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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.

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.