Insurgent group hits market in eastern Afghanistan bombing

KHOST, Afghanistan — Insurgent forces detonated a bicycle bomb in a busy market square in Khost City on Monday, less than a mile from where U.S. forces were meeting with key provincial leaders. 

The bomb, concealed within the bicycle's metal frame, wounded 16 Afghan civilians, with two suffering serious injuries from the blast, according to officials from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) stationed at Task Force Rakkasan here. 

No American or coalition forces or members of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) were injured in the attack. 

The blast took place near the so-called “Blue Mosque” in Khost City, built by Jalaluddin Haqqani, leader of the Pakistan-based Haqqani Network terror group. 

At the time of the attack, American forces from the U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Team located at Forward Operating Base Salerno were meeting with local officials at the provincial government's agricultural development office in Khost City. 

Members of the reconstruction team were in the provincial capital to discuss progress on U.S.-backed development programs, as well as help local Afghan leaders prepare for the eventual drawdown of U.S. forces in 2014.

A second bicycle bomb exploded in the same area roughly an hour after American troops left the provincial government compound, injuring over a dozen more Afghan civilians, task force officials confirmed on Tuesday.

It remains unclear whether the attack was targeted at members of the reconstruction team.

However, prior to Monday's meeting, military officials at FOB Salerno had been notified of a possible high-profile attack by Haqqani fighters against U.S. or Afghan government targets. 

The last major attack against U.S. forces here was on June 1, when insurgent fighters launched a coordinated suicide bombing attack against FOB Salerno. 

American and ANSF units were able to repel the attack, leaving 14 insurgents dead, but not before several of the gunmen breached the base's outer perimeter. 

Single high-profile attacks separated by long periods of inactivity have been the hallmark of Taliban and Haqqani fighters operating in this area, Col. Tim Sullivan, deputy commanding officer of Task Force Rakkasan, told The Hill in an interview Sunday. 

Due to U.S. and Afghan efforts to close off Taliban and Haqqani supply lines running from Pakistan across the Afghan border, it is taking longer for insurgent forces to get the supplies needed to pull off attacks like Monday's bombing or the June 1 assault on FOB Salerno, Sullivan said. 

That limited supply of weapons and explosives means that after an attack like Monday's bombing, "you have just [depleted] them for an entire [fighting] season," according to the task force chief. 

But securing the Afghan-Pakistan border and keeping insurgent forces on their heels will be "an enduring fight" up until U.S. and NATO combat forces withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014, Sullivan noted. 

Roughly 32,000 American troops have already left Afghanistan, with the remaining 68,000 set to rotate out of the country over the next year and a half. 

Gen. John Allen, commander of all U.S. forces in Afghanistan, is poised to deliver his plan to withdraw those remaining U.S. forces to the White House within the next few weeks, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters earlier this month. 

That said, Sullivan and other U.S. combat commanders have "an aggressive plan in place" to draw down U.S. forces here and elsewhere in eastern Afghanistan, while ensuring ANSF units — particularly border security forces — can take over where coalition forces leave off.

"It is where it needs to be," Sullivan said regarding the readiness of Afghan forces in preparation for the looming U.S. drawdown.

This story was updated on Nov. 27 at 2:15 p.m.