Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Targeting Cheney

Let's begin by separating the wheat from the chaff: today's "assasination attempt" against Vice President Cheney in Afghanistan was that in name only. The suicide bomber who blew himself up at a security checkpoint on the perimeter of Bagram Airbase was never a threat to the Vice President, nor anyone else inside the sprawling facility. Taliban spokesmen have eagerly claimed that Cheney was the target, but even the most optimistic terrorist understood that a lone bomber would never penetrate multiple layers of base security, plus additional measures that were in place around Mr. Cheney. At least 12 people died in the attack (including a U.S. soldier) but the carnage could have been far worse, had the blast occurred inside the installation.

But that wasn't the point of today's attack. By mounting a suicide attack at the edge of Bagram during the Vice President's visit, the Taliban scored a minor propaganda coup for themselves, while creating a security embarassment for the U.S. military and the Afghan government. Over the next 24-48 hours, we will be bombarded with stories about the attack, which will be cited as further proof of a deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan. Absent from that coverage will be the reminders that a single suicide bomber isn't much of a threat to a huge airbase (despite the casualties), and that the attack occurred in an area that is relatively accessible. According to one report, the blast targeted an area when vehicles and personnel pass through the first of three security checkpoints, before entering Bagram.

More disturbing is the fact that the Taliban apparently had some knowledge of Cheney's "unannounced" visit in advance, allowing them to plan and execute the attack. Some security experts believe the bombing indicates that the Taliban has penetrated the Afghan and/or Pakistani governments, which had advance knowledge of the Vice President's itinerary. However, there are also indications that the terrorists lacked key information about Mr. Cheney's travels, prompting them to mount a futile--but deadly attack--at Bagram, rather than targeting a more vulnerable segment of the Vice President's travels. More on that in a moment.

While concerns about terrorists penetrating Afghan and/or Pakistani security services are indeed valid, plans for today's bombing may have actually been "on the books" for quite a while. The Taliban (and their Al Qaida allies) know that Bagram is the entry point for any senior U.S. official visiting Afghanistan, and they've had ample opportunities to observe various aircraft associated with past VIP trips into Bagram. They are probably aware that some senior officials trade their "official" aircraft for a military transport for the Afghan leg of their journey. Media coverage of Mr. Cheney's recent stop in neighboring Pakistan, followed by the sudden arrival of a C-17 (with extremely tight security) at Bagram, may have confirmed that the Vice President was in town, putting attack plans into motion.

This AFP story details some of the security precautions associated with Cheney's trip, including his switch from Air Force Two to the C-17. But perhaps the most revealing item in the dispatch is a brief blurb about the Vice President's travels after leaving Bagram. From there, he flew to Kabul, then took a motorcade into the city for a brief meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Despite extensive security precautions, Mr. Cheney would have been more vulnerable in the motorcade than he was at Bagram, yet the bombing occurred at the base. That suggests that terrorist knowledge of Mr. Cheney's travel plans was far from complete.

Today's bombing is also a reminder that conditions in Afghanistan may grow worse if Pakistan continues its appeasement policies toward the terrorists, and allows them to reestablish operational bases on its side of the border. As Bill Roggio noted on 24 February, the Islamabad government is prepared to cede control of the Bajaur Tribal Area to the Taliban, part of a "peace deal" similar to last year's infamous accords in Waziristan. Bajaur is a key command-and-control center for the Taliban and Al Qaida; outright control of that region will enhance their ability to funnel fighters and logistical support across the border into Afghanistan's Kunar Province, and points beyond.

Mr. Cheney reportedly had some tough words for Pakistani President Musharraf during his visit, warning that Islamabad must secure its western territories. Unfortunately, that demand appears to have fallen on deaf ears. Musharraf appears intent on striking more deals with the terrorists, and that will create only more problems across the border. Afghanistan's future security is riding (to a large degree) on what happens in Pakistan's western region, and that's where the War on Terrorism is currently being lost. A suicide bombing outside Bagram during a Vice Presidential visit is good for grabbing headlines, but control of key border regions--and establishment of new operational bases and support networks--is aimed at a much more important goal, winning the war.


Unknown said...

Meant to say "cede control to the Taliban." Thanks for catching the error.

radar said...

On Monday, CNN reported the upcoming meeting with Karzai for Tuesday. It doesn't seem like there needs to be any sort of security leak to explain the timing of the attack unless you want to consider the CNN report itself as the leak.

RussInSoCal said...

Re: your last 2 paragraphs: I'm beginning to believe that this region of Pakistan is the next major theater. Hence the Stennis Now patroling the Northern Arabian Sea as of last Friday. I predict we interdict on the Afghan-Pakistan frontier before any action against Iran. Or another possibility that we'll conduct simultaneous operations (Ike is now in the Persian Gulf). And Israel has apparently been granted fly over rights by Gulf States.

But the bigger question is, if we do fight in Pakistan, how far can we trust the Pakistan Army?

Especially in those regions.

Unknown said...

Russ: I think the western border region of Pakistan has to be the next major theater. All of our efforts in Afghanistan won't matter if Al Qaida and the Taliban are allowed to reestablish the operational base on the Pak side of the border.

As far as the Pak Army is concerned, it basically has no presence in most of the region, that's why the terrorists can operate so freely. Musharraf and his generals would probably tolerate continued U.S. SOF raids into their territory, and possibly, up to brigade sized units that pursue the bad guys across the border. But politically, they can't allow the wholesale introduction of U.S./NATO forces.

From a military perspective, the problem is getting people into the region. There are few roads in the border, the terrain is exceptionally rugged, and movement is difficult. Ideally, I think we'd prefer to put more U.S./NATO troops on the border, use SOF and airpower to pound Al Qaida targets inside Pakistan, and get the Pak Army on the ball, and back into the territories in a major way. If that doesn't happen, the future of Afghanistan looks increasingly bleak.