U.S. Knew of Threats as Cheney Visited Base
New York Times | March 1, 2007
ABDUL WAHEED WAFA and CARLOTTA GALL
NATO and American forces knew that a suicide bomber was at large in the Bagram area before the suicide bomb attack on Tuesday that killed 23 people at the main gate of the United States air base where Vice President Dick Cheney was staying, a NATO spokesman said Wednesday. But despite the vice president's presence, the Afghan police chief in the area said he had not been informed of the possible threat.
“We know for a fact that there has been recent intelligence to suggest that there was the threat of a bombing in the Bagram area,” the spokesman, Col. Tom Collins, said at a news briefing in Kabul.
“It is clear there are suicide bombers' cells operating in this country,” he said. “There are some operating in the city of Kabul and, as our intelligence suggests, they had the capability in the Bagram area.”
The Afghan police chief of Bagram district, Muhammad Salem Ehsas, said Wednesday that he had been unaware of any threat of a suicide bomber in the area, suggesting a lack of coordination between the security forces on the ground even while Mr. Cheney was present.
Afghan police officers guard the outer gate at the Bagram air base, and it is possible that they let the bomber through to the second gate, which is operated by American soldiers and other members of the international military force. Commander Ehsas said it was also possible that the bomber gained access to the American gate through the residential areas near the base.
At least 19 Afghan workers, including a 12-year-old boy, were killed in the blast, as were a South Korean soldier, an American soldier, an American civilian contractor and the bomber, the military said in a statement. Many of the workers were lined up outside the gate, waiting to clear the security checkpoint before going to work inside.
Mr. Cheney spent the night at Bagram unexpectedly after heavy snow prevented him from getting to a meeting with President Hamid Karzai at the presidential palace in Kabul. Mr. Cheney was at the base when the bomber struck at 10 a.m. Tuesday, but he continued on to Kabul to meet President Karzai at midday as planned.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the blast and said it had been aimed at Mr. Cheney, and even named the bomber, saying he came from Logar, a province south of the capital, Kabul. But Colonel Collins said that their claim was “absurd” and that the timing of the bombing could have been just a coincidence.
“Their claim is simply going for more psychological impact on the population,” he said. “Clearly what they have done here is simply killing more innocent people.”
Afghanistan has been hit by more than 100 suicide bombings in the past year, and many have appeared to be opportunistic attacks, where the bombers had been walking, loitering or driving around looking for a target, usually a foreign military convoy. Others have approached military bases and government buildings on foot and set off their explosion at an entrance.
The American military is conducting the investigation of the bomb blast, said Colonel Collins, the spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF.
“Unfortunately, we do expect more attacks,” he said. “And the enemy knows that they cannot defeat Afghan National Security Forces and ISAF forces in the conventional sense, so we do expect them increasingly to go after soft targets, which means civilians.”
Mr. Ehsas said he also believed that it was more likely that the bombing was an opportunistic attack against the civilians lined up at the gate. “I don't think it was connected to Cheney's visit,” he said. “The aim was the people in the crowd.”