KABUL, Afghanistan — Taliban insurgents detonated a truck bomb, then tried to storm a NATO base Friday in eastern Afghanistan, but coalition forces repelled the attack, killing 14 militants, officials said.
No foreign or Afghan troops were killed, according to NATO, but the attack showed the fundamentalist Islamic movement remains a resilient force even as Afghan President Hamid Karzai insists they do not have the means to retake the nation after foreign forces leave.
In the past two years, the U.S.-led coalition has sent tens of thousands of troops into Taliban strongholds in the south and has largely succeeded in boosting security there. The Taliban have responded by opening up new fronts in the north and west and stepping up attacks in the east, where much of the heaviest fighting is presently concentrated.
NATO plans to pull combat troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and turn security over to local forces. If security allows, Karzai said foreign forces could pull out earlier.
"We will not ask them to leave early," Karzai told Time magazine on May 13. "If everything is done in time and they want to leave early, we will welcome it."
His office released a transcript of the wide-ranging interview on Friday.
Karzai said that while the U.S. had helped Afghanistan build roads, schools, clinics and welcomed the country into the world community, U.S. and NATO troops had not been able to provide security to the Afghan people.
"It did not bring the defeat of terrorism as we thought it would," he said. "It did not fight the war on terrorism in a manner that we felt was right. ... But the American presence did bring an overall stability to Afghanistan, which is very important."
Karzai also was adamant that the Taliban no longer have the means to overthrow the Afghan government.
"There is a lot in the Western press about the Taliban coming back and all that," Karzai said. "If you asked me three years ago, I would have not answered you in the positive. I would have said `I don't know' or `you are probably right' or somewhere in-between. But now, I can tell you with confidence that the Taliban as a force to threaten the government of Afghanistan or the way of life we have chosen is no longer there. The withdrawal of the international forces from Afghanistan will not lead to the Taliban coming back."
Provincial police chief Gen. Sardar Mohammad Zazai said the blast occurred at a coalition base about five kilometers (three miles) outside Khost. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.
"It was a very strong blast. Khost city shook and we heard firing," Zazai said.
Gula Jan, an Afghan police official who was at the scene, said the attack occurred at Camp Salerno. Jan said six civilians – three women and three children – were slightly wounded when a wall collapsed from the force of the explosion. NATO said it had no reports of any civilians being hurt during the attack.
"The blast was inside the compound and then we heard firing," Jan said. "There is a helicopter flying over the base."
U.S. Army Maj. Paul Haverstick, a spokesman for the coalition in eastern Afghanistan, said no Afghan or foreign troops were killed and only a few coalition forces suffered minor injuries.
Haverstick said insurgents detonated a truck loaded with explosives at the entrance to the camp. The explosion allowed other insurgents to enter the compound. Two militants wearing explosive vests blew themselves up prematurely and caused no damage. Afghan and coalition forces fired at the group of insurgents. A total of 14 militants died in the attack, he said.
Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, claimed that a suicide bomber targeted the base in an explosives-filled vehicle that slipped onto the compound near where coalition troops dine. He said in a statement that after the blast, other insurgents entered the compound on foot and opened fire.
"They had suicide vests, rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machine guns and hand grenades," Mujahid said.
Mujahid claimed that an airplane on an airstrip at the base was destroyed and that "tens" of foreign forces were killed and wounded. The Taliban often exaggerate the number of casualties caused by their attacks. NATO said no airplane was destroyed during the attack.
Forward Operating Base Salerno has a large Soviet-built airfield. It is near Camp Chapman, where seven CIA employees were killed in a suicide attack in December 2009.
Salerno and its outlying fire bases have been the focus of repeated militant suicide, artillery and sniper attacks over the past several years.
One of the most brazen of the war occurred in August, 2008, when about 100 Taliban fighters broke through the perimeter of the base. After a two-hour fire fight, helicopter gunships forced the guerrillas to retreat.
On May 19, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a police checkpoint in Ali Sher district of Khost province, killing 13 people – 10 civilians, two Afghan policemen and an Afghan border police officer.