Sowing security fears less than a month before presidential elections, a wave of gunmen and suicide bombers staged coordinated attacks in two eastern cities Tuesday that killed at least six Afghan security officers and eight of the insurgents during hours of chaotic fighting.
The commando-style assaults in the provincial capitals of Jalalabad and Gardez, targeting a U.S. military base and several Afghan government compounds, demonstrated the insurgents’ ability to mount sophisticated, multi-pronged attacks over a wide geographical area. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attacks, which began moments apart in midmorning.
The attacks employed a tactic increasingly used in recent months, particularly in eastern Afghanistan, which borders Pakistan’s tribal areas -- sending waves of gunmen and multiple suicide bombers to try to breach the defenses of heavily fortified bases or government buildings.
Calm was restored by late afternoon, with Afghan and U.S. troops patrolling the streets and sealing off areas. At least some of the suicide bombers were disguised as women, Afghan officials said. In one attack, an assailant used the ruse of approaching a checkpoint carrying a piece of paper, as if to show permission to enter.
The attacks coincided with what has been an increase in battlefield confrontations between insurgents and Western troops. This month has been the deadliest of the nearly 8-year-old conflict for Western forces. Thirty-one American troops have been killed in July, including the latest death, in a vehicle accident in Afghanistan’s east.
In Gardez, the capital of Paktia province, targets included the governor’s compound and police headquarters as well as the regional offices of Afghanistan’s intelligence service, which was hit by rocket fire. In Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province, the attackers tried unsuccessfully to break through the perimeter defenses of a U.S. military base near the airport. No U.S. troops were reported killed or injured.
But the attacks helped foster a sense that large swaths of the country are unsafe. At the governor’s compound in Paktia province, gunmen struck just after a meeting between provincial officials and tribal chiefs about election security.
The head of foreign policy for the European Union, Javier Solana, was visiting Afghanistan at the time of the attacks. Speaking in the capital, Kabul, he commented that security in the country was “evolving not in an ideal manner.”
A buildup of U.S. forces by the Obama administration, which is expected to see at least 68,000 American troops in the country by year’s end, is being carried out in large measure to ensure that the Aug. 20 presidential vote can be conducted in reasonable safety.
Afghan officials said the latest fighting was proof that the country’s army and police were capable of repelling even attacks by “well-trained terrorists.” But witnesses said the attackers appeared to have come close to overrunning some of the government compounds.
Special correspondent M. Karim Faiez contributed to this report.