbase that has strategically steered clear of producing casualties, instead focusing on inflicting hardware damage. In a sense, that’s very uncharacteristic of the Afghan Taliban, who have mostly focused on IED attacks and ambushes designed to kill coalition troops.
The Bastion attack, then, represents the latest step in the Taliban’s tactical evolution — from IED attacks to Afghan ‘infiltrators’ to American ‘infiltrators’ destroying military hardware. Deaths from IED attacks are down, signifying their reduced utility for the Taliban. And just as serious efforts are underway to contain green-on-blue attacks, the Taliban introduce this new tactic.
Ultimately, that’s what it’s about — a highly adaptable insurgency, trying to be a step ahead of ISAF and always keeping the latter on its toes.