Bombing Near Cheney Displays Boldness of Resurgent Taliban

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Vice President Cheney was inside the main U.S. air base in Afghanistan yesterday when a suicide bomber detonated his explosives just outside the gates, killing as many as 23 people and showcasing insurgents' growing capabilities in advance of a widely expected spring offensive.

Within hours, a purported Taliban spokesman asserted responsibility for the attack -- which killed a U.S. soldier and an American civilian contractor -- and said it was an attempt to assassinate Cheney. U.S. officials disputed the assertion that Cheney was the target, noting that his overnight stay at the sprawling Bagram air base had been unplanned and that he was well away from the blast.

"I heard a loud boom," Cheney told reporters later. "The Secret Service came in and told me there had been an attack on the main gate."

The attack prompted military officials to issue a "red alert" at the base. Cheney was briefly moved to a bomb shelter, before being allowed to continue with his schedule.

Regardless of the intent, the attack demonstrated that insurgents in Afghanistan are becoming increasingly bold, willing to attack a heavily fortified U.S. target in the face of unusually tight security. Additionally, the assault was carried out in a part of the country where the Taliban has relatively little support. The Islamic militia's traditional stronghold has been in the south; Bagram is in the country's central region, about an hour's drive north of Kabul.

"It's pretty striking that they're capable of planning and executing an attack on Bagram on fairly short notice and under changing circumstances. We haven't seen anything like this before," said Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who until last month worked on South Asia policy at the State Department. "Psychologically, this has to be seen as a serious blow."

Markey said the attack is also an ominous sign with the approach of spring, which is usually accompanied by a heavy escalation in violence as conditions for fighting improve. "Everyone agrees on both sides that this is going to be a bad spring," he said.

Until 18 months ago, suicide bombings had been a rarity in Afghanistan, despite more than two decades of war. Recently, however, they have become a favored tactic of insurgents who are trying to undermine the weak pro-Western government in Kabul and force NATO troops to leave.

Last year, there were 139 suicide attacks in Afghanistan, five times as many as in 2005. The shift in tactics has prompted concern that the Taliban, which lost power after a U.S.-led invasion in 2001, is adopting the methods of insurgents in Iraq.

"This attack is a reflection of their new capabilities, which they've developed in the last year or two through their connections with the transnational extremists," said Ali Ahmad Jalali, former interior minister of Afghanistan. "This will boost morale and will help them to recruit more fighters. This is the kind of violence that can have a major psychological impact."

Asked whether Taliban fighters were sending a message, Cheney indicated they were. "I think they clearly try to find ways to question the authority of the central government," he said. "Striking at Bagram with a suicide bomber, I suppose, is one way to do that. But it shouldn't affect our behavior at all."

The Bush administration has become increasingly concerned by the violence in Afghanistan, and Cheney's previously unannounced stops in Pakistan and Afghanistan during a trip to Asia were intended to signal the White House's commitment to countering insurgents there.

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