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Taliban attacks sound alarm before Kandahar

Assaults on NATO bases didn't succeed militarily, but might have boosted fighters' morale.

Civilian and military personnel in a shelter during a ground and rocket attack by Taliban at Kandahar air field on May 22, 2010. (Nikola Solic/Reuters)

KABUL, Afghanistan — Over the past week, the Taliban in Afghanistan have bared their teeth and launched a series of attacks designed to show that their threat of a summer offensive is much more than empty words.

The headline-grabbing assaults on two of NATO’s most heavily fortified bases, Bagram and Kandahar, cost the Taliban dearly, while leaving the international military forces relatively unscathed.

But the main aim of the daring missions, say analysts here, was to bolster the morale of the Taliban’s own fighters, while attempting to convince their foe that they were far from ready to give up.

“The Taliban are trying to show that all this talk about their being on their last legs is exaggerated,” said Alex Strick van Linschoten, an author and researcher who has been living in Kandahar for more than two years. “They want to demonstrate that they still have the morale to mount a suicidal mission.”

A handful of Taliban fighters lobbed rockets at Kandahar air field on May 22, following up with a ground assault on the outer perimeter. The rockets caused some damage to the popular “boardwalk” that houses fast-food restaurants and coffee shops and borders a recreational area where soldiers can blow off steam.

Several soldiers and civilian contractors were injured when a rocket landed near the Green Bean coffee shop, but no one was killed, and all the injured are in stable condition, according to reports released by Regional Command South.

At least 10 of the attackers were killed, according to multiple reports. The media office for the International Assistance Force (ISAF) Joint Command refused to confirm the exact number, saying that “body count is no measure of failure or success.”

But when no more than two dozen insurgents go up against thousands of heavily armed and well-trained soldiers, numbers do matter.

“There is no way for the Taliban to do a frontal attack and survive,” said van Linschoten. “They cannot penetrate the outer walls. It’s just not going to happen.”

The Kandahar attack echoed a similar one on Bagram air base, near Kabul, on May 19, in which the final tally was 16 insurgents killed and five captured, according to statements issued by Regional Command East. One American contractor was killed and nine soldiers were injured in the attack.

The death toll was much higher on May 18, when the Taliban struck near the old royal palace on Darulaman Road, an area that is also home to a U.S. Counter-Insurgency Training Center and an Afghan Army base. The target of the attack was a U.S. military convoy, but civilian vehicles, including a bus, were also hit. In total, six military personnel were killed as well as 12 Afghan civilians. An additional 47 civilians were injured.

That incident received much less attention, however, than the two brazen assaults on NATO bases.