By Laura King
Los Angeles Times
KABUL, Afghanistan – A squad of gunmen and would-be suicide bombers mounted a ground attack Tuesday against the biggest NATO base in southern Afghanistan, the latest in a series of futile but attention-grabbing insurgent assaults on large, heavily fortified Western installations across Afghanistan.
In the last three months, similar frontal attacks have taken place at Bagram airfield, north of Kabul, and Jalalabad airfield, the main NATO base in the country’s east. Kandahar airfield, the scene of Tuesday’s strike, had also come under a previous coordinated attack in May.
In none of these instances did the assailants appear to have any real chance of breaching the bases’ perimeter defenses, even when they managed to set off suicide blasts close to the gates. All three airfields also have attack helicopters that can be scrambled in moments to chase fleeing insurgents.
The base attacks represent a departure from the usual Taliban tactic of speedy hit-and-run ambushes. Instead, the raids appear aimed at demonstrating insurgents’ fearlessness in the face of superior firepower, together with their willingness to sacrifice fighters in grandiose strikes with very little hope of success.
The Kandahar base, a sprawling, city-sized installation about 15 miles outside southern Afghanistan’s main urban hub, carries particular symbolic resonance for the insurgents. It is the main emblem of the Western military presence in the Taliban movement’s traditional heartland, and a staging ground for operations by the NATO force in the city and its outlying districts.
A spokesman for Kandahar’s provincial government, Zalmay Ayubi, said the attack began about 11 a.m. when attackers fired rockets toward the base, then tried to push into its northern gate. About half a dozen assailants took part, some wearing suicide vests, he said. Ayubi said a Western service member and two civilians were wounded, but a spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force could not immediately confirm any casualties inside the base.
All six of the assailants were killed, Ayubi said. June and July were the deadliest months of the nine-year war for American forces in Afghanistan. Most of the U.S. troops sent as part of the surge ordered by President Barack Obama last December have been deployed in the country’s south.