Taliban insurgents armed with rockets, grenades and suicide vests stormed the giant U.S.-run Bagram Air Field before dawn Wednesday, triggering an eight-hour firefight that killed an American contractor and at least 10 attackers and wounded nine U.S. service members.
As troops and contractors huddled in secure bunkers, the militants fired their weapons over American defenses into the base, according to Maj. Virginia McCabe, a spokeswoman for U.S. forces at Bagram. White smoke could be seen rising from the garrison as U.S. attack helicopters whirred overhead.
It was the second major Taliban assault in the Kabul area in as many days, breaking a nearly three-month lull in insurgent attacks around the Afghan capital. Eighteen people, including five U.S. soldiers and a Canadian colonel, were killed Tuesday in a suicide car bombing in Kabul.
Those brazen assaults underscore the militants' ability to strike at the heart of the U.S.-led mission and appear part of a new Taliban offensive against NATO forces, foreign diplomats, contractors and Afghan government officials. The attacks are expected to serve as a morale booster for insurgents and their supporters as the U.S. prepares for a major operation against the Taliban in their southern heartland.
The Taliban announced their offensive this month on the eve of President Hamid Karzai's visit to Washington. On that trip, Karzai discussed long-term ties with the United States and his government's attempts to reach out to the militants, including the Taliban leadership. The latest attacks suggest the Taliban are rejecting Karzai's agenda, including peace overtures.
U.S. officials said about 30 insurgents — some wearing military-style uniforms — launched the attack about 3 a.m. against the gates of the Bagram base, one of the biggest and most important military installations in the country. The base is located about 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Kabul.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid, who telephoned reporters before the U.S. announced the attack, said 20 to 30 fighters breached the defenses of the base, which serves as the control hub for U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the attackers "were not successful in penetrating the perimeter." He told reporters in Washington that some of the attackers were wearing suicide vests but were killed by U.S. forces before they could detonate them.
Whitman said one civilian contractor was killed and nine service members were wounded.
An Afghan provincial police commander, Gen. Abdul Rahman Sayedkhail, said the attack began when U.S. guards spotted militants in a car just outside the base. The Americans opened fire, triggering running gunbattles in which at least one militant triggered his suicide vest and U.S. troops hunted down the other attackers.
Four of the slain insurgents had intended to be suicide bombers, U.S. forces said in a statement.
At one point, residents of the area discovered a militant hiding in a garden, said Lutf Rahman Reshad, an Afghan police official. They called police, but the attacker lobbed grenades at the officers who arrived. The police fired at the man, who then detonated his explosives vest. The insurgent was wearing what appeared to be a military-style uniform, Reshad said.
At least 10 of the insurgents died, according to McCabe. Five were killed by helicopter gunships, Reshad said.
The militants' use of uniforms recall a January 2007 attack in Iraq, when Shiite insurgents wearing American uniforms and carrying American weapons slipped into an Iraqi police compound in Karbala, kidnapped four U.S. soldiers and then killed them about 25 miles (40 kilometers) away. A fifth American soldier was killed in a firefight at the compound.
Wednesday was not the first time militants have attacked Bagram. In February 2007, a suicide bombing killed more than 20 people at a Bagram security gate while then-Vice President Dick Cheney was inside the base. Cheney was unhurt but the Taliban said he was the target.
Bagram Air Field is a sprawling complex of more than 5,000 acres (2,000 hectares) filled with offices, barracks, runways and weaponry in the shadow of the Hindu Kush mountains. The base operates almost like a small town, with paved roads, bus service and hospital facilities.
The attacks in the Kabul area, in eastern Afghanistan, come as the U.S. is focusing resources on the country's south. NATO and Afghan forces are gearing up for a major operation to secure Kandahar, the biggest city in the south and the former Taliban headquarters. American officials believe control of Kandahar is the key to stabilizing the Taliban' southern heartland.
NATO reported that an international service member was killed in a bomb attack Wednesday in southern Afghanistan but gave no further details.
NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan said recent Taliban attacks have not delayed the Kandahar operation or any of NATO's key goals over the next few months.
"The overall campaign is on track" Mark Sedwill told reporters. He stressed that the Kandahar operation will not be a quick-strike offensive like this past winter's push into the town of Marjah in neighboring Helmand province.
Since the Taliban is not in complete control of Kandahar city and its surrounding villages, the first stage of the mission is meetings with local leaders, he said. Then NATO forces expect to launch a series of operations over weeks or months to establish security.
"I believe that by the end of this year we will be able to demonstrate that we have the initiative and the momentum is with us," Sedwill said.