It’s not exactly clear what happened but since Bagram is surrounded by Afghan forces, the insurgents (reportedly 20 or so) appear to have attempted to breach that line to get to the base and then, as Dexter Filkens says, “sparking a large and confusing gun battle that left at least five American soldiers wounded and seven guerrillas dead.”
A spokesman claimed that “At no time were Bagram defenses breached,” which might cause a bit of confusion since other reports have said that a ‘non-essential’ building was damaged. So…let’s go to the map.
(A quick word about OPSEC here…information I discuss about the set up of Bagram is 6 years old. The base has undergone some significant alterations since and the details I am going to discuss are known to literally tens of thousands of civilians and military personnel -local and foreign- that have worked on, transited through or just observed what is a really big base in very open terrain. In other words, this information can’t be used for nefarious purposes.)
Bagram has a kind of quarantine zone around it. In order to get on the real part of the base (where soldiers live and most of them work) you need to pass through a couple layers of security.
The first was manned by Afghan personnel. These guys were supposed to keep out the rif-raff. As Bagram only had one decent entrance and we had a lot of commercial traffic that would pass through the Afghan guards. As far as I know Westerners weren’t stopped at that point (certainly military wasn’t) and I’m not even sure if Afghans in vehicles were (provided they looked important enough). And, much to my chagrin, the Afghan guards seemed to let in every child in the surrounding area to dart among the trucks, try to sell trinkets or snacks and beg for treats.
Between the Afghan gate and the checkpoint to the main part of the base is a sort of neutral zone where truck drivers arrange to drop off their goods, day laborers and visitors await clearance and escort to enter the main part of the base and some other business is transacted. It’s a much less interesting version of Mos Eisley.
So, I suspect the attackers probably got past the Afghan checkpoint but not as far as the U.S. checkpoint. Not a place you’d really want to be since you’ve got no where to go although, there are plenty of places to take cover and hide which might account for reports of a multi-hour gun battle.
Still, this sort of thing was really just unthinkable when I was there. In part that’s because there was a significant amount of goodwill among the local population and I’m confident they would have reported any suspicious activity had they seen it. Additionally, we used local employment and contracts as a tool to encourage local cooperation. On one occasion when some rockets were fired at the base, we suspended the weekly bazaar for a month. That may not sound like a big deal but access was limited and highly prized, ultimately going to the local power brokers.
Why highly prized? Imagine you’ve got 12,000 Americans (consumers to the bone) and unable to spend their pay checks on much other than pork rinds and Pepsi at the PX. You offer them all sorts of baubles and trinkets and they’ll snap them up like piranhas at a feeding frenzy. Suspending the bazaar is a major hit to their wallets and therefore if they want to keep the cash coming it’s in their best interest to nip threats in the bud or give the coalition forces early warning. You could put pressure on local workers (who made an average of $5 a day and reportedly had to give about half of that to various commanders and other extortionists) but that’s probably a blunt tool to use and likely to backfire.