KABUL (Reuters) - Insurgents stormed remote outposts in eastern Afghanistan killing eight Americans in the deadliest battle in more than a year near the border with Pakistan, the U.S. military said Sunday.
Afghan provincial authorities said they had lost contact with scores of Afghan policemen after the day-long attack on Saturday and did not know whether they were dead or alive. NATO said at least two Afghan soldiers were killed.
The fighting took place in Nuristan province’s Kamdesh district in high mountains along the eastern border with Pakistan. U.S. forces had already announced plans to withdraw from the area as part of commander General Stanley McChrystal’s strategy to focus his forces on population centers.
Militia from a local mosque and a nearby village launched the attacks on two joint NATO and Afghan outposts, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force said. The NATO troops in the area are American.
“My heart goes out to the families of those we have lost and to their fellow soldiers who remained to finish the fight,” Colonel Randy George, commander of the U.S. force in the eastern mountain area bordering Pakistan, said in the statement.
“This was a complex attack in a difficult area. Both the U.S. and Afghan soldiers fought bravely together. I am extremely proud of their professionalism and bravery.”
A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said the movement was behind the attack. He claimed that dozens of Afghan soldiers and police were killed along with Western troops.
Fighters captured 35 police during the battle and their fate would be decided by the movement’s provincial council, he added.
The province’s deputy police chief Mohammad Farooq said the fate of an entire 90-strong police force in the Kamdesh district was unknown.
NATO said its troops had inflicted heavy casualties on the attackers, but did not say how many.
Mujahid said seven Taliban were killed as a result of an air attack summoned by foreign troops during the 13 hours of battle. He said the Taliban attack included several suicide bombers, explosions and fighters storming the posts.
The NATO statement said “coalition forces’ previously announced plans to depart the area as part of a broader realignment to protect larger populations remains unchanged.”
The attack was the deadliest for U.S. forces since nine were killed in a July 2008 battle in nearby Kunar province, which the U.S. military is investigating as a debacle that will teach its forces how to understand the demands of combat in Afghanistan.
U.S. forces have suffered some of their worst casualties in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, where they have been trying to control remote passes used by Taliban fighters as infiltration routes from Pakistan.
Under McChrystal’s new counter-insurgency strategy they are supposed to move into more heavily populated areas to protect the population and reduce the influence of insurgents, while abandoning efforts to defend remote locations.
The war in Afghanistan has reached its most violent phase this year, eight years after the Taliban were ousted, with attacks by fighters spreading from traditional strongholds in the south and east to once-peaceful western and northern regions.
McChrystal, who now commands more than 100,000 troops, two thirds of them American, has requested tens of thousands more to implement his new strategy, warning that without them, the eight-year-old war will probably be lost.
U.S. President Barack Obama, who already ordered 21,000 extra troops to Afghanistan this year, is re-evaluating his strategy for the region before considering whether to send more troops.
Some in his administration are advocating the opposite strategy -- reducing force levels and switching to a counter-terrorism strategy limited to strikes on bases of al Qaeda fighters blamed for attacks on the West.
Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi in KABUL and Rohullah Anwari in ASADABAD; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani