In one of the most lethal battles for American troops in the Afghanistan war, a wave of insurgents attacked a pair of relatively lightly manned bases near the Pakistani border over the weekend, triggering a daylong clash that left eight Americans and as many as half a dozen Afghan troops dead.
It was precisely the kind of attack the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan is hoping to stave off by recently ordering troops to withdraw from such small outposts, concentrating instead on defending population centers. The outposts attacked Saturday had already been slated to be abandoned soon, the military said.
The toll was the highest in a single incident for American forces in Afghanistan since nine U.S. soldiers died in a strikingly similar insurgent assault 15 months ago on an outpost in the same northeastern province, Nuristan.
Military officials describe the attack on the jointly run U.S.-Afghan outposts in the Kamdesh district as a tightly coordinated onslaught by hundreds of insurgents.
The assault was ultimately repulsed, but only after the outnumbered Americans hammered the militants with airstrikes by warplanes and attack helicopters.
An unspecified number of U.S. soldiers were injured in the attack, and police and provincial officials said up to a dozen Afghan troops were missing and feared captured.
The military did not disclose how many troops of both nationalities were stationed at the sites.
The officials said insurgents suffered heavy losses but declined to provide an estimate of how many were killed. They also declined to say whether the attackers had managed at some point to penetrate the bases’ perimeters.
Nuristan Gov. Jamaluddin Badar suggested that the outposts were nearly overrun, but U.S. military officials said late Sunday that they remained in American hands.
“This was a tough battle, a very complex battle, fought in very difficult terrain,” said U.S. Army Col. Wayne Shanks, a spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, describing withering fire from rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons directed at the Afghan and American troops.
Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led forces in Afghanistan, recently revamped a war strategy that was widely acknowledged to have produced little better than a stalemate.
The U.S. general also reportedly requested as many as 40,000 additional troops to supplement a current U.S. force of 64,000. The Obama administration is in the midst of reevaluating the American approach to the conflict in Afghanistan.
The new counterinsurgency plan gives primacy to the protection of Afghan lives, with a sharply curtailed reliance on Western airstrikes that often inadvertently kill civilians. It also places an urgent emphasis on training and expanding Afghan security forces.
The general and his senior aides have concluded that Western firebases dotting the countryside do little to head off infiltration by insurgents who slip across the frontier from Pakistan or to help build bridges with local Afghans.
At the same time, small outposts in far-flung areas -- particularly those in Afghanistan’s east, bordering Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas -- are highly vulnerable to attacks.
By coincidence, Saturday’s battle came at a time of renewed scrutiny of an attack that took place in Nuristan in July 2008 and came to be known as the Battle of Wanat. In it, a thinly manned American-Afghan outpost was nearly overrun by insurgents, and nine U.S. soldiers -- about one-fifth of the American contingent there -- were killed in desperate close-quarters combat.
Detailed new findings have been compiled about the episode, which was described as a driving force behind the new combat strategy laid out by McChrystal. In investigations by military historians, Wanat has come to stand as an emblem of larger U.S. miscalculations in Afghanistan.
Saturday’s battle too will probably be the subject of an intensive internal military inquiry.
“You can imagine there will be a very detailed look into what went on,” Shanks said.
A Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for the latest attack, but the ISAF blamed “tribal militia.” However, there is often a blurry line between “local Taliban” and insurgents who are commanded from outside the area.
Shanks pointed out that tribesmen, whose traditional territory straddles the frontier, move freely back and forth across the border.
Nuristan is near Pakistan’s Bajaur tribal agency, a stronghold of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a veteran commander who came to prominence fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s and has recently sought to expand his sphere of influence in Afghanistan’s northeast.
The two outposts, which have been in place for some time, were slated to be dismantled “soon,” Shanks said without providing a specific date.
He said villagers had been kept abreast of the military’s plans to pull U.S. troops out of the area, but insisted that there had been no lapse in operational safety in the prelude to the planned withdrawal.
Commanders in the area, he said, “made sure they had the resources necessary to repel attacks.”
The attack will not alter plans to pull American forces out of the area, U.S. officials said. But they acknowledged that insurgents would almost certainly exploit the departure of Western troops for propaganda purposes, claiming to have driven them out.
Local officials, meanwhile, voiced foreboding.
“Even before this incident, we badly needed more security in this area, Afghan forces as well as Americans,” said Badar, the Nuristan governor. “And we certainly need it now.”
Special correspondent M. Karim Faiez contributed to this report.
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Some of the deadliest days for U.S. troops in Afghanistan:
Oct. 3, 2009: Eight U.S. soldiers are killed when two outposts in Kamdesh, Nuristan, are attacked by militants.
July 13, 2008: Nine American soldiers are killed when their remote outpost in Wanat, Nuristan, is attacked by small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.
Feb. 18, 2007: A U.S. helicopter crashes in Zabol province, killing eight American troops. NATO says the pilot had reported engine trouble.
May 5, 2006: Ten American soldiers die in a CH-47 Chinook helicopter crash during combat operations in eastern Afghanistan; the U.S.-led coalition says hostile fire was not involved.
June 28, 2005: In the deadliest single blow to American forces in Afghanistan, 16 U.S. troops on a special forces helicopter are killed when their MH-47 Chinook is shot down by insurgents.
April 6, 2005: Fifteen U.S. service members and three American civilians are killed when their helicopter goes down in a sandstorm while returning to the main U.S. base at Bagram.
Jan. 29, 2004: An explosion at a weapons cache in Afghanistan kills seven U.S. soldiers.
March 23, 2003: A U.S. Air Force helicopter on a mission to help two injured Afghan children crashes in southeastern Afghanistan, killing all six people aboard.
March 4, 2002: Seven American soldiers are killed when two helicopters come under fire.
Jan. 9, 2002: A U.S. military aircraft crashes in Pakistan, killing all seven Marines aboard. According to a military report released in June 2002, human error probably caused the crash.
Source: Associated Press