Taliban attack Bagram Air Base

By Dexter Filkins

New York Times News Service

Published: Thursday, May 20 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

KABUL — Taliban insurgents launched a brazen but ultimately futile assault on the American base at Bagram on Wednesday morning, igniting a ferocious gun battle that left at least one American contractor dead, a dozen soldiers wounded and 10 guerrillas dead.

Four of the insurgents wore suicide vests but were killed before they could detonate them, American officers said. Earlier in the day, a Taliban spokesman had claimed that seven fighters had struck at Bagram's gates and allowed 30 others to get inside.

American officers said the attempt failed.

"At no time were Bagram defenses breached," said Col. Wayne Shanks, a spokesman for the American command. No suicide bombings succeeded, he said.

Still, the attack represented an aggressive attempt by the Taliban to strike at one of the most important symbols of American power here. Bagram Air Base, about 50 miles north of Kabul, is one of the largest American bases in the country and the headquarters for the military campaign in the east.

While the details were sketchy, it seems clear, given the number of American casualties, that the Taliban fighters had successfully infiltrated the area and achieved some level of surprise on the heavily fortified base.

Once the battle started, the Americans sealed off the roads leading into Bagram and kept many of the local Afghan police officers and soldiers away as well, Afghans said. Afghans living near the base said the sound of gunfire rattled for more than an hour, and helicopter gunships were firing on insurgents below.

Bagram Air Base, built by the Soviet Union in its doomed attempt to subdue the Afghans in the 1980s, is ringed by several layers of defenses. The population in the area, mostly ethnic Tajik, is thought to be friendly to the Americans.

The assault came on the heels of an attack on Tuesday by a suicide bomber in Kabul, who rammed an explosives-laden bus into an American convoy, killing 18 people, including five American soldiers and a Canadian officer.

The two attacks appeared to be part of a wider campaign directed at the capital and its environs. In recent days, the Taliban have smuggled as many as five suicide bombers into the area, an American military official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Some of those bombers may have been killed during the assault on Bagram.

In addition to killing NATO troops, the Taliban's goal appears to be to highlight the inability of the Afghan government to hold the capital and the areas around it and to generate maximum publicity.

The back-to-back attacks came as American and Afghan leaders were preparing to launch a major offensive in the city of Kandahar to break the hold of the insurgents in southern Afghanistan. That campaign is expected to feature several military operations over the course of the summer.

Bagram has come under attack before, most notably in February 2007, during a visit by then Vice President Dick Cheney. A suicide bomber outside the gates blew himself up and killed 23 people. Cheney, a mile away, was not harmed.

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