With Attack on U.S. Base, Taliban Up the Ante in Afghanistan

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Saurabh Das / AP

U.S. soldiers wait after collecting the body of an insurgent from a vineyard near Bagram Air Base, after insurgents launched a brazen predawn assault

As the U.S. gears up for a military offensive to regain control of the Taliban heartland of Kandahar, the insurgents on Wednesday sought to strike a psychological blow by attacking the main base for U.S. operations in Afghanistan. In a bold predawn assault on Bagram Air Base, Taliban fighters, four of whom were wearing suicide vests that failed to detonate, killed a U.S. contractor and wounded nine coalition soldiers, according to a statement by the U.S. military. The firefight ended around midmorning.

The attack on the sprawling U.S. base, about 50 miles north of Kabul, struck at the epicenter of the NATO mission here, and followed closely on the heels of the previous day's car bomb in the capital that left 18 people dead, including five U.S. soldiers. That bombing had been the first major attack in Kabul in nearly three months, and together with the Bagram assault it has prompted speculation that violence in and around the capital is going to escalate as NATO forces ramp up their operations in the south.

Wednesday's attack follows President Hamid Karzai's visit to Washington, and comes a week before his planned peace jirga, or consultative meeting. The government hopes the jirga will chart a course toward national reconciliation and peace negotiations with insurgent groups, including the Taliban.

"The insurgents are trying to send a message at this particular time," says John Dempsey, a senior rule of law officer at the United States Institute of Peace in Kabul. "There are certain elements who are trying to show that they're still a very potent force that's able to carry out coordinated attacks."

The Taliban recently announced their own plan for a spring offensive — labeled al-Fatah, or Victory — in response to NATO's intended summer offensive in and around Kandahar. While some analysts suggest that the latest attacks may signify Taliban opposition to the jirga itself, others say it's more likely they're just trying to demonstrate their power ahead of any negotiations. But the jirga is also a controversial topic in Kabul, particularly among Karzai's opponents.

"I don't believe that this jirga is going to bring peace in Afghanistan," says Fawzia Koofi, an Afghan Member of Parliament. Koofi has dismissed the meeting as a propaganda stunt by Karzai and a governing tool better suited to another era. "When there was no parliament, when there were no laws and no constitution, we go to the jirga," she says. She argues that the meeting, whose participants have yet to be named, lacks legitimacy. "This is not defined in the laws of Afghanistan, [so] it's very difficult to apply the outcome because then it will not be accepted by the people." She also questioned whether the U.S. and its allies would respect the decisions of Karzai's forum.

While giving lukewarm backing to Karzai's outreach efforts, the U.S. has insisted that any peace deal with the Taliban would have to wait until the insurgency had been put on the defensive by a sustained military offensive that would make them more amenable to compromise. This week's attacks in Kabul suggest that the Taliban may be applying the same logic in reverse.