The Marine Corps' commandant has sacked of a pair of two-star generals for failing to prevent a massive attack on a base in southern Afghanistan that left a dozen troops dead. It's a stunning, beyond-rare move that Gen. Jim Amos made only after he found the two "did not exercise the level of judgment expected of commanders of their grade and experience."
Amos announced Monday that he was requesting that the promotion of Maj. Gen. Mark Gurganus, pictured above, be rescinded and asked Maj. Gen. Gregg Sturdevant to retire. That effectively ends the careers of two senior officers who are widely respected, and it will shock a close-knit service that prides itself on battlefield leadership.
During the last dozen years of war, generals have been regularly disciplined for inappropriate sexual and financial behavior. Few, if any, have been let go for screwing up on the battlefield; today's announcement marks the first time an American general has been relieved for combat incompetence since 1971, according to Tom Ricks, FP contributor and author of The Generals, a military history.
But there have been few attacks on U.S. forces like the September 2012 strike on Camp Bastion in Afghanistan's Helmand province. More than a dozen Taliban fighters penetrated the base and killed two Marines, a lieutenant colonel and a sergeant. The coordinated strike also destroyed six Harrier AV-8B jump jets, one of the largest losses of U.S. aircraft in decades.
In a conference call with reporters Monday, Amos praised both general officers, saying they were both "close friends" and that forcing their retirement was "the hardest decision I've made in the Marine Corps."
But he argued it was the right thing to do.
"I do not expect my commanders to be perfect, and I do not expect them to make perfect decisions all the time," Amos wrote in a memo detailing his decision. However, he wrote, "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."
In the memo, Amos acknowledged the challenges both men faced on the battlefield, as forces were shrinking at Regional Command Southwest, the Marines' area of responsibility in Afghanistan. "Beyond their control, RC (SW) reduced forces from more than 17,000 to just over 7,000 personnel in a period of six months," Amos wrote. At the same time, higher headquarters had denied Gurganus's request for an increase for force protection. And Gurganus also faced a "sub-optimal" force protection command-and-control structure diminished by a complicated U.S.-United Kingdom coalition force in the area. Each commander, Amos said, faced a 60 percent personnel drawdown and had to balance the changing mission with a dwindling number of troops to conduct force protection. Amos said Gurganus "bore ultimate accountability" for the men, women and equipment for which he was responsible, and faulted the officer for an error in judgment in conducting his risk analysis.
"Ultimately, Maj. Gen. Gurganus and his staff were doctrinally responsible for executing a layered, integrated defense-in-depth force protection plan," Amos said. "While he addressed many aspects of these requirements with his higher headquarters, and was often turned down, in the end, I believe he could and should have done more."
As commander of the Marine Air Wing based on Bastion, Sturdevant failed to come up with a proper plan to his protect his troops, Amos noted. "His failures to have an effective defense plan before the attack, to fully engage with coalition partners in the important force protection decision making process, and to integrate his unit into the overall self-defense posture aboard Camp Bastion contravened the trust and confidence I had in him as a commander," Amos wrote.
The attack had stirred intense interest within the Corps. Observers wondered if Gurganus might be shown the door. Amos, himself an aviator, has taken internal criticism for relieving other commanders, including Col. Kris Stillings, a former aide to the Secretary of Defense who had been hand-picked by Amos to lead the Officer Candidate School at Quantico, Va. The commander of another high-profile Corps unit, Lt. Col. Andrew McNulty, of 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, was also relieved after seven Marines were killed in a mortar exercise in Nevada earlier this year. A satirical news site, the Duffel Blog, ran a post earlier this year, "Commandant of the Marine Corps Attempts to Fire Entire Marine Corps."
Amos has pushed for accountability as Marines transition from battlefield back to base after a dozen years at war. But his repeated talks on the subject may not be enough. Last week, Amos told general officers at Quantico about a number of specific measures he was taking to restore accountability and discipline across the Corps as a spate of fighting incidents, sexual assault and alcohol abuse plague the service.
Amos' action against Gurganus and Sturdevant come out of the same vein.
"While I am mindful of the degree of difficulty RC(SW) faced in accomplishing a demanding combat mission with a rapidly declining force, my duty requires me to remain true to the timeless axioms relating to command responsibility and accountability," Amos wrote in the memo. "Responsibility and accountability are the sacred tenets of commandership."
Sturdevant currently serves as the director of strategic planning and policy at U.S. Pacific Command. On Monday, he attended a major event at a hotel in Seoul in which South Korea and the U.S. were celebrating the 60-year anniversary of their partnership. Sturdevant, well-respected and accessible, had long been seen as an up-and-comer. On Monday, he was seen chatting with other military officers and guests at the reception preceding the dinner, likely aware that the dramatic turn his career in the Corps was about to take would soon be made public.
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