The Taliban were quick to claim the rocket strike that hit the C-17 military transport plane of U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey as another propaganda coup. The militants also have said their fighters shot down a U.S. helicopter that crashed last week, killing seven Americans, though U.S. officials cast doubt on both insurgent claims.
Dempsey was in Afghanistan to discuss the state of the 10-year-old war as well as a string of disturbing killings of U.S. military trainers by their Afghan partners or militants dressed in Afghan uniform. Such attacks - which the Taliban also claim to be behind - killed 10 Americans in the last two weeks alone, threatening morale and raising questions about the international coalition's strategy to train Afghan security forces so they can fight the insurgency after foreign troops end their combat role in 2014.
Dempsey "was nowhere near" the plane when the two rockets landed near the parked aircraft at around 1 a.m. Tuesday at Bagram Air Field outside Kabul, said Jamie Graybeal, a spokesman for the U.S. military and the international coalition. Shrapnel from the rockets damaged the plane and also a nearby helicopter, a coalition statement said.
Two aircraft maintenance workers were lightly wounded by shrapnel, Graybeal said.
The general wrapped up his talks in Afghanistan and departed Tuesday morning on a different plane, the military said.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack, saying Dempsey's aircraft was targeted by insurgents "using exact information" about where it would be.
Graybeal disputed any claim of a precision attack. He said that 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.
Wilkinson also said it was unlikely the attack was aimed specifically at Dempsey's plane. "Indirect fire at Bagram is not unusual, so we don't believe his aircraft was targeted."
Bagram is a sprawling complex about an hour's drive north of Kabul that 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.
Dempsey was in Afghanistan to discuss the state of the war after a particularly deadly few weeks for Americans in the more than 10-year-old war as international forces begin drawing down.
He and the chief of U.S. Central Command, Marine Gen. James R. Mattis, met with NATO and 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, such attacks have 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.