KABUL, Oct. 4--Firing rockets and rifles, Taliban militiamen attacked American and Afghan military outposts in a day-long siege on Saturday that killed eight U.S. soldiers and two Afghan security forces in one of the deadliest battles in months, according to U.S. and Afghan officials.
The fighting began early Saturday morning and raged throughout the day in a remote region of eastern Afghanistan in Nurestan province, which borders Pakistan. Staging their attack from a mosque and a nearby village, the Taliban fighters attacked the small American and Afghan bases using rifles, machine guns, grenades and rockets, according to U.S. military officials. By Sunday morning, when the U.S. military made the attack public in a statement, the area was "largely secure but I do think there is still some activity," said Capt. Elizabeth Mathias, a U.S. military spokeswoman.
In addition to the eight soldiers killed, others were injured, Mathias said, but she didn't specify the number. The American soldiers called in attack helicopter and airplane support during the fighting and the military statement said coalition troops eventually repelled the attack while inflicting "heavy enemy casualties." The U.S. military said it was not immediately clear how many insurgents were involved in the fighting or their affiliation.
The attack took place in a sparsely populated area of forested mountains, near the town of Kamdeysh, according to Gen. Zahir Azimi, a Defense Ministry spokesman. The deputy police chief of Nurestan province, Mohammad Farouq, said the insurgents, a Taliban group which included Pakistani, Uzbek and Arab fighters, 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 gone missing since the fighting began and may have been taken hostage.
"Americans always want to fight in Afghanistan," 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 at 6:00 a.m. Saturday and involved 250 Taliban fighters. He claimed that dozens of American and Afghan soldiers were killed, along with seven Taliban fighters. Mujahid also claimed that the district police chief and intelligence chief were among the hostages, but that could not be confirmed.
Farouq, the deputy police chief, said the attack, the biggest his province has seen, was highly organized and began by taking out the police radio system. "Since the attack began I've been unable to communicate with the police chief, we are still trying to find out where he is," he said.
The American soldiers from this outpost were scheduled to depart the area as part of the new U.S. strategy to focus their efforts on securing areas with larger populations. Capt. Mathias said the soldiers at the outpost were not expected to leave this month and had not yet begun to prepare for their departure when they came under attack.
"My heart goes out to the families of those we have lost and to their fellow Soldiers who remained to finish this fight," Col. Randy George, commander of Task Force Mountain Warrior said in a statement. "This was a complex attack in a difficult area. Both the U.S. and Afghan Soldiers fought bravely together."
The provincial governor, Jamaluddin Badar, said that for years the Taliban have been attacking American and Afghan government facilities in the Kamdeysh area. The Taliban leadership has appointed a shadow governor in the province, Mullah Dost Muhammad, and has opened a training camp in the forest, he said.
"I have already warned the central government to help us and send more Afghan soldiers, and I warned the American soldiers they need to be more serious and stop the Taliban," Badar said in a telephone interview. "But unfortunately, nobody listened to me."
American deaths in Afghanistan have risen sharply this year as the Taliban has gained in strength and numbers and more U.S. forces are involved in operations to combat them, in places such as southern Afghanistan's Helmand province. In eastern Afghanistan, American soldiers have had to confront an expanding insurgency where fighters can easily slip across the Pakistani border to take refuge.
In its severity and location, the attack bore a striking resemblance to a deadly battle in July 2008 in the tiny village of Wanat, in the same region, which left nine U.S. soldiers dead and 27 wounded after several hours of fighting. That battle prompted three investigations and was cited by many as an example of what was wrong with the American military approach to fighting the insurgency. The attack contributed to the change in strategy to move soldiers from remote areas where they didn't have the soldiers to defeat the insurgents and move them to safer, more populated areas.
After the fighting began Saturday, the Afghan military sent a battalion of reinforcements by helicopter to the area, and began searching houses in the area, said Azimi, the Defense Ministry spokesman. He said one Afghan soldier was injured in addition to the two killed.
Afghan officials said at least one policeman and one soldier died in the fighting, and at least one other Afghan soldier was injured.
Badar, the provincial governor, said he was unaware of American plans to abandon their outpost in the area. He said that his province has a shortage of Afghan soldiers, an incompetent police force, and his province is at risk of falling to the Taliban if the Americans pull out.
"I request that they stay. If they leave, it will be very dangerous for Nurestan," he said.