By Matthias Gebauer in Peshawar, Pakistan
Yet what sounds almost harmless in Cheney's account was far from it -- rather it was a massive and hitherto unheard of attack near the US military base, located about 60 kilometers (37 miles) north of Kabul. Despite countless checkpoints on the road to Bagram, the attacker managed to drive his carload of explosives all the way to the base's outermost security perimeter. The bomb in his car caused a tremendous explosion that could be seen from kilometers away. In addition to the attacker himself, the bomb killed at least 12 Afghans -- and possibly more -- in addition to two international soldiers, though casualty reports varied widely.
Not even an hour had passed before the radical Islamists from the Taliban had proudly taken credit for the attack. Their myriad press spokesmen went into action, contacting wire services by sat-phone make sure credit was given where credit was due.
"We knew Cheney had remained at the base overnight," said Kari Yousef Ahmadi, adding that "our man wanted to get through to him and kill him." As if to prove his words, Ahmadi also cited the identity of the attacker. It is still unclear, however, whether the identity given is correct.
But even if the Taliban's claims don't prove 100 percent accurate, the incident on Tuesday morning is disconcerting news for the troops in Afghanistan. "The fact that the attacker was able to get all the way to the gate troubles us," says a NATO officer. "But we're even more startled by how much the Taliban know." It was clearly "a planned attack," the officer said, since the planners knew "that Cheney was still in the base" –- and even if the goal was not achieved, the message was understood.
The details of the attack bespeak a new, hitherto unknown logistical skill on the part of the Taliban. Cheney's visit was shrouded in secrecy from the beginning with reporters travelling with him being asked to observe embargoes on revealing the Vice President's whereabouts. The fact that Cheney had to cancel a meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai -- originally scheduled for Monday evening -- because of strong snowfall and spend the night in Bagram only became known on Monday evening.
Observers see a clear sign that the Taliban now dispose of a well-organized information network that allows them to track the movements of prominent political decision-makers like Cheney. "Of course plenty of information is available via the Internet," the NATO officer said, "but you need to be able to use that tool." This was apparently what happened in the case of the attack on Bagram Air Base, the officer added, claiming there is no other way of "explaining the exact timing." It's hardly appropriate to continue characterizing the Taliban as simple guerrilla soldiers, in the officer's view.
6,000 suicide attackers ready to strike
The spontaneity of the attack also gives new weight to the threats issued by Taliban. For weeks now, the radical group have used propaganda videos to announce the training of thousands of suicide attackers, ready to jump into action as soon as the snow melts in Afghanistan. Until now, the threats had seemed exaggerated. But given that Cheney's whereabouts could only have been known just a short time prior to the actual attack, the threats now seem more credible.
Especially active on the propaganda front is Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah. The fighter even recently invited reporters from the Arab TV station al-Jazeera to visit him in the mountains near Kandahar. After presenting his troops, Dadullah -- noted for his brutality -- said he had 6,000 men ready to carry out suicide attacks. As if to prove the claim, his propaganda videos repeatedly show young Afghans and Arabs signing their names on lists and announcing they are prepared to sacrifice their lives for Dadullah.
The new Taliban strategy is partly the product of the bitter lessons learned last year. The Taliban suffered heavy losses in 2006, especially during the last months of the year. Previously, their guerrilla troops had been able to seize entire villages in the south of the country. Then, almost 3,000 Taliban died during NATO air attacks in late 2006. "The Taliban can no longer afford large numbers of casualties and loss of equipment," says Afghanistan expert Raimullah Yusufzai, "so they're opting for the cheaper option of suicide attacks."
Last year, there were 139 such attacks in Afghanistan. Western intelligence agencies say that is a five-fold increase on the previous year. Even prior to Tuesday's attack, the new commander of US forces in Afghanistan David Rodriguez said he expected a further jump in deadly suicide attacks this year.
The well-timed attack on Bagram Air Base seems to mark the beginning of what could become a bloody spring in Afghanistan.
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