Militant fighters streaming from a village and a mosque attacked a pair of remote outposts near the Pakistan border, killing eight American soldiers and as many as seven Afghan forces in one of the fiercest gunbattles of the troubled eight-year war.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the deadliest attack for coalition forces since a similar raid in July 2008 killed nine American soldiers in the same mountainous region known as a haven for al-Qaida militants. The U.S. has already said it plans to leave the remote area to focus on Afghan population centers.
Fighting began around dawn Saturday and lasted several hours, said Jamaludin Badar, governor of Nuristan province. Badar said the two outposts were on a hill — one near the top and one at the foot of the slope — flanked by the village on one side and the mosque on the other.
Nearly 300 militant fighters flooded the lower, Afghan outpost then swept around it to reach the American station on higher ground from both directions, said Mohammad Qasim Jangulbagh, the provincial police chief. The U.S. military statement said the Americans and Afghans repelled the attack by tribal fighters and “inflicted heavy enemy casualties.”
Jangulbagh said that the gunbattle was punctuated by U.S. airstrikes and that 15 Afghan police were captured by the Taliban, including the local police chief and his deputy. Afghan forces were sent as reinforcements, but Jangulbagh said all communications to the district, Kamdesh, were severed and he had no way of knowing how they were faring Sunday.
“This was a complex attack in a difficult area,” Col. Randy George, the area commander, said in the U.S. statement. “Both the U.S. and Afghan soldiers fought bravely together.”
Nuristan, bordering Pakistan, was where a militant raid on another outpost in July 2008 claimed the lives of nine American soldiers and led to allegations of negligence by their senior commanders. Army Gen. David Petraeus last week ordered a new investigation into that firefight, in which some 200 militants armed with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars pushed their way into the base, which is no longer operating.
Badar said he had sought more security forces for Kamdesh district, and said Taliban fighters had fled to Nuristan and neighboring Kunar province after Pakistani forces drove many extremists from the Swat Valley earlier this year.
“When there are few security forces, this is what happens,” he said.
He also complained about a lack of coordination between international forces and Afghans.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, claimed responsibility and said a council would decide the fates of the captured police.
The U.S. statement said the attack would not change previously announced plans to leave the area.
Afghanistan’s northeastern Nuristan and Kunar provinces are home to al-Qaida bases as well as those of wanted terrorist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose military chief Kashmir Khan has been unsuccessfully targeted by U.S. missiles over the past eight years. Kamdesh district has no regular cell phone or landline contact and few roads, dirt or paved. Local security forces communicate by handheld radio.
The region was key for Arab militants who battled alongside Afghan warriors during the 1980s U.S.-backed war against invading Russians because it is a rare place in south Asia where the Wahabi sect of Islam is practiced — the same sect followed by Osama bin Laden and most Saudis.
Many Arabs remained in Afghanistan, marrying Afghans and integrating themselves into local society. Many also belonged to Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami group, now sought as terrorists by the U.S.-led coalition.
Bin Laden also considered the region a useful hiding ground, his former bodyguard, Naseer Ahmed Al-Bahri, told The Associated Press in a 2006 interview in Yemen.
It sits directly across the border from Pakistan’s Bajaur Agency, where bin Laden’s No. 2, Aymen al Zawahri, was last seen.
Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez and Noor Khan contributed to this report.