An audacious Taliban attack on a heavily fortified base in southern Afghanistan did far more damage than initially reported, destroying or severely damaging eight attack jets in the most destructive single strike on Western materiel in the 11-year war, military officials said Sunday.
While other attacks have caused greater loss of life, the assault late Friday at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province, one of the largest and best-defended posts in Afghanistan, was troubling to NATO because the attackers were able to penetrate the base, killing two Marines and causing well more than $200 million in damage.
"We're saying it's a very sophisticated attack," a military official in Afghanistan said. "We've lost aircraft in battle, but nothing like this."
The complex attack, which NATO officials said was conducted by three tightly choreographed teams of militants wearing American Army uniforms, was a reminder that the Taliban remain capable of serious assaults despite the "surge" offensive against them. Now the offensive is over, and nearly 10,000 Marines have left Helmand Province, a critical stronghold for the Taliban, over the past several months.
Together with a rash of attacks by Afghan security forces against NATO troops - including two over the weekend that left at least six coalition service members dead - the Taliban have put new pressure on the American withdrawal plan, which calls for accelerated troop pullouts through 2014 while training Afghan forces to take over.
At the same time, tensions with the government flared Sunday as President Hamid Karzai condemned the deaths of Afghan women in airstrikes and criticized the continued American custody of hundreds of Afghan prisoners.
The military investigation into the attack at Bastion is now trying to uncover whether the insurgents had help from inside the camp and whether they were trained or aided by neighboring countries, such as Pakistan or Iran, which have allowed the Taliban to take refuge in their territory. But military officials and Afghan analysts said the insurgents may well have prepared for their mission in significant measure by studying easily available satellite images on the Internet.