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Is the U.S. Embassy in Kabul the next Benghazi?

Aftermath of January 4 bombing outside Camp Sullivan in Kabul, Afghanistan

Based on exclusive photos, videos, and messages the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) has been receiving from sources on the ground in Kabul since the housing compound for US Embassy security guards was hit by a bomb on Monday, it is clear that the scope and severity of the blast was significant. However, the State Department has not mentioned the attack in any of its daily press briefings this week, nor has it provided updates regarding the safety and security of American embassy personnel in Afghanistan. POGO has asked the agency for updated information, but has not received a response at the time of this writing.

An American on the scene at Camp Sullivan, which houses hundreds of U.S. and Nepalese guards, told POGO the blast radius was 100 meters wide and caused a 15-foot-deep crater, indicating an explosive charge of at least 2,000 lbs. He said the incident is “getting lowballed” by U.S. officials. A BBC producer in Kabul Tweeted that it was the second largest bomb ever detonated in the Afghan capital.

According to POGO sources on the ground, multiple Afghan nationals were killed (two, according to the Interior Minister) and 11 Nepalese security personnel and one American citizen were injured and flown from the scene. A Kabul hospital reported that nine children were among the wounded in the attack.

A U.S. contractor who survived the blast posted a photo of the scene on Reddit the next day and announced that he was quitting his job: “My entire room imploded around me in a surreal blur of glass and brick. If I had been standing instead of laying in bed, I wouldn’t be typing this," he wrote.

Aftermath of January 4 bombing outside Camp Sullivan in Kabul, Afghanistan
Aftermath of January 4 bombing outside Camp Sullivan in Kabul, Afghanistan

POGO sources on the scene have described half of Camp Sullivan as “uninhabitable,” and it’s not clear at this time where the U.S. embassy guards and other personnel are being housed.

Hours before the attack at Camp Sullivan, another suicide bomber blew himself up at a police checkpoint in Kabul. And on Friday, three people including a child were killed and at least 15 others injured when a suicide car bombing targeted a Kabul restaurant popular with Afghan officials and foreign diplomats.

So, how safe are the U.S. embassy and those who defend it?

That’s the question POGO has been asking officials at the State Department, Congress, and the Pentagon for years. Guards defending the facility have long feared that their daily armored convoys to and from the embassy make them sitting ducks for Taliban attacks.

Leaked email to POGO
POGO is receiving photos, videos, and emails from sources on the scene of the January 4 blast.

In January 2013, POGO Journalist-in-Residence and former Senior TIME correspondent Adam Zagorin conducted a broad and deep investigation on the security vulnerabilities at the U.S. embassy in Kabul. Among his discoveries was a State Department document from 2012 describing a “mutiny” among guards that “undermined the chain of command” and “put the security of the Embassy at risk.” It referred to a petition signed by dozens of guards accusing leaders of the private contractor guard force of “tactical incompetence” and “a dangerous lack of understanding of the operational environment.”

“If the embassy were attacked, we’d have a huge problem and I don’t want to think about the casualties.”

In September 2013, Americans serving at the embassy allowed POGO to identify them by name to call attention to what they described as serious gaps in security at the compound. Zagorin also obtained a series of previously unpublished internal documents generated by Aegis Defense Services, the contractor responsible for protecting the embassy, that buttress those claims by illustrating guard shortages, especially in key slots.

“If the embassy were attacked, we’d have a huge problem and I don’t want to think about the casualties,” J.P. Antonio, a former medic at the embassy, told POGO in September 2013.

Antonio said that throughout his tenure, there were recurring shortages of medics, supervisors, and members of the Emergency Response Team (ERT), a unit composed largely of U.S. Special Forces veterans responsible for security in the event of a crisis.

“This under-staffing just degrades the security of the embassy, and it’s been a constant,” added Thomas Boggs, a former Aegis shift leader for the Emergency Response Team (ERT). “I can’t remember a time when we had enough people, and it just went on and on.”

In September 2013, Boggs told us he joined the Aegis guard force in June 2012 and returned to the United States a year later after clashing with Aegis management and being fired. He told POGO that, in the weeks before he left Kabul, the guard force was significantly short of ERT members and other key staff, including supervisors.

When a senior State Department official reassured Congress in September 2013 that the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan was well-protected, POGO challenged the veracity of the centerpiece of his testimony—that the contractors protecting the compound had proven themselves twice in battle—and forced him to correct his testimony when it became clear there were no such tests of the Kabul embassy guard force.