US details fierce Afghan battle, confirms militants breached post

Six-hour attack raises questions over remote bases

By Todd Pitman
Associated Press / October 8, 2009

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KABUL, Afghanistan - Insurgents fought their way inside an American base in Afghanistan last weekend in a rare security breach before they were driven back under heavy fire during the deadliest battle for US troops in more than a year, a US official said yesterday.

The bold assault raised serious questions about the security of thinly manned outposts spread across the troubled nation’s volatile border region with Pakistan and reflected growing insurgent resolve.

It comes as pressure is building on the Obama administration to decide a way forward in the conflict. Yesterday was the eighth anniversary of the US attack that ousted the Taliban for harboring Osama bin Laden after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on Washington and New York.

Saturday’s nearly six-hour battle in mountainous Kamdesh district, near the eastern border with Pakistan, left eight American and three Afghan soldiers dead - one of the heaviest US losses of life in a single battle since the war began.

NATO officials said around 100 insurgents were killed.

Most US installations in Iraq and Afghanistan are heavily guarded with rings of razor wire, huge sand-filled barriers, blast walls, and security cameras. It is extremely rare for insurgents to breach such defenses.

Major T.G. Taylor, an American public affairs officer, said it was unclear how the attackers penetrated the base or how many there were. He stressed his information was based on preliminary reports.

Taylor said 24 Americans and 10 Afghan soldiers were wounded during the fighting. Large portions of the base burned down, probably from incoming rocket and machine gun fire, he said.

The evening before the attack, insurgents comprising mostly local Nuristani fighters began warning villagers “that something was going to go down and asked them to evacuate,’’ Taylor said in a telephone interview from nearby Jalalabad.

It’s unclear whether civilians fled, but local police units abandoned the village - nearly all except the police chief, who was later captured and executed.

In Washington, the Pentagon said the remote outpost was slated to close as part of a consolidation of far-flung bases.

“We need to focus our resources on those areas where they can have the biggest impact on population centers,’’ Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said.

The assault began around dawn Saturday.

About 200 fighters bombarded the joint US-Afghan army outpost with small arms, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortar shells. Fire came from three sides simultaneously - including a local mosque they took over and other buildings in the village.

Insurgents also attacked an observation post on a ridge.

Nuristan Governor Jamaludin Badar said that within the first minute alone, militants unleashed 32 rockets and four artillery shells.

“They were having trouble identifying the location of the attackers,’’ Badar said of Afghan troops defending the bases. “They were having trouble figuring out where the fire was coming from.’’

Three American platoons were deployed at the two posts, mostly troops from Task Force Mountain Warrior of the Fourth Brigade Combat Team, Fourth Infantry Division, based at Fort Carson outside Colorado Springs. US infantry platoons ordinarily number 30 to 40 soldiers.

Badar said several Afghan army checkpoints in Kamdesh were overrun.

Coalition forces fended off the assault with “a combination of close air support and small arms fire,’’ Taylor said. NATO officials have said the coalition used artillery and helicopter gunships.

Attackers were able to “breach the perimeter of one of the bases and get inside,’’ Taylor said. “They got a foothold on the base. But coalition and Afghan national army forces consolidated their positions, retook the parts of the base the enemy was on, and reestablished security.’’