Information is emerging about the seven Americans who were killed in last week's suicide bombing at FOB Chapman, near Khost, Afghanistan. Unlike the spies portrayed in popular entertainment, and their profession notwithstanding, they were ordinary Americans who had chosen to serve the rest of us. They were performing in extraordinary employment that carried with it unusual risks and thus the requirement for specialized training, uncommon professionalism, and special care and attentiveness. This is not just another job.
Like many Palestinians, the bomber, Humam al-Balawi, was from Jordan. Courted by the CIA as an information pipeline into terrorists in eastern Afghanistan, he was really a double agent. Contrary to some reports, he had not been admitted to the compound inside Chapman but had been stopped at the gate. He emerged from the car in which he was riding, hands in his pockets.
Criticism that al-Balawi was admitted to a secure area without being searched is unfounded. As is standard procedure, he was told to show his hands, and confronted with the probability that he would be searched and the bomb discovered, he immediately detonated the device. Most or all of those who were killed perished instantly. Several others remain very critically wounded.
It has been reported that two of those who died were from Xe Services, formerly Blackwater, and were under contract to provide local physical security. At the tactical level of national defense, this is not uncommon, and every American military installation is guarded wholly or in part by contractors. Whatever else one can say about the utility and effectiveness of such an arrangement, it is necessitated by our reluctance to man the armed services with sufficient people to perform this and other essential tasks.
The other five dead were employees of the CIA, among them a woman who served as the station chief in Khost. As in all such circumstances, there are internal investigations being conducted, and eventually reports will be rendered that will address those things that were done properly and those that were not.
The public may never know exactly what transpired, but one thing seems clear: there was no justification for anyone other than the Xe security personnel to be present before the bomber was searched and cleared, and preventing exactly this sort of incident is the reason for having guards in the first place. Perhaps the excitement that attended snaring what seemed like a rich source of information overwhelmed the CIA agents' normal caution, but unbridled enthusiasm in a dangerous area of operations is often a recipe for disaster. It is akin to moving a large body of troops with no security or reconnaissance to the front and flanks, and nothing good can come from ignoring such basic security principles.
Although we have been successful in nailing a number of enemy operatives, many others have escaped or evaded death or capture because we are perceived as a formidable adversary who will take advantage of every tactical mistake. Consequently, their security procedures have been commensurately tight, and we would be wise to be at least as diligent as they are.