August 20, 2008
Taliban Escalate Fighting With Assault on U.S. Base
By CARLOTTA GALL and SANGAR RAHIMI
BAMIYAN, Afghanistan — Taliban insurgents mounted their most serious attacks in six years of fighting in Afghanistan over the last two days, including a coordinated assault by at least 10 suicide bombers against one of the largest American military bases in the country, and another by about 100 insurgents who killed 10 elite French paratroopers.
The attack on the French, in a district near Kabul, added to the sense of siege around the capital and was the deadliest single loss for foreign troops in a ground battle since the United States-led invasion chased the Taliban from power in 2001.
Taken together, the attacks were part of a sharp escalation in fighting as insurgents have seized a window of opportunity to press their campaign this summer — taking advantage of a wavering NATO commitment, an outgoing American administration, a flailing Afghan government and a Pakistani government in deep disarray that has given the militants freer rein across the border.
As a result, this year is on pace to be the deadliest in the Afghan war so far, as the insurgent attacks show rising zeal and sophistication. The insurgents are employing not only a growing number of suicide and roadside bombs, but are also waging increasingly well-organized and complex operations using multiple attackers with different types of weapons, NATO officials say.
NATO and American military officials place blame for much of the increased insurgent activity on the greater freedom of movement the militants have in Pakistan’s tribal areas on the Afghan border. The turmoil in the Pakistani government, with the resignation of President Pervez Musharraf on Monday, has added to the sense of a vacuum of authority there.
But at least as important, the officials say, is the fact that Pakistan’s military has agreed to a series of peace deals with the militants under which it stopped large-scale operations in the tribal areas in February, allowing the insurgents greater freedom to train, recruit and carry out attacks into Afghanistan.
More foreign fighters are entering Afghanistan this summer than in previous years, NATO officials say, an indication that Al Qaeda and allied groups have been able to gather more foreigners in their tribal redoubts.
The push by the insurgents has taken a rising toll. Before the attack on Monday, 173 foreign soldiers had been killed in Afghanistan this year, including 99 Americans. In all of 2007, 232 foreign troops were killed, the highest number since the war began in 2001.
The attack with multiple suicide bombers, which struck Camp Salerno in the eastern province of Khost, wounded three American soldiers and six members of the Afghan Special Forces, Afghan officials said. It was one of the most complex attacks yet in Afghanistan, and included a backup fighting force that tried to breach defenses to the airport at the base.
The assault followed a suicide car bombing at the outer entrance to the same base on Monday morning, which killed 12 Afghan workers lining up to enter the base, and another attempted bombing that was thwarted later.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahed, reached by telephone at an unknown location, said the attack was carried out by 15 suicide bombers, each equipped with machine guns and explosives vests, and backed by 30 more militants.
He also claimed that some of the bombers had breached the walls of the base and had killed a number of American soldiers and destroyed equipment and helicopters. This last claim was denied by Gen. Zaher Azimi of the Afghan military.
The insurgents began attacking with rockets and mortars at 11 p.m. Monday, and a group of militants began to move toward the airport side of the base, the Afghan military said. An Afghan commando unit encircled them, killing 13 militants, including 10 who were wearing suicide vests, General Azimi said.
A fierce battle raged through much of the night, until 7 a.m. Tuesday, said Arsala Jamal, the governor of Khost. American helicopter strikes against the militants, who were moving through a cornfield around the base, also struck a house in a village, killing two children and wounding two women and two men, the provincial police chief, Abdul Qayum Baqizoy, said.
The attack on the French also began late Monday and continued into Tuesday, after they were ambushed by an unusually large insurgent force while on a joint reconnaissance mission with the Afghan Army in the district of Sarobi, 30 miles east of Kabul, according to a NATO statement.
The French soldiers, part of an elite paratrooper unit, had only recently taken over from American forces in the area as part of the expanded French deployment in Afghanistan under President Nicolas Sarkozy.
In addition to the 10 French soldiers killed, 21 were wounded, the NATO statement said. It was the deadliest attack on French troops since a 1983 assault in Beirut killed 58 French paratroopers serving in a United Nations force.
The latest casualties bring to 24 the number of French troops killed in Afghanistan since they were first sent there in 2002.
The Taliban have seemingly made it part of their strategy to attack newly arriving forces, as well as those of NATO countries whose commitment to the war has appeared to waver, in an effort to influence public opinion in Europe. NATO countries have been under increasing pressure from the United States to increase their troop commitments to Afghanistan, which many have been hesitant to do.
The Taliban’s surge in attacks also comes at a delicate moment in American political life, as the departing Bush administration will have to hand over control of the war to a new president, whose administration will need time to get up to speed.
But Mr. Sarkozy, who has been a strong supporter of the United States, made it clear that the French would be undeterred.
“In its struggle against terrorism, France has just been hard hit,” Mr. Sarkozy said in a statement. He arrived in Kabul on Wednesday, according to Reuters, a trip he made to reassure French troops that “France is at their side.”
But Mr. Sarkozy said France would not be deterred from its Afghan mission, where 3,000 troops are serving in a NATO force of more than 40,000 soldiers from nearly 40 nations.
“My determination is intact,” he said. “France is committed to pursuing the struggle against terrorism, for democracy and for freedom. This is a just cause; it is an honor for France and for its army to defend it.”
The Sarobi District has been the scene of a growing number of insurgent attacks in recent months, most thought to be instigated by fighters loyal to the renegade mujahedeen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is allied with the Taliban but not formally part of the movement.
Mr. Hekmatyar, who NATO officials say is based in Pakistan, has increased his militant activity in northeast Afghanistan and around Kabul, while the Taliban, foreign fighters and Al Qaeda have accelerated their attacks in the east, southeast and south.
The increase in insurgent activity northeast of Kabul is part of an attempt by the insurgents to encircle the capital and put pressure on the Afghan government and the foreign forces, some NATO and Afghan officials say.
Insurgent activity has also increased sharply in recent months in Logar and Wardak Provinces, south of the capital, sometimes making the main roads impassable.
The deployment of elite French troops to the area was intended to reinforce the Afghan Army and help keep the insurgent threat to the capital at bay. General Azimi, the Afghan military spokesman, said two companies of Afghan Army soldiers were sent in at dawn to assist the French.
In all, about 27 Taliban were believed to have been killed in the clash in the Sarobi District, around Uzbin, he said. Thirteen insurgents were later found dead on the battlefield, including a Pakistani fighter, he said.
Carlotta Gall reported from Bamiyan, and Sangar Rahimi from Kabul, Afghanistan. Steven Erlanger contributed reporting from Paris.