KABUL (Reuters) - Taliban militants said on Wednesday they had hoisted their flag in a remote district of Afghanistan where days earlier they had inflicted the deadliest battlefield casualties on U.S. troops in more than a year.
In a separate statement marking the eighth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan that led to their overthrow as the country’s rulers, the Taliban said they posed no threat to the West but would continue their fight against foreign forces as long as such troops remained in the country.
In a statement on their website, www.shahamat.org, the hardline Islamists said they had raised their flag in Kamdesh district of eastern Nuristan province near the Pakistan border at a function attended by elders.
U.S. forces denied they had left the area but said they eventually will leave under plans announced before the attack.
Violence in Afghanistan has reached its worst levels in the eight-year-old war, with Taliban insurgents spreading their attacks into previously secure areas.
The latest Taliban statements come at a time when Western officials warn that deserting Afghanistan could mean a return to power for the Taliban, and the country could once again become a safe haven for al Qaeda militants who could use it as a base to plan future attacks on Western countries.
The Pentagon said on Wednesday General Stanley McChrystal’s request for thousands more troops has been transferred to U.S. President Barack Obama for review and has started working its way through the military chain of command. McChrystal is the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan.
It remains unclear how quickly Obama will act on the request for up to 40,000 additional U.S. and NATO troops to go to Afghanistan next year. They would augment the 104,000 currently in place, roughly two-thirds of whom are Americans.
In a review of the war given to the Pentagon last month, McChrystal said fighting the insurgents likely would result in failure without more troops and a change in strategy.
U.S.-led forces backed by Afghan fighters overthrew the Taliban government in a five-week battle that began on October 7, 2001, after the militants refused to hand over al Qaeda leaders wanted by Washington for the September 11 attacks on America.
Last Saturday, hundreds of Taliban fighters stormed two remote NATO outposts near the Pakistan border that led to a fierce 13-hour battle. Eight American and at least two Afghan soldiers were killed, the worst losses for U.S. troops in more than a year. U.S. forces have said they killed more than a 100 fighters in the fighting in a difficult mountainous area.
In the past, when U.S. troops have left hard-fought areas, Taliban forces have launched attacks to show strength and lay claim to them.
Colonel Wayne Shanks, a senior press officer for U.S. and NATO-led forces, said the withdrawal from the area was still planned but had not taken place yet. “I can guarantee you we have not left Nuristan. We are there. We are doing the same operations we have been doing,” he said.
U.S. forces were still present in the two outposts that had been attacked Saturday, although they would be abandoned eventually, Shanks said.
The Taliban said it had no intention of attacking any Western country but remained committed to battling what they called occupying foreign forces in Afghanistan.
“We had and have no plan of harming countries of the world, including those in Europe ... our goal is the independence of the country and the building of an Islamic state,” they said.
“Still, if you (NATO and U.S. troops) want to colonize the country of proud and pious Afghans under the baseless pretext of a war on terror, then you should know that our patience will only increase and that we are ready for a long war.”
Afghans are also awaiting the outcome of a presidential election that has been marred by widespread fraud more than six weeks after going to the polls.
The Washington Post on Wednesday reported that confidential U.N. data showed that the official vote count in some provinces exceeded the actual number of voters by 100,000 or more. The newspaper reported that the discrepancies occurred particularly in the volatile southern and eastern provinces where President Hamid Karzai had been reported winning by wide margins.
A U.N. spokesman in Kabul was quoted by the Post as calling the information “unsubstantiated raw data.”
A U.N.-backed watchdog overseeing the fraud probe into the August 20 vote said it has altered its ballot-counting rules, ditching a plan criticized for favoring Karzai.
Preliminary results gave Karzai 54.6 percent of the vote. If the fraud investigation reduces his share below 50 percent, he would face a run-off against his main challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.
For that to happen, the commission would have to find fraud overwhelmingly benefited Karzai, which the president denies.
Additional reporting by Adam Entous, Phil Stewart and JoAnne Allen in Washington; Writing by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Will Dunham