Archive for December, 2009

Bombing at Camp Chapman

December 31, 2009

Yesterday a suicide bomber in an Afghan National Army uniform detonated himself at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost Province, Afghanistan, killing eight American civilians and wounding many more. Reports indicated the explosion was at the dining hall or gym. The blast was so large it could be heard miles away—including nearby Forward Operating Base Salerno, where I was recently embedded as a correspondent with the Indiana National Guard Agribusiness Development Team.

When going out on missions into insurgency-wracked Khost Province, we often went to Camp Chapman to rendezvous with the PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team), a civilian-military unit also doing development work in the province. Chapman is a highly secure base. It was an open secret that the CIA and other shadowy government entities operated out of Chapman, including helicopter forays into the nearby Taliban-controlled tribal areas of Pakistan. According to some sources, Predator and Reaper drones also used Chapman’s Soviet-built, 9000-foot runway for attacks on Pakistan hideouts of the Haqqani network, one of the main insurgent groups in Khost.

As I didn’t have a security classification that allowed me on the base, the armored MRAP vehicle carrying me always had to stop at the gate—a source of some chagrin among the ADT soldiers eager to eat at Chapman’s legendary dining hall, run by celebrated “fat Navy cooks.” While I couldn’t get in, a bomber carrying a large amount of explosives clearly did.

The bombing raises a number of disturbing questions: How did the bomber penetrate the base’s security? There are elaborate biometric BAT-HIIDE identification systems to prevent unauthorized Afghans from entering the base. Was he an ANA soldier with a Taliban allegiance? Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid indicated he was an ANA soldier named Samiullah, though the U.S. military says there were no ANA soldiers on the base. Or was he one of the many thousands of Afghan “local national” workers who do the scut work on American bases across Afghanistan, including Chapman where there were reportedly two hundred Afghan workers. Or did accomplices somehow smuggle a dedicated jihadi from the adjacent tribal areas onto the base? And the ultimate question: If an insurgent can set off a bomb in the midst of one of our most secret bases, how safe are other, less-secure bases?

The latest American strategy includes dictums to always “put an Afghan face” on our efforts, whch necessitates increased partnering with Afghan security forces and government ministries. It’s a strategy fraught with complications—another of the “least worst” options that now characterize our policies. How do we determine who is friend or foe? What is the human capacity of Afghan organizations to handle the torrent of development money the Coalition plans to send their way? What will happen to the funds in a culture of endemic corruption? And in the context of the Camp Chapman bombing, how will this strategy work when the Pashtun insurgency has deep tendrils into every aspect of eastern Afghanistan, including the army, government and tribal society?