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Eight U.S. troops killed as militants swarm two Afghan outposts

KABUL — In one of the most lethal firefights for U.S. troops in the Afghan war, insurgents attacked a pair of relatively lightly manned bases near the Pakistan border over the weekend, triggering a daylong battle that left eight Americans and as many as half a dozen Afghan troops dead.

The toll was the highest in a single incident for U.S. forces in Afghanistan since nine soldiers died in a strikingly similar insurgent assault 15 months ago on an outpost in the same northeastern province, Nuristan.

It was precisely the kind of attack the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan had hoped to stave off by recently ordering troops to withdraw from such small outposts, concentrating instead on defending population centers. The two outposts attacked Saturday recently had received word that troops soon would be pulling out.

Military and provincial officials describe the attack on the jointly run outposts in the Kamdesh district as a tightly coordinated onslaught by hundreds of insurgents — perhaps as many as 300. The assault was ultimately repulsed, but only after the Americans hammered the militants with airstrikes.

An unspecified number of U.S. soldiers were injured in the attack, and police and provincial officials said up to a dozen Afghan troops were missing and feared captured. The military did not disclose how many troops of either nationality were stationed at the sites.

The officials said insurgents suffered heavy losses but declined to provide an estimate of how many were killed. They also declined to say whether the insurgents had managed at some point to penetrate the bases' perimeters.

Nuristan Gov. Jamaluddin Badar suggested that the outposts were nearly overrun, but U.S. military officials said late Sunday that they remained in American hands.

U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, recently revamped a war strategy that was widely acknowledged to have produced little better than a stalemate. He also reportedly requested as many as 40,000 troops to supplement a current U.S. force of 64,000. The Obama administration is re-evaluating the American approach to the conflict in Afghanistan.

The new counterinsurgency plan gives primacy to the protection of Afghan lives, with a sharply curtailed reliance on Western airstrikes that often inadvertently kill and injure civilians. It also places an urgent emphasis on training and expanding Afghan security forces.

The general and his senior aides have concluded that Western bases dotting the countryside do little to head off infiltration by insurgents from Pakistan or to help build bridges with local Afghans.

At the same time, small outposts in far-flung areas — particularly those in Afghanistan's east, bordering Pakistan's lawless tribal areas — are highly vulnerable to attacks.

By coincidence, Saturday's battle came at a time of renewed scrutiny of an attack that took place in Nuristan in July 2008 and came to be known as the Battle of Wanat. In it, a thinly manned American-Afghan outpost was nearly overrun by insurgents, and nine U.S. soldiers — about one-fifth of the American contingent inside — were killed in desperate close-quarters combat.

Saturday's battle probably will be the subject of an intensive internal military investigation. "You can imagine there will be a very detailed look into what went on," said U.S. Army Col. Wayne Shanks, a spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force.

The attack will not alter plans to pull American forces out of the area, U.S. officials said. But they acknowledged that insurgents would almost certainly exploit the departure of Western troops for propaganda purposes, claiming to have driven them out.

Local officials, meanwhile, voiced foreboding.

"Even before this incident, we badly needed more security in this area, Afghan forces as well as Americans," said Badar, the Nuristan governor. "And we certainly need it now."

Residents in the area of the attacks had been furious with Americans for the killing of local medical staff in an airstrike the week before, and commanders believe that for that reason, they were more hospitable to insurgents.

Badar said Saturday's attack took place in the Kamdesh district, about 10 miles from the border with Pakistan and fewer than 20 miles northeast of the attack last year.

Information from the New York Times the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press was used in this report.

Eight U.S. troops killed as militants swarm two Afghan outposts 10/04/09 [Last modified: Sunday, October 4, 2009 10:57pm]
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