77 U.S. Troops Wounded In Taliban Truck Bomb

Late Saturday night, a Taliban truck bomb ripped through a military base in eastern Afghanistan, injuring 77 U.S. troops. It also sent shrapnel up to a mile away, killing an Afghan policeman and four civilians.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now, as Scott mentioned, the attack on the U.S. that many feared on 9/11, the anniversary, never came. But American troops remained on duty over the weekend in Afghanistan, as they have since 2001. And outside Kabul, a truck bomb struck a military base on Saturday night. It injured 77 Americans. It also sent shrapnel up to a mile away, killing an Afghan policeman and four civilians, and serving as another punctuation mark in the decade-long Afghan war.

We're going to talk about this with NPR's Kabul bureau chief, Quil Lawrence.

Hi, Quil.

QUIL LAWRENCE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what have investigators learned as they've looked through the wreckage of that bomb?

LAWRENCE: Well, first off, the Taliban have claimed responsibility for the attack, and investigators said it was a huge truck bomb disguised as a truck full of firewood, and it was able to get as close as the outer gate of this combat outpost, and it was so powerful that it pulverized several of the concrete blast walls.

But the military is saying that those walls served their purpose and they took the brunt of the explosion. As you said, shrapnel was sent for a mile around. They're telling me that of the 77 injured, about 57 are expected to be back on duty within the week and another 20 are being treated for more serious injuries, including TBI, traumatic brain injury, essentially concussions from the shockwave.

INSKEEP: Now, what is the broader security situation in this area south and west of Kabul where the attack took place?

LAWRENCE: Last month, Wardak Province, this same province, was the scene of the deadliest single incident in the entire war, where 30 U.S. soldiers, most of them U.S. Navy Seals, were killed when their helicopter was shot down. And it has to be said that was something of a rare and lucky shot with an RPG that took down a speeding Chinook helicopter.

But it was done in the Tangi Valley in Wardak, which U.S. troops had pulled out of as an economy of force measure, and within hours of their departure, the Taliban had overrun the base that they kept in there.

So I was there last week with the commander of the eastern region here for U.S. forces, and they said that they still consider it the right decision to have left this valley, but we've also seen out in the east, where in similar areas, where the U.S. has turned over affairs to Afghan authorities, they've now found out that the Afghan police they put in charge weren't quite ready yet, and U.S. troops are having to go back into those valleys.

INSKEEP: Quil, are American forces and their NATO allies going to be facing more decisions like this as the U.S. draws down the number of troops that it has on the ground in Afghanistan?

LAWRENCE: Well, it seems inevitable - as the number of troops starts going down, they're gonna have to make decisions about things they can and cannot do as the number of troops shrinks, and whether the Afghan troops are ready to step up. And I'm starting to hear two narratives here.

The U.S. military says that they've take territory away from the insurgents, that this attack for example could have been done much better but was carried out in an amateurish way. There should have been a more complex attack waiting. But I have to say, Afghan civilians I talked to are very pessimistic and indeed the United Nations says that Afghan civilians are being killed in higher numbers than ever.

INSKEEP: You said that this could have been a more sophisticated attack, or at least military officials say so. What they mean is there could have been, for example, a second bomb or a wave of attackers who exploited the confusion after the explosion. That's what you're saying there.

LAWRENCE: Yes. One of the military commanders said that this kind of attack just shows that we're fighting not the A team but the B or C team of insurgents. They should have rushed the base after they blew down the walls.

INSKEEP: But with that said, this was an attack within about 50 miles or so of Kabul, and near a valley that the Taliban seemed to control. There must be some people who are nervous to have the Taliban that close to the capital.

LAWRENCE: In fact, Wardak and Logar Province right next to it have hardly ever really been completely under Afghan government or NATO military control. These are hotbeds of the insurgency which are a major challenge, and military commanders here say they're trying to expand the Kabul security zone into these provinces, and we really have to take a look at this attack and decide how those efforts are going.

INSKEEP: NPR's Quil Lawrence in Kabul. Quil, thanks very much.

LAWRENCE: Thank you, Steve.

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