KABUL – Hundreds of insurgents armed with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades stormed a pair of remote outposts near the Pakistan border, killing eight U.S. soldiers and capturing more than 20 Afghan security troops in the deadliest assault against U.S. forces in more than a year, military officials said Sunday.
The fierce gunbattle, which erupted at dawn Saturday in the Kamdesh district of mountainous Nuristan province and raged throughout the day, is likely to fuel the debate in Washington over the direction of the troubled eight-year war.
It was the heaviest U.S. loss of life in a single battle since July 2008, when nine American soldiers were killed in a raid on an outpost in Wanat in the same province.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in, plans to shift U.S. troops away from remote outposts that are difficult to defend and move them into more heavily populated areas as part of his new strategy to focus on protecting Afghan civilians.
U.S. troops used artillery, helicopter gunships and airstrikes Saturday to repel the attackers, inflicting "heavy enemy casualties," according to a NATO statement. Fighting persisted in the area Sunday, U.S. and Afghan officials said.
The al-Qaida-linked militant based in sanctuaries in the tribal areas of near the Afghan border.claimed responsibility for the attack. NATO spokesman Brig. Gen. Eric Tremblay said the assailants included a mix of "tribal militias," Taliban and fighters loyal to Sirajudin Haqqani, an
Afghan authorities said the hostile force included fighters who had been driven out of the Swat Valley of neighboring Pakistan after a Pakistani military offensive there last spring.
"This was a complex attack in a difficult area," U.S. Col. Randy George, the area commander, said in a statement. "Both the U.S. and Afghan soldiers fought bravely together."
Details of the attack remained unclear Sunday and there were conflicting reports of Afghan losses due to poor communications in the area, located just 20 miles (30 kilometers) from the Pakistani border and about 150 miles (230 kilometers) from Kabul.
A NATO statement said the attacks were launched from a mosque and a nearby village on opposite sides of a hill, which included the two outposts — one mostly American position on the summit and another mostly Afghan police garrison on a lower slope.
NATO said eight Americans and two Afghan security troopers were killed.
An Afghan military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of security issues, said three Afghan soldiers and one policeman had been killed in two days of fighting. He also said at least seven Afghan army soldiers were missing and feared captured.
In addition, provincial police chief Mohammad Qasim Jangulbagh said 15 Afghan policemen had been captured, including the local police chief and his deputy. Jangulbagh estimated that about 300 militants took part in the attack.
"Kamdesh is one of the most dangerous areas of Nuristan province," he said, noting that the area is across the border from parts of Pakistan where-linked militants operate.
Jangulbagh said that after Pakistani forces drove militants from most of the Swat Valley five months ago, militants "received orders to come to Nuristan and destabilize the situation."
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said militants overran both outposts, but U.S. spokeswoman Capt. Elizabeth Mathias said U.S. troops were holding the outposts Sunday. She also said a roadside bomb killed a U.S. service member southwest of Kabul on Saturday, bringing the U.S. death toll for the month to 15.
The fighting occurred in a region where towering mountains and dense pine forests have long served as a staging area for Taliban and al-Qaida fighters who move freely across the Pakistani frontier.