WASHINGTON - Al Qaeda insurgents staged a brazen assault on a heavily armed Special Forces camp in Afghanistan last week on the day Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was in the country discussing U.S. troop reductions, the Daily News has learned.
The winter fight is the latest sign that a group now calling itself Al Qaeda in Afghanistan is trying to emulate the aggressive tactics used against U.S. forces in Iraq.
Messages from the Afghan group have recently appeared on the same jihadist Internet sites as those of Al Qaeda in Iraq, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, said terrorism expert Rita Katz.
"They see in Iraq what's successful, so they say, 'Let's do the same thing in Afghanistan,'" said Katz, who heads the SITE Institute.
The fighters in Afghanistan are changing their tactics as Washington is increasingly talking about withdrawing from Iraq.
A statement by the Taliban, Al Qaeda's allies, said 400 mujahedeen staged "the biggest attack upon the crusading forces in Afghanistan."
U.S. sources said no Americans were hurt in the fierce nighttime shootout at Camp Tillman on theAfghan-Pakistan border. The camp is home toseveral hundred soldiers, including elite 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers, Green Berets and Afghan militia.
B-52 bombers, Apache gunships, A-10 Warthog jets, artillery and infantry delivered a "devastating" counterattack outside the camp's walls, resulting in more than a dozen confirmed enemy kills, sources said.
The suicidal attack came on the day Rumsfeld visited U.S. troops at Bagram Airfield, and hours after Vice President Cheney made a stopover on his way to Iraq.
The attackers were close enough to fire small arms and rocket-propelled grenades, sources said.
One soldier in the battle told a friend, "The base you remember looks slightly different with all the RPG and bullet holes everywhere."
Last week, Army Special Forces Capt. Chris Sample told The Associated Press his force was in 88 firefights in the past six months, which was more than in its three previous Afghanistan deployments combined.