Taliban insurgents staged a rare ground assault on the main Nato base in southern Afghanistan this weekend, the latest in a string of high-profile attacks designed to show the movement is back on the offensive.
Several civilians and foreign troops were wounded when fighters fired rockets and attacked the northern perimeter of Kandahar Air Field, hub for a major operation aimed at securing nearby Kandahar city over the next few months.
The raid followed an attack by insurgents wearing military uniforms on Bagram Air Field north of the capital Kabul on Wednesday, another major base servicing thousands of troops.
That attack came a day after 18 people were killed, including five US troops and a Canadian soldier, when a suicide bomber rammed a military convoy in Kabul, the first major attack in the capital since February.
The attacks suggest the Taliban is stepping up its campaign in response to US plans to launch a major operation to drive its fighters from villages around Kandahar and bolster governance in the city, where widespread alienation has provided fertile ground for the movement to entrench its influence.
Kandahar Air Field, where Nato commanders oversee more than 50,000 troops in southern Afghanistan, is the launchpad for the operation, which has already begun but is due to intensify over June and July.
US commanders see the Kandahar campaign as central to their strategy to reverse the Taliban’s momentum by convincing Afghans that the government of Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president, is capable of providing security and services.
The latest Taliban attacks may have limited military impact, but they show the movement is intensifying its campaign to sap support for the mission among the Afghan public and troop-contributing nations by striking at potent symbols of American power.
Explosions and machine-gun fire reverberated through Kandahar airfield, which with its sprawl of tents and paved roads resembled a small town, after the attack began on Saturday evening. Military officials said the insurgents failed to breach the perimeter of the base. Witnesses said explosions continued for much of the night.
In the attack on Bagram Air Field before dawn on Wednesday, a US contractor was killed along with 16 militants as fighting raged for about eight hours.
The latest raids suggest the Taliban is capable of grabbing headlines in spite of the growing pressure Stanley McChrystal, the top US general in Afghanistan, is bringing to bear with additional troops deployed under the troop surge ordered by Barack Obama, the US president, in December.
The Taliban announced they were launching a spring offensive aimed at foreign troops, diplomats and Afghan government officials ahead of Mr Karzai’s visit to Washington this month, where he sought Mr Obama’s backing for his plans to extend peace overtures to the insurgents.
Mr Karzai, Afghanistan’s president, is due to convene a meeting in Kabul this month to forge a national consensus to back his aspirations for dialogue.
The attack on Kandahar Air Field occurred on the same day that Liam Fox, the UK’s new defence secretary, made his first trip to Afghanistan amid signs the new Conservative Liberal coalition government is seeking to accelerate the withdrawal of British forces from Afghanistan.
Mr Fox told the Times newspaper in an interview ahead of his trip thathe wanted to see if it was possible to accelerate the training of Afghan forces and that he wanted British troops to come home as soon as possible.
He went on to say: “We are not in Afghanistan for the sake of the education policy in a broken 13th-century country. We are there so the people of Britain and our global interests are not threatened.