Eight soldiers killed during siege at Afghan outpost

US says area secure after two-day attack

US forces deployed at an operating base in southern Afghanistan yesterday near the Pakistan border. US forces deployed at an operating base in southern Afghanistan yesterday near the Pakistan border. (Romeo Gacad/ AFP/ Getty Images)
By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post / October 5, 2009

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KABUL, Afghanistan - Heavily armed Taliban militiamen attacked American and Afghan military outposts on the Pakistan border in a weekend siege that killed eight US soldiers and two Afghan security forces, according to US and Afghan officials.

The fighting began Saturday morning and continued early yesterday in a remote region of eastern Afghanistan in Nuristan Province. It was one of the deadliest battles in months for coalition forces.

Staging their attack from steep mountainsides that overlook the outposts in the valley below, on a morning when weather made visibility poor, the Taliban fighters attacked the small American and Afghan bases using rifles, machine guns, grenades, and rockets, according to US military officials.

By yesterday morning, when the US military disclosed the attack in a statement, the area was “largely secure but I do think there is still some activity,’’ said Captain Elizabeth Mathias, a military spokeswoman.

In addition to the eight soldiers killed, several others were injured, said Rear Admiral Gregory J. Smith, but he did not specify the number. The American soldiers called in ground reinforcements, along with an attack helicopter, airplanes, and surveillance drones during the fighting. US forces eventually repelled the attack while inflicting “a significant amount of casualties’’ on insurgents, Smith said.

Because of the “very challenging terrain,’’ the insurgents had “pretty effective firing positions,’’ Smith said. “It was obviously a very, very difficult day.’’

“Virtually everything that could be thrown at it was thrown at it,’’ Smith said of the American response to the attack.

The attack took place in a sparsely populated area of forested mountains near the town of Kamdeysh.

The US military said it was not immediately clear how many insurgents were involved in the fighting. The attack involved Taliban fighters and appeared to be led by a local commander of the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin insurgent group, which is run by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former mujaheddin leader during the Soviet war in Afghanistan during the 1980s.

As the Obama administration heads into a second week of intensive negotiations over its evolving Afghan strategy, the White House national security adviser issued a mild rebuke to the top US commander in Afghanistan yesterday.

Retired General James Jones said decisions on how best to stabilize Afghanistan and beat back the insurgency must extend beyond troop levels and include development and governance. The request by Army General Stanley McChrystal for up to 40,000 more troops is just one of three key elements, Jones said.

He added that it is “better for military advice to come up through the chain of command,’’ rather than off a public stage, referring to McChrystal’s speech in London last week making a case for more troops. But Jones also beat back suggestions that the open campaign could jeopardize the general’s job. McChrystal “is in it for the long haul,’’ Jones said. “I don’t think this is an issue.’’

Jones said that Afghanistan is not in imminent danger of falling to the Taliban, and he downplayed fears that the insurgency could set up a renewed sanctuary for Al Qaeda. He said the US troop numbers will be part of a larger discussion that will include efforts to beef up the size and training of the Afghan Army and police, along with economic development, and governance improvements in Afghanistan.

The deputy police chief of Nuristan Province, Mohammad Farouq, said the insurgents in the weekend attack intended to seize control of the Kamdeysh area and that hundreds took part in the fighting. He said more than 20 Afghan soldiers and police have been missing since the fighting began and may have been taken hostage.

“Americans always want to fight in Afghanistan,’’ said Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, who took credit for the attack by telephone. “If the Americans want to increase their troops, we will increase our fighters as well.’’

He said the battle began about 6 a.m. Saturday and involved 250 Taliban fighters. He said dozens of American and Afghan soldiers were killed, along with seven Taliban fighters.

In a separate incident Saturday, another US serviceman was killed in eastern Afghanistan in a bombing. American deaths in Afghanistan have risen sharply this year as the Taliban have gained in strength and numbers and more US forces are involved in operations to combat them.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.