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May 19, 2010 | 17:02 GMT

3 mins read

Afghanistan: Examining the Bagram Airfield Attack

U.S. AIR FORCE PHOTO/Tech. Sgt. Jeromy K. Cross
Though the May 19 attack on Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan was repelled and ultimately proved a tactical failure, it has broader significance, especially for the Taliban.
At 3 a.m. local time May 19, a contingent of Taliban fighters armed with rocket-propelled grenades, rockets and small arms and including at least four suicide bombers attacked the outer perimeter at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. After a firefight that lasted several hours, 10 insurgents and one U.S. contractor were dead and at least five U.S. soldiers were wounded. Some reports said additional fighters escaped by car, though this has not been confirmed. The United States has insisted that the base's defenses were never breached, yet this is not the whole story. Situated north of the Afghan capital of Kabul, Bagram is perhaps the largest military base and certainly the most important airfield in the country for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). It is a large, sprawling complex with significant standoff distance and multiple, concentric layers of security, along with measures and protocols that have repelled such attacks in the past, as during the 2007 visit by then-Vice President Dick Cheney (to give an idea of scale, the vice president, though inside the base perimeter, was reportedly a mile away from the attack when it occurred). It appears that the four suicide bombers were unable to detonate their devices before being killed, potentially blunting any attempt to further penetrate the perimeter. And even if the attack had been more successful, highly refined security perimeters such as the one at Bagram are designed so that the outer perimeter can absorb a more devastating attack while ultimately containing and repelling the assault. Indeed, the 10-14 attackers that appear to have been involved in the direct assault likely would have been outgunned and overwhelmed by the base security's quick reaction force, especially without vehicles to quickly cover the ground between the outer perimeter and more sensitive areas of the base. This was not an assault force with anywhere near the numbers and resources necessary to penetrate deeply into the base and cause more extensive damage. So, in the end, the United States can be confident that in this case the security provisions in place were sufficient to repel the assault — a tactical victory. Yet the Taliban view things quite differently, as this attack closely follows a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device attack on a convoy in Kabul that killed six ISAF soldiers May 18 — an attack that was also limited in its sophistication and impact. The Taliban announced their own spring offensive just a week ago and have now taken the fight deep into territory that is supposed to be well-controlled by the ISAF and the Afghan government. Indeed, the United States has designated the district of Kabul and those around it as "areas of interest" rather than key priorities for its offensive, with ISAF forces focused on supporting Afghan security forces in the region. The Taliban have demonstrated neither fundamentally new capabilities nor an unprecedented ability to project force. Each attack was limited in scope and from the U.S. and ISAF perspective, was not, despite tragic losses, an operational or strategic-level event. But the Taliban fight and judge success by different criteria and have already begun touting their success in the last two days in their own information operations and propaganda efforts — a domain in which the ISAF is struggling to compete. Ultimately, political developments underlie the United States' strategic objectives, so the battle of perception is every bit as important as tactical victory.

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