Correction Appended August 23, 2008
The unprecedented audacity of Tuesday's attack on one of the largest U.S. bases in Afghanistan reflects the growing confidence of the Taliban: Six men wearing suicide bomb-vests attempted to rush the entrance gate of Camp Salerno in Khost Province. But unlike most suicide bombers, these men were not simply looking to blow themselves up in order to kill those within range of their blasts; instead, they were the human battering ram of a kamikaze infantry attack, sent to blow a breach in the security barrier for the fighters following in their wake to penetrate the base and spread maximum devastation inside a well-protected concentration of American power.
That mission failed after three suicide bombers were shot dead and the other three detonated prematurely. But the Camp Salerno assault was just one of a slew of attacks across Afghanistan and Pakistan this week that underscore the perilous decline in security on both sides of the border.
The Khost attack was the second in as many days: Two other suicide bombers driving explosive-laden cars detonated themselves near Camp Salerno's entrance on Monday, killing 10 Afghans and wounding another 13. A more dramatic strike came in Kabul province, just 30 miles from the capital, where more than 100 militants ambushed a French patrol on Tuesday, killing 10 and wounding 21 in the single worst ground attack on foreign forces since the U.S. invasion in 2001. A Wednesday attack on a road construction crew in Khost was subdued, but such setbacks haven't slowed the growing momentum of the Taliban.
Over in Pakistan, five major bombings over the past week the latest, on Thursday, claiming 63 victims at a munitions factory in Wah, near the capital have accompanied the political vacuum in Islamabad created by the resignation of President Pervez Musharraf on Monday. The militants claim they're retaliating for a counterinsurgency sweep by government forces in Bajaur. While that campaign reflects a continuation of Musharraf's policy of cracking down on militants in the tribal areas, the government remains under pressure from a Pakistani public that prefers negotiations with the militants, viewing the counterinsurgency campaign as Pakistanis killing other Pakistanis at the behest of the U.S.
The weather is always a factor in the military calendar of Afghanistan. "The enemies know they only have a few more months left to fight before winter, so they are focusing all their energies on the provinces that will be inaccessible due to snowfall on the passes between Pakistan and Afghanistan," says Maulvi Nasrullah Qasemi, a respected religious leader who has joined a delegation of tribal elders from Khost in Kabul to discuss the security crisis with President Hamid Karzai. But officials in Afghanistan blame the surge in Taliban attacks on the political upheaval in Pakistan, which NATO believes is the sanctuary from which the militants run their insurgency.
"As you know, Khost has a long border with Pakistan, so it is easy for insurgents to get across," says provincial police chief Col. Abdul Qayum Baqizoi. Khost shares a border with Khurram Agency and North Waziristan, lawless strongholds of militancy, where Pakistani forces have been waging a counterinsurgency offensive. Khurram and North Waziristan had been important staging grounds for the U.S.-backed jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, allowing militants supported by Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) to inflict key defeats on the Red Army in Khost. Today, the militants are hoping to revive that old cross-border jihad partnership against NATO and the Pakistani and Afghan governments, and many in Afghanistan say the ISI remains involved, hoping to restore a pliant regime in Kabul. Karzai recently told TIME, "The ISI ... must stop using radicalism and extremism as an instrument of policy. Unless the use of these young men as tools of radicalization, and as weapons to promote whatever agenda they have stops, we will have continued attacks."
On the ground in Khost, however, residents are not convinced that a change in Pakistan's policy would alter the situation. The genie of militancy has been unleashed from the bottle, say local tribal elders, and the influence of any rogue elements of the Pakistan security forces is eclipsed by that of al-Qaeda the deadly attack on the Wah munitions factory was a reminder that the Pakistani security forces themselves are among the militants' prime targets today. A spokesman for the Tehrik-i-Taliban, a Pakistani militant umbrella group, claimed responsibility for the blasts, telling Agence France Press that the Wah attack was "in reaction to military operations in Swat and Bajaur." He threatened further attacks in major Pakistani cities.
According to Qasemi, Tehrik-i-Taliban is active on both sides of the border, and is behind several attacks in Khost as well. There are two militant groups operating in Khost, says Qasemi, one lead by the former Afghan mujahedeen leader (and erstwhile U.S. ally) Jalaluddin Haqqani, and the other commanded by Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban. Both men are alleged to have been supported by the ISI, but they have split recently over disagreements in fighting style: Haqqani's group targets U.S. and Afghan security forces, whereas Mehsud's also seeks to undermine the traditional tribal structure by attacking local leaders and moderate mullahs. Mehsud's men are also more likely to blow up schools and clinics and symbols of development. While Haqqani does use suicide bombers, says Qasemi, the tactic has become a signature of Mehsud's group, which runs training centers in Bajaur and Khurram, another Pakistani tribal area. "The suicide bombers are trained for 40 days," says Qasemi. "They stay in the same room, and every day are told that if they make jihad on the foreigners they will go to paradise. They are told that the Afghan soldiers have converted to Christianity. At the end of 40 days, all of them are asked, who wants to make jihad? All of them raise their hands."
The elders from Khost say Karzai gave them a sympathetic hearing on the deteriorating security situation, offering to help pay salaries for village-level self-defense groups. But not all were reassured by the president's promises. "All of us are afraid," says one, who asked that his name not be used. "But what are the people to do? They can't go to Kabul, because it is too dangerous there. Pakistan is also in flames, so that is not possible. We can do nothing."
Qasemi looks on the bright side, citing the militants' failed attack at Camp Salerno. "I don't think they will try that tactic again," he says offering what may be cold comfort: "They will have to try something else."
With reporting by Omar Waraich/Islamabad
The original version of this story erroneously said that Khost borders on the Bajaur Agency in Pakistan. Khost borders on the Pakistani regions of Khurram Agency and North Waziristan.