US forces suffered one of their bloodiest days in eight years of war in Afghanistan with eight soldiers killed when their remote outposts were overrun by hundreds of Taliban militants, officials said Sunday.
The dawn raid on Saturday saw militants sweep down a hillside from a mosque and a village in eastern Nuristan province, to attack two posts in the mountainous border region which is a haven for Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters.
The US forces called in air strikes to repel the attack, in a battle that lasted into the night, the International Security Assistance Force said, describing it as a “a pretty tough fight”.
“Coalition forces effectively repelled the attack and inflicted heavy enemy casualties while eight ISAF and two ANSF (Afghan National Security Force) service members were killed,” it said.
Colonel Randy George, commander of Task Force Mountain Warrior in the area, said: “This was a complex attack in a difficult area. Both the US and Afghan soldiers fought bravely together.”
A Taliban spokesman claimed that 30 foreign and Afghan troops were killed and that they captured the police chief of Kamdesh district as well as 30 Afghan National Army soldiers.
The head of intelligence in Nuristan, Mohammad Farooq, said: “About 700 Taliban participated in the attack, who came from Swat and Dir (in Pakistan). Al-Qaeda were also among them.”
Nuristan’s governor, Jamaluddin Badar, said the Taliban took hostage 13 police officers and two Afghan journalists from a radio station established with US help. Five Taliban were killed, he added.
ISAF still plans to withdraw from the area as part of a redeployment of troops for the forthcoming Afghan winter and a strategic realignment of forces to more populous areas in the east, a media officer said.
The attack was the deadliest single incident for US and NATO forces since 10 French troops died in an ambush in eastern Afghanistan in August 2008.
Nine US soldiers were killed in the east of the country in July 2008.
Sixteen US military personnel, including eight Navy Seals, died in June 2005 when a Taliban rocket-propelled grenade downed their helicopter, also in the east.
NATO is battling to quell a deadly insurgency that is spreading across Afghanistan, nearly eight years after the hardline Islamist Taliban were ousted from power.
Eastern Afghanistan has seen an escalation in violence recently as Taliban-linked militias spread their footprint beyond their traditional southern powerbase.
The London-based International Council on Security and Development think-tank estimates the Taliban now has a permanent presence in 80 percent of Afghanistan.
Mariam Abou Zahab, from the Centre for International Studies and Research (CERI) in Paris, said: “The Taliban are in a strong position. They want to show that they are everywhere.”
However, White House National Security Adviser James Jones said Sunday he did not foresee the return to power of the Taliban, despite the spike in violence.
Jones also told CNN’s “State of the Union” that Afghanistan “is not in any danger of falling”.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen separately insisted Sunday that the war could succeed and said troops would stay “as long as it takes to finish our job”.
“I think it’s important to stress that we will stay committed, we will stay in Afghanistan as long as it takes to finish our job but obviously that is not forever,” he told Britain’s Sky News television.
Security has worsened in the previously calm north and west and insurgent attacks increased before the August 20 presidential election.
This year has been the deadliest for foreign troops since 2001, with 394 deaths, 236 of them American, according to an AFP toll based on a tally by the independent icasualties.org website.
The commander of NATO and US forces in Afghanistan, US General Stanley McChrystal, has described the Afghan security situation as “serious” and reportedly requested up to 40,000 more troops.
The extra forces would be sent mainly to the north and west, where troop numbers are lowest, the US military told AFP on Saturday.
Political uncertainty has also exacerbated the tenuous security situation as no result has yet been declared in the August 20 presidential poll, which was marred by fraud allegations.