Attacks on Remote Posts Highlight Afghan Risks

Posted in United States , Afghanistan | 05-Oct-09 | Author: Sabrina Tavernise and Sangar R| Source: New York Times

Site of the Attack

KABUL, Afghanistan - Insurgents attacked a pair of remote American military bases in Afghanistan over the weekend in a deadly battle that underscored the vulnerability of the kind of isolated bases that the top American commander there wants to scale back.

The commander, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, is pressing for a change in strategy that would shift troops to heavily populated centers to protect civilians and focus less on battling the insurgents in the hinterlands.

As though to reinforce his point, insurgents carried out a bold daylight strike on two bases on the Pakistani border, killing eight Americans and four Afghan security officers in the deadliest attack for American soldiers in more than a year, Afghan and American officials said Sunday.

The assault occurred less than 20 miles from the site of a similar attack that killed nine Americans last year, which had already become a cautionary tale at the Pentagon for how not to win the war in Afghanistan.

And it came as the debate within the administration over the war sharpened Sunday, as President Obama's national security adviser, Gen. James L. Jones, seemed to distance himself from General McChrystal, saying that he did not believe that Afghanistan was in "imminent danger of falling" to the Taliban.

The battle began Saturday morning, when insurgents stormed the two American base camps in the Kamdesh District of Nuristan Province, pounding them with guns and rocket-propelled grenades. The provincial police chief, Muhammad Qasim Jangulbagh, estimated that about 300 militants took part, The Associated Press reported.

The Americans fought back with helicopters, heavy guns and airstrikes, but the insurgents were persistent and the battle lasted into the afternoon, said Col. Wayne M. Shanks, a spokesman for NATO forces in Afghanistan.

The commander of the Americans in the area, Col. Randy George, described the strike as "a complex attack in a difficult area."

While much about the attack was still obscure on Sunday, its broad outlines were eerily similar to those of a strike in nearby Kunar Province in July 2008. In that assault, about 200 insurgents stormed a small American outpost in the village of Wanat, less than 20 miles southwest of the compounds that were attacked Saturday.

That attack, a four-hour firefight in which the 48 American soldiers and 24 Afghan soldiers were outnumbered nearly three to one, has been described as the "Black Hawk Down" of Afghanistan, a debacle whose lessons the military says it has already incorporated in its new doctrine for the war.

The Wanat attack was well coordinated, disciplined and sustained, qualities that made it strikingly different from the usual roadside bombs, ambushes and hit-and-run attacks that had characterized the insurgency. The attack on Saturday seems to have followed that pattern.

It was less clear whether another factor Pentagon officials identified in Wanat, the military's tense and mistrustful relationship with residents, was present in Kamdesh. In Wanat, the local people were furious with Americans for killing the staff members of a medical clinic in an airstrike the week before, and commanders suspect for that reason that residents were more hospitable to insurgents.

In Kamdesh, according to Jamaluddin Badar, the governor of Nuristan Province, there have been no major American airstrikes causing civilian deaths since he became governor 10 months ago.

Both attacks are likely to play into the debate in Washington, where the administration is considering General McChrystal's request for a substantial increase of troops that he says is critical to defeating the Taliban.

General Jones, the president's national security adviser, seemed to challenge that premise on Sunday. On the CNN program "State of the Union," he said he did not believe that Afghanistan was in "imminent danger of falling" to the Taliban and that the presence of Al Qaeda "is very diminished." And on the CBS program "Face the Nation," he described General McChrystal's recommendation for a troop increase as "his opinion" of "what he thinks his role within that strategy is."

General McChrystal has said that success against the Taliban is not a sure thing and that if the Taliban regained power, Afghanistan could again become a terrorist base. He has asked the administration for 40,000 more troops on top of the 68,000 Americans already deployed there or en route as part of a strategy that protects civilians, clears Taliban-held territory and holds it while Afghan soldiers are trained.

He has also called for pulling American forces out of sparsely populated areas, including Kamdesh. The attack there on Saturday does not change those plans, Colonel Shanks said.

But Mr. Badar, the Nuristan governor, said that pulling back would be a mistake. Too few troops in the area and its proximity to the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan have created a poisonous mix, leaving his province vulnerable.

"We knew the Taliban was getting stronger every day in eastern Nuristan," he said. Teachers and civil servants in the area have been threatened and can no longer travel to the central parts of the province, he said.

He added: "We have long shared our concern with the government and foreign forces but they didn't take it seriously."

He said the attackers had gathered in a mosque and a nearby village before staging the assault on the compounds, which are near each other on top of a hill overlooking the district center about 10 miles from the border with Pakistan.

The fighters had come from Pakistan, he said, after military operations pushed them out of their bases there. He said the strike was led by a Taliban commander named Dost Muhammad, whom he described as the shadow commander for the Taliban in Nuristan.

It was unclear whether the insurgents breached either compound, but Colonel Shanks said that by the end of the battle, American forces still controlled the outposts, which they share with Afghan security forces. Mr. Badar said the attackers briefly entered the compounds.

Mr. Badar said that 11 Afghan police officers, including the district police chief, were kidnapped in the raid. A spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, Gen. Zahir Azimi, said that Afghan soldiers had also been captured on Saturday but he could not confirm how many.

The Americans identified the attackers as "tribal militia" rather than Taliban, a term that some military planners say oversimplifies the fight Americans face here and gives the appearance, sometimes falsely, of a coordinated, hierarchical fighting force.

The American military statement said American forces had "effectively repelled the attack and inflicted heavy enemy casualties."

The bodies of at least five insurgents were found in the area after the fight, Mr. Badar said. The hostages were taken to Mandagal, a village in Kamdesh.

A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahed, said that Taliban fighters overran the outposts and briefly occupied them. He said the Taliban were holding the district police chief and an intelligence officer hostage. He said that seven Taliban fighters had been killed, and that the fighters eventually withdrew because the area came under bombardment.

In another attack on Saturday, one American soldier died of wounds after being struck with a bomb in eastern Afghanistan, the military said.