But the events of last Friday, when a force of Taliban gunmen managed to move up to and breach the Bastion’s security at around 10.15pm (local time), supposedly without being seen or heard, have sent a shock wave through Nato’s high command.
Initial reports state that the Taliban had been monitoring the eastern side of Camp Bastion for at least two weeks and had been posing as farmers working in a nearby maize plantation.
The attack only ever had one aim. It was a suicide mission designed to demonstrate that the Taliban can attack any Nato installation, no matter how secure.
A five-foot-high hole has reportedly been found in the outer fence which sits adjacent to the main runway. It is believed to have been caused by a suicide bomber detonating an explosive vest. One the fence had been breached, around 19 insurgents, many also wearing suicide vests, streamed forward firing rocket propelled grenades and mortars. Two US Marines were killed in the ensuing battle and five aircraft, including US Marine Corps Harrier jump jets and helicopters, were destroyed. A fuel storage tank and a helicopter maintenance tent were also hit and caught fire.
Camp Bastion became operational in April 2006, when the British Army moved into the Helmand badlands on a mission to bring security, assist local construction projects and help the Afghan government extend the rule of law.
In the intervening years, the base has grown in size, to cover around 20 square miles and now includes Bastion 1 and Bastion 2, Camp Leatherneck, home to thousands of US Marines and Camp Shorabak, the main Afghan National Army base in the province.
In 2006, Bastion’s runway consisted of a 100-yard dirt strip, designed to handle three aircraft movements a week. Today it is one of the busiest UK-operated airports and currently handles 600 aircraft a day (18,000 a month), more traffic than Luton, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Leeds-Bradford or Coventry airports.
As the years passed the Bastion, unimpeded by the distant possibility of a Taliban attack, grew in size to the garrison it is today. The camp boasts its own bottling plant capable of producing 15,000 gallons of drinking water a day. It has a field hospital, equipped with two portable x-ray machines, an operating theatre, radiographic equipment, CAT scanner and an intensive care unit capable of treating up to 20 seriously ill patients.
Soldiers routinely jog round the perimeter or work out in one of the many gyms. They can relax in air-conditioned comfort in one of the Naafi bars and can Skype family and friends through the camps various internet sites.
Camp Bastion’s sheer size is breathtaking and its bright runway lights can be seen illuminating the inky black Helmand sky for many miles away.
I have visited Camp Bastion on more than a dozen occasions and have watched the base morph from a small tented village into the international, technologically-sophisticated town it is today. Despite being in the centre of the most dangerous province in Afghanistan, I always felt completely safe, certainly from Taliban attack, and honestly believed there was more chance of being run over by a military vehicle than being killed by insurgents.
In fact the only person that I have known ever to have been injured on the base was a fellow journalist who slipped into an irrigation ditch one dark evening while attempting to walk to the canteen without the aid of a torch.
My faith was based not on blissful ignorance but on Camp Bastion’s impressive security. The entire location is ringed by multiple 30ft high steel fences topped by triple concertina barbed wire, with an inner 30ft high blast wall which encompasses most of the inner camp.
Ground sensors, infrared and thermal imaging cameras, motion detectors and a specially designed radar can supposedly detect human or aircraft movements from 20 miles away.
Watch towers equipped with search lights and manned by heavily armed soldiers are sited every hundred yards or so along the perimeter, which is also patrolled by a specially trained force equipped with guard dogs.
Collectively this dazzling array of surveillance equipment is known as ISTAR – Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance. In terms of security it should have been fool proof.
In fact, Bastion’s supposedly unimpeachable security is said to be one of the reason’s why Prince Harry was allowed to serve in Afghanistan but never in Iraq, where virtually every British base, including the main Garrison at Basra airport, was subject to almost incessant rocket attack.
So, given the security, watchtowers, motion sensors and thermal imagery, how did the Taliban manage to pull their most audacious publicity raid to date.
One theory being considered is that the Taliban commander who masterminded the operation was acting on inside information and was given the precise location of a blind spot in the base’s security.
As well as the thousands of troops who live and work on the base, Bastion day-to-day running is supported by “locally employed contractors” known as LECs. Some may have worked on the base for several years and could have easily passed details of the base’s security on to the Taliban. It is also quite possible that a member of the Afghan National Army or the Police might have passed on information identifying potentially-vulnerable points within the camp’s perimeter.
Once the point of attack had been located, the Taliban, according to the Afghan National Directorate of Security, monitored all the movements with the base for at least two weeks before launching the attack.
The Taliban have demonstrated on countless occasions that they can breach supposedly high levels of security. In 2011, the Taliban dugs tunnels into Kandahar Prison in an audacious plan which allowed over 470 insurgents to escape. They have attacked key and supposedly secure areas in Kabul and assassinated political leaders, generals and police chiefs, whose personal security should have been high.
The worry for those responsible for Camp Bastion’s security is what will the Taliban do next. If the insurgents can breach security, could they get close enough to the airfield to shoot down a transport plane loaded with troops? Despite the Taliban death toll, the Bastion attack will be regarded as a success and like the IRA, another insurgent group adept at exploiting security lapses, the Taliban only repeat successes, never failures.
In 2007, I flew out of Camp Bastion in a Chinook helicopter, laden with so many troops it was standing room only. We landed in a cloud of dust in Patrol Base Inkerrman, then the most attacked British camp in Helmand. After we touched down the Regimental Sergeant Major of the Royal Anglians, told me that he believed that Nato was always “one day away” from disaster in Afghanistan.
That observation is as true today as it was then. Last Friday’s attack could have been a disaster for Nato, Instead it was a wake-up call.