Attack near Cheney called sign war failing

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- A deadly daylight attack on the huge U.S. military base at Bagram, Afghanistan, during a visit by Vice President Dick Cheney underscores the diminishing American prospects for military success in the region, analysts said yesterday.

The suicide bomb attack at the base front gate - literally on the doorstep of the U.S. military command headquarters in Afghanistan - left the vice president unhurt. But the blast killed 23 people, including two U.S. soldiers, the Associated Press reported. The Taliban, which have mounted increasingly brazen attacks on U.S. and Afghan government troops and facilities, claimed responsibility.

The incident was "another major indicator of a declining security environment in Afghanistan," said Seth Jones, an Afghanistan specialist at the Rand think tank.

The White House was quick to dismiss it as "an isolated attack."

"I'm not sure that you can draw larger conclusions" about the Taliban or the wider fight against terrorism, said White House spokesman Tony Snow.

But the assault impressed intelligence professionals.

"Usually, it's very difficult to mount an attack like that against a visiting dignitary," said John O. Brennan, a former CIA Middle East specialist who ran the National Counterterrorism Center until 2005. "This was an unannounced visit, but yet they were still able to carry it out fairly quickly.

"Clearly they wanted to do it for the headline-grabbing," he said.

Cheney had been delayed at Bagram overnight by an unexpected snowstorm, which prevented him from traveling from the U.S. air base to Kabul to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. He was about to leave Bagram about 10 a.m. when the suicide bomber struck, running into a crowd of Afghan construction workers gathered at the main gate, which is guarded by both U.S. and Afghan troops.

"I heard a loud boom," Cheney told reporters aboard Air Force Two after leaving Afghanistan later yesterday. Cheney, who had been about a mile from the attack, was rushed into a bomb shelter, but he later insisted the attack "shouldn't affect our behavior at all."

The attack came as Congress began deliberations on $93.4 billion in emergency funding for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, amid signs of growing public opposition to the continued use of U.S. troops.

House Democrats are proposing restrictions that would effectively prevent the full increase of 21,500 combat troops in Iraq ordered by Bush - limits that a majority of Americans said they support, according to a new ABC News-Washington Post national poll.

Iraq has invited Iran, Syria and other Middle East countries, as well as the U.S., to Baghdad early next month for a "neighbors meeting" of lower-level officials, to be followed by meetings of more senior diplomats later this spring, said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Rice told the Senate Appropriations Committee yesterday that "our efforts in Iraq are moving forward on all fronts at the same time - security, political, economic and diplomatic."

According to figures compiled by the Associated Press, the current security crackdown in the Iraqi capital has resulted in a sharp drop in the number of bullet-riddled bodies found in the streets of Baghdad, victims of sectarian death squads. The number of bodies found this month - most shot and showing signs of torture - has dropped by nearly 50 percent, to 494 as of Monday compared with 954 in January and 1,222 in December.

"We are beginning to turn the situation around in a very fundamental way," said Frederick Kagan, a senior analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, who devised the "surge" plan eventually adopted by Bush in December.

Administration officials offered gloomier assessments in testimony before Congress yesterday.

"The reality is we face an agile and a smart adversary. And as soon as we find one way of trying to thwart their efforts, they find a new technology or a new way of going about their business," said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

The new U.S. intelligence chief, Mike McConnell, told senators that "the current security and political trends in Iraq are moving in a negative direction."

The United States is "definitely losing in Iraq. I'm not sure we have lost," said Brookings Institution analyst Michael O'Hanlon, who said his research shows that 5,000 Iraqis are being killed each month and 100,000 are being driven from their homes.

He supervises the Iraq Index, a painstakingly detailed Internet collection of data on the Iraq war.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. is following in the bloody footsteps of the failed Soviet invasion and occupation, which ended with an ignominious Red Army retreat in February 1989, said former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer, who started the agency's Osama bin Laden unit in the 1990s.

"I think Afghanistan is over for us. The only thing we'll be able to do really is get out of there without it looking like Saigon," said Scheuer, referring to rooftop evacuation of Americans in 1975 as North Vietnamese forces closed in on the capital city.

As bad as things have gotten in Baghdad, he said, "We're less in control in Afghanistan than we are in Iraq."

The Pentagon is rushing troop reinforcements to both countries in an acknowledgement of the deteriorating military situations, while bin Laden, architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, is leading a resurgent al-Qaida in Pakistan, according to U.S. intelligence reports.

Newly re-armed Taliban forces in Afghanistan are attacking U.S. and allied forces at triple the rate of the past year, U.S. intelligence officers said. Suicide bomb attacks, once virtually unknown in Afghanistan, leapt from 18 to 116 in the past year, although frontal assaults on large installations such as the U.S. air base at Bagram are rare, U.S. officials said.

Both the rearmed Taliban forces and al-Qaida have established secure sanctuaries inside Pakistan, "a big country with nuclear weapons that doesn't control its own territory and has a significant radical Islamist population," said Kagan.

Cheney met with Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and Afghan President Karzai this week to try to resolve the issue of al-Qaida and Taliban sanctuaries inside Pakistan.

Publicly, Cheney was able to report little progress, however. One senior intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk with the press, said he is "pessimistic" that the al-Qaida havens inside Pakistan can be significantly minimized.

Unless those hideouts are effectively contained, he said, the conflict in Afghanistan will become a bloody test of wills with no end in sight.

At present there are 26,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan with an additional 3,200 paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade being deployed there this spring.

They will join roughly 30,000 NATO troops in the country, some of whom are not allowed to take part in combat operations.

In Iraq, the United States has deployed about 139,000 troops. The "surge" of reinforcements ordered by President Bush last month will add about 21,500 combat soldiers and Marines and several thousand support personnel.

Former CIA Middle East analyst Paul Pillar said he expects that over the coming year, "more of this kind of muddling-through would be the most likely scenario."

But with the patience of the U.S. public sagging, some conclude that the conflicts are already lost.

"We certainly have been defeated in Iraq, and in the larger global war on terrorism, we are going in that direction quickly," said Daniel Nelson, a former Pentagon and State Department official.

"Defeat means you are forced to do something that is contrary to your best interests, and we are clearly going to be forced to depart from Iraq by the levels of casualties, the decimation of our ground forces and by the fact that we cannot accomplish any of the missions we set out to do there - reconstruction and democracy. That is defeat."

Defeat, Rice warned senators, would leave the U.S. open to attack by al-Qaida: "They're trying every day to try to figure a way to attack us. And if they have a safe haven in a sophisticated and central place like Iraq, I believe strongly that that's going to enhance their capability to do so."

david.wood@baltsun.com siobhan.gorman@baltsun.com

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