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Taliban's assault on NATO base suggests shift in tactics

Suicide attacks are all too frequent and easier to dismiss, but the Bagram offensive got people's attention.

An Afghan policeman patrols near the site where a suicide bomber below himself up in Bagram near the U.S. airbase, May 19, 2010. Insurgents carrying rockets and grenades launched a brazen pre-dawn attack on one of the biggest military bases of NATO in Afghanistan on Tuesday, leaving at least seven guerrillas dead and five foreign troops wounded. (Ahmad Masood/Reuters)

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, 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).