KABUL, Afghanistan – An insurgent rocket attack damaged the plane of the top U.S. general as it sat parked at a coalition base in Afghanistan on Tuesday, dealing another blow to the image of progress in building a stable country as foreign forces work to wind down the 10-year-old war.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the two rockets that landed near the C-17 transport plane that U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, flew into Bagram Air Field north of Kabul on a day earlier. The claim was an attempt by the insurgents to score more propaganda points in what has been a deadly few weeks for the international coalition in Afghanistan.
Jamie Graybeal, a spokesman for the U.S. military and the international coalition, said Dempsey was in his staff quarters when the two rockets landed and was unhurt in the attack. But the damage to the plane forced Dempsey to use another aircraft for his flight from Bagram to Iraq on Tuesday.
Two aircraft maintenance workers were lightly wounded by shrapnel, and a nearby helicopter was damaged, Graybeal said.
Dempsey was in Afghanistan for talks with military leaders about the war as well as a disturbing rash of killings of U.S. military trainers by their Afghan partners or militants dressed in Afghan uniform.
Such turncoat attacks — which the Taliban also said they are behind — killed 10 Americans in the last two weeks alone, threatening morale and raising questions about the strategy to train Afghan security forces so they can fight the insurgency after foreign troops end their combat role in 2014.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid issued a statement Tuesday claiming Dempsey's aircraft was targeted by insurgents "using exact information" about its whereabouts.
Graybeal, however, rejected the claim, saying insurgent rocket and mortar attacks are "not infrequent" at Bagram and that such fire most often comes from so far away that it's virtually impossible to hit specific targets.
Pentagon spokeswoman Maj. Cathy Wilkinson also denied the strike was aimed specifically at Dempsey's plane. "Indirect fire at Bagram is not unusual, so we don't believe his aircraft was targeted."
Bagram, a sprawling complex that covers about 21 square kilometers (8 square miles) and houses tens of thousands of troops, is about an hour's drive north of Kabul, and usually serves as the first point of entrance for U.S. officials visiting the country. It is the hub for military operations in the east of the country and the largest U.S. base in Afghanistan.
During his visit, Dempsey met with U.S. Afghan commander Gen. John Allen in Kabul and also with a number of senior Afghan and coalition leaders.
Among the topics was the escalating number of "insider attacks" in which Afghan security forces or militants dressed in Afghan uniform turn their guns on coalition military trainers. Once an anomaly, the number of such attacks has been climbing in recent months. There have been 32 of them so far this year, up from 21 for all of 2011, according to NATO.
Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar last week said the killings were the result of an insurgent campaign of infiltration, though NATO has said it's too early to tell if the attacks were related to the insurgency or caused by personal disputes turned deadly.
The Taliban also claimed to have shot down a U.S. military helicopter that crashed during a firefight with insurgents in a remote area of southern Afghanistan on Thursday, killing seven Americans and four Afghans on board.
U.S. officials, however, said initial reports were that enemy fire was not involved in the crash.
Tuesday's insurgent attack was the second this year to come uncomfortably close to a high-level U.S. official visiting Afghanistan.
In March, an attacker tried to ram a car into a delegation waiting to greet U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at Bastion Air Field in southern Afghanistan as his C-17 taxied toward the landing ramp. U.S. defense officials said Panetta was never in any danger, but if the attacker had waited just a few more minutes, Panetta's plane would have been at the ramp.
Another attack, this time at the entrance of Bagram, struck in 2007 as then-Vice President Dick Cheney visited Afghanistan. The suicide attacker did not penetrate the gates of the base but at least 23 people were killed in the blast.