2 U.S. service members killed in Afghanistan

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Two American service members died of wounds after an overnight clash with insurgents in a province near the capital, Western military officials said Friday.

The NATO force also said in a statement that five insurgents were killed in the firefight in Logar province, which borders Kabul province.

Over the past year, Logar has been the focus of increased insurgent activity as the Taliban and other militant factions seek to gain a foothold in and around the capital. One of those killed in the overnight fighting was an insurgent commander affiliated with the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, which has been blamed for many attacks in Kabul and in eastern Afghanistan, military officials said.

At least twice in the past month, Afghan authorities have said they intercepted alleged members of the Haqqani network seeking to carry out suicide attacks -- perhaps spectacular ones -- in the capital. The Haqqani network is thought to have been behind several sophisticated multipronged assaults in heavily fortified precincts of Kabul.

NATO’s International Security Assistance Force said the engagement in Logar began after Afghan and foreign troops received “heavy and sustained fire” from a compound they were approaching overnight in the Pul-e-Alam district.

The commander of Western forces in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, has sought to limit the use of nighttime raids, because they often result in gunfights that kill and injure Afghan civilians who believe their homes to be under attack.

But nighttime hours also lend an element of surprise, which troops tasked with hunting mid-level Taliban figures consider crucial. Insurgent field commanders are being intensely targeted by American and other Western forces in advance of a major offensive this spring and summer in the south of Afghanistan.

However, tension has been building between Western commanders and the Afghan government over civilian casualties that occur during nighttime operations and other raids.

NATO acknowledged this month that its forces had mistakenly killed five civilians, including two pregnant women, in a February nighttime raid in the Gardez district of Paktia province, in Afghanistan’s east. An ongoing joint Afghan-Western investigation is attempting to ascertain whether the U.S. troops involved had then engaged in an attempted cover-up of the circumstances of the deaths.

Civilian deaths occur with such regularity that at almost any given time, the military is apologizing for one such instance or another. President Hamid Karzai earlier this week condemned the killings of four youths in Khost province, in eastern Afghanistan, after troops apparently mistook a carload of teenagers returning from a volleyball match for insurgents.

After initially identifying the dead as insurgents and their associates, NATO expressed regret over the incident.

The four young men, now acknowledged by the Western military to have been civilians, were shot dead as their vehicle approached a military convoy on Monday night. None was armed.