Taliban's assault on NATO base suggests shift in tactics

KABUL, Afghanistan — A brazen assault today by up to 20 Taliban fighters on the largest NATO base in Afghanistan was the second attack in as many days on U.S. military targets here, suggesting to some observers that the Taliban appears intent on switching tactics from solo suicide bombings to more coordinated missions.

The attacks also raise the possibility that the insurgents are trying to bring the fight into the capital even as the U.S. and NATO allies prepare for a mounting offensive this summer in the southern province of Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold.

During today's attack on the Bagram Airfield, located 50 miles north of Kabul, one U.S. contractor was killed and nine service members were wounded, along with 12 of the insurgents. (GlobalPost's Ben Gilbert was at Bagram during the attack.)

The apparent hopelessness of the attack could not mask a distressing reality: the Taliban are making good on their threat to launch an offensive against the foreign forces, and in the process have passed a major milestone. More than 1,000 American military personnel have now died in the Afghan war.

The “assault” on Bagram, which began just before dawn and continued for more than eight hours, never posed any real danger to the heavily fortified base. The Taliban were armed with small arms, mortars and rockets, which caused minor damage to one of the outbuildings. Of the 12 insurgents killed, four were wearing unexploded suicide vests, according to Master Sgt. Tom Clementson, spokesman for U.S. forces at Bagram.

“The attackers were never close to breaching the perimeter,” said Clementson.

The Taliban were quick to claim responsibility for the attack; Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahed issued characteristically inflated claims that his men had entered onto the base and were engaged in a fierce firefight with U.S. troops.

But the U.S. military categorically rejected the Taliban account.

“There was no engagement at all on Bagram,” said Clementson. “We all know what the Taliban spokesman is doing.”

Clementson refused to speculate on why the Taliban would mount an attack that had no chance of succeeding, or even of causing significant damage to the enemy.

“Who knows what their true goal was?” he said. “Perhaps they just wanted to generate a lot of media buzz.”

In this they succeeded. The daring attack on Bagram garnered more press attention than a much deadlier incident the day before: On Tuesday a suicide bomber in Kabul attacked a U.S. convoy near the U.S. counterinsurgency training center on the outskirts of Kabul, killing five American soldiers and one Canadian, along with 12 Afghans. (This counterinsurgency center was profiled in the special project, "Life, Death and the Taliban.")

The bombing tipped the United States over the psychologically devastating marker of 1,000 service members killed since the Afghan war began in 2001. But the overall number hides the true significance of the figure: more than half of the deaths occurred in the past two years.

And the pace is accelerating. So far in 2010, more than 130 U.S. service members have been killed, according to iCasulaties.org, a website that provides information on military deaths. Rarely does a day pass now without at least one press release announcing casualties from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

The troop surge and the accompanying offensives authorized by President Barack Obama in his new strategy speech in December 2009, are responsible for many of the casualties — a major operation launched in Helmand province in February continues to claim victims among international military and Afghan civilians, as well as insurgents.

The recent Kabul attacks appear to be the Taliban response to another proposed U.S. offensive in Kandahar which was to take place this summer. Originally designated “Operation Omid [Hope],” the Kandahar operation has now been downgraded to a “process” aimed at bringing “a rising tide of security” to one of the most troubled cities in Afghanistan. Fierce local resistance to the idea of Omid has forced the U.S. military to scale back its plans until it can muster a show of local support.

In the meantime, the Taliban have launched an offensive of their own. In early May the Taliban leadership issued a warning that they would soon begin to target foreign forces and any Afghans who cooperated with them. They set their D-Day for May 10.

On May 13, security companies in Kabul sent out alerts to their customers that five suicide bombers had entered the capital and were looking for “soft” targets — shorthand for non-military and unguarded objectives. The messages were sent via mobile phone at approximately 10 p.m. on a Thursday, the start of the weekend, when many in the expatriate community — the softest of soft targets — were out on the town.

Most remained blissfully unaware of the threat, so it did not cast much of a pall over Kabul’s normal Thursday-night activities. No incidents were reported, and those internationals who knew of the threat dismissed it as an attempt at psychological intimidation.

The May 18 bombing caused a momentary stir, but suicide attacks are becoming so frequent in Kabul that most residents just shrugged and went on with their business.

It was the Bagram assault that caught people’s attention. Kabul assumed a look of a city under siege; all day long helicopters crisscrossed the sky, rattling windows and making normal conversation difficult.

Afghan security forces stepped up their presence, establishing checkpoints throughout the city that snarled traffic and frayed tempers.

This is not the first time that Bagram has been the focus of insurgent attention. During a visit by then-Vice President Dick Cheney in February 2007, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside the front gate, killing up to 23 people and injuring 20. Cheney was unharmed.

In 2009 a rocket attack on the base killed two servicemen.

But this is the first time that the insurgents have attempted a complex attack on such a major military target.

While few were willing to speculate on whether the Bagram attack was a major shift in Taliban tactics, many were troubled by the brazenness of the assault.

One resident, who had had to walk halfway through the city because the streets were jammed with cars stalled at checkpoints, sighed with relief and chagrin when he finally reached his destination.

“It is going to be a long, hot summer in Kabul,” he said.