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Insurgents intended "spectacular" attack on Bagram airbase

The machine gun fire ripped through the silent night air just three hours after I had fallen asleep.

Sleeping on the top bunk in a plywood hut at the media unit here at Bagram airbase, I was happy to get out of humid Dubai about nine hours before to fly to this base, which sits on a high altitude plain at 4,000 feet. The air was cool.

Upon arrival, I went for a run, followed by a decent military dinner during which I watched part of a Simpson’s episode on the cafeteria’s TVs.

Later, I met the seven other journalists staying in the hut, ironically called “Hotel California.” We sleep two to a room. I fell asleep around 1 a.m., planning to get working on moving out of here as fast as possible. Not much happens on huge airbases like this, where 18,000 troops largely work in support roles for the combat units further afield.

But last night insurgents mounted a brazen frontal attack on two of the main entrances to Bagram, which is one of NATO’s largest bases in Afghanistan and the headquarters of the American war in the country’s east.

At least a dozen fighters began their assault with indirect fire, either rockets or mortars launched from afar, between 3:30 a.m. and 4 a.m. this morning, according to Lt. Colonel Clarence Count, Jr., a U.S. military spokesman at Bagram Air Field. They followed that with a small arms fire and grenades.

Colonel Count said 11 insurgents were killed in the attack. Nine U.S. troops from the 455 Air Expeditionary Wing, who are responsible for perimeter security at Bagram, were injured. One U.S. contractor was killed.

The majority of U.S. troops were injured in guard towers which stand on the perimeter of the base. It’s not clear if the contractor was killed in battle on the base’s perimeter or in the mortar attack.

The firefight lasted at least four hours. The insurgents got close enough to lob hand-thrown grenades at the American-manned guard towers. Colonel Count said the fighters carried wire cutters, in what he presumed was an effort to breach the fence surrounding the base and allow the suicide bombers to find targets.

At around 3:30 a.m., I heard what I assume was the dull thud of the first mortar being launched, and then heard it land, but it wasn’t close enough to get out of bed. Then I heard the machine gun fire from perhaps a half mile to a mile away. Then more explosions, some of them sounding as if they were coming from the same place the gunfire was coming from.

I heard a light automatic weapon, which I assumed to be an M-4 rifle, a U.S. weapon. Then, I heard an AK-47, which I assumed to be whomever was attacking the base. Then, a heavy machine gun from another direction, perhaps a 50 caliber at another watch tower or on a vehicle. At this point, helicopters began buzzing low over the base. Fighter jets took off from the runway a few hundred feet away from where I tried to sleep. My heart thumped in my chest. “Surely,” I thought to myself, “there can’t be a major assault against one of the biggest NATO bases in Afghanistan?”

Adding to my uncertainty about how alarmed I should be was the fact that my roommate continued to snore away below me. Five of the six other reporters in the “Hotel California” also continued to sleep despite the booms and bangs erupting nearby, and the quiet but slightly panicked voices of soldiers just outside our open window.

When I first heard the steps on the gravel outside and soft voices, I listened for English. Had the Taliban breached the perimeter? I was hesitant to get up. My body armor was still stashed in a bag under the bed, the ceramic plates still separated from the Kevlar vest.

But my bladder called. I climbed out of the top bunk as it creaked and swayed beneath me, slipped on my running shoes and ventured outside cautiously, toward the sound of birds chirping at dawn.

Outside, 50 American soldiers lurked in and around the sandbagged concrete bunkers positioned next to our hut. Some were battle ready, with helmets and Kevlar vests on. Others were in their PT gear, or physical training gear. All had weapons, per U.S. military regulation. One soldier walked to the bathroom with a pistol in his hand, shorts around his waist and sandals on his feet. I followed.

As I walked out and back toward the bunker and my hut and warm bed, an apache helicopter flew over at about 500 feet and let loose a long burst from its Gatling gun at an unseen target somewhere off the base. Above the helicopters, two fighter jets flew figure eights. Above the fighter jets two other planes, perhaps observation aircraft, flew slowly overhead, breaking apart in a graceful “V.”

Gunfire continued to erupt in the distance. Three soldiers ran past us, their weapons ready, looking like part of a quick reaction force.

I asked a soldier where the perimeter of the base was. He pointed over my shoulder, perhaps 500 feet away, “just over that building over there,” he said. “It’s just a wall.”

Rumors spread that two insurgents had penetrated the base and were running around, looking to blow themselves up amidst U.S. troops.

A female soldier patted the M-16 slung over her shoulder, at the ready, and said, “I’ve got a round chambered, all I need to do is take off the condom, and I’ll take out any Taliban that comes around the corner.” By condom, I assumed she meant the safety on her weapon.

A nearly unintelligible voice over the base public address system said something about the situation being “Code Amber,” meaning basically that the base is locked down. Other soldiers nervously talked about how they were woken up.

“I woke up to gunfire and said, ‘that’s not normal,’” one soldier said to his friend. “I looked at my roommate and we were like, we’d better go to the bunker. When I got out here people were laying on the ground of the shelter. They were scared!”

According Lt. Colonel Count, no fighters made their way into the base.

But he did say the insurgents “intended a spectacular event,” adding that the attack was the largest on the base in months. In 2007, a suicide bomber at a checkpoint entering the base detonated his explosives and killed two dozen people during a visit by then Vice President Dick Cheney. The base is regularly bombarded with rockets and mortars, which usually do little damage to life or property.

Today was different. Colonel Count credited the perimeter security troops with successfully defending the base and securing the troops inside.

Now, more than 12 hours after the attack took place, our lockdown has been lifted and we are finally free to move about the base without a U.S. military escort.

Until about an hour ago, U.S. troops were still in the street dressed in full battle rattle — Kevlar, helmet, ammunition, grenades. Humvees stopped traffic. Still, down the street toward where one of the firefights took place, an SUV is parked in the middle of the road to prevent traffic from going in that direction.

The dining facility, barber shops, laundry and recreation centers were shut down all day.

The attack may be part of a new Taliban offensive called “Al Fateh,” which aims to destroy the Western military presence in Afghanistan and Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The attack came just on the heels of a suicide car bombing which killed 18 people, including five U.S. and one Canadian soldier, in Kabul yesterday.