U.S. Base in Afghanistan Targeted During Cheney Visit
Bomb Blast at Bagram Airfield Kills at Least 4; Vice President Unhurt in Attack
By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 27, 2007; 10:36 AM
Vice President Cheney was shuttled into a bomb shelter at a U.S. military base in Afghanistan this morning after a suicide bomber blew himself up outside the main gate in an attack Taliban officials say was aimed at the vice president.
Cheney was uninjured and in no real danger from the blast, which killed at least four people, including a U.S. soldier, at the gate of the Bagram Airfield.
Although the vice president heard what he described as a "loud boom" at around 10 a.m. Afghan time, the explosion occurred far from the building where Cheney had spent the night in advance of a meeting with Afghan President Hamad Karzai.
But coming near the end of an unannounced trip whose itinerary was closely guarded, the incident highlighted some of the same concerns about resurgent Taliban activity that Cheney had traveled to the region to address.
Speaking about the incident en route to Oman following a two-hour meeting with Karzai, Cheney said the attack was meant as a blow against the Afghan president but would "not affect our behavior."
Cheney said he was in the bomb shelter for only "a short period of time," did not feel threatened, and had not considered canceling his meeting with Karzai.
"I think they clearly try to find ways to question the authority of the central government," Cheney said. "Striking at the Bagram [base] with a suicide bomber, I suppose, is one way to do that."
Army Lt. Col. James E. Bonner, the base operations commander, said the bomber approached the gate and "when he realized he would not be able to get onto the base, he attacked the local population." In addition to the U.S. soldier, another coalition soldier and a U.S. government contract employee died in the attack along with the bomber, the commander said. Another 27 people were wounded.
News service reports, relying on local officials, reported more than 20 people were killed.
Cheney, on an Asia trip that included stops in Japan and Australia, was not originally scheduled to spend the night in Afghanistan. He arrived there Monday following a meeting in Pakistan with President Pervez Musharraf and was scheduled to meet that same day with Karzai. Because of security concerns his presence in the region had been kept under wraps until after he was leaving Pakistan.
However, his meeting with Karzai was delayed when a snowstorm left him unable to make the roughly 20 minute-flight from the Bagram base to Kabul, and the vice president stayed the night.
The Reuters news service reported that Taliban spokesman Mullah Hayat Khan took credit for organizing the quick attack.
"We wanted to target . . . Cheney," Khan said, the wire service reported, adding that he spoke by phone from an undisclosed location.
On the flight leaving the country, a senior administration official, who insisted on anonymity, said Cheney had come to Pakistan and Afghanistan at President Bush's request because of "the continuing threat that exists in this part of the world" -- a threat exemplified by Tuesday's bombing.
Taliban fighters are thought to be regrouping along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and leaders of the militant religious group have threatened a bloody spring offensive.
Around 47,000 coalition troops, including 27,000 U.S. soldiers, remain in Afghanistan following the 2001 invasion of the country.
U.S. officials have become increasingly concerned about the Taliban's resurgence and the reappearance of possible terrorist training operations in the border area.
In a meeting with Musharraf on Monday, Cheney urged tougher action in rural border areas, a message repeated to Karzai.
The administration official said the meeting was not scheduled to "beat up" on the Afghan president, but to coordinate ideas about confronting the Taliban.
The official said that Karzai was "upbeat," but relayed comments from Afghan tribal leaders skeptical about U.S. commitment to the country -- a concern deepened, the official said, by Democratic talk of a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
"They worry about that," the official said. "If they see weakness on the part of the U.S. . . . they worry about our commitment."
Democratic leaders have not pushed for a withdrawal from Afghanistan, a conflict they view as more directly tied to the 2001 terrorist attacks against New York and Washington because of al-Qaeda's once well-organized training operation there and close relationship with the Taliban.