U.S., Afghan Troops Leave Combat Outpost After Deadly Clash

[MAP: Wanat, Konar Province, Afghanistan]
By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 17, 2008

KABUL, Afghanistan, July 16 -- After suffering significant setbacks in the fight against insurgents in eastern Afghanistan, U.S. and Afghan troops have pulled out of a combat outpost where nine American soldiers were killed in a pitched battle with Taliban fighters Sunday.

As the troops withdrew from the makeshift outpost near the remote village of Wanat, Taliban fighters swarmed the area, NATO and Afghan officials said Wednesday. Still, an unspecified number of NATO and Afghan troops remain in the region, said Capt. Mike Finney, a spokesman for NATO's mission in Afghanistan, the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF.

The combat outpost in Wanat, located in Konar province, had been operational for only two or three days before Taliban insurgents launched an assault on it Sunday, NATO officials said. Hundreds of Taliban fighters attacked with rocket-propelled grenades, mortar shells and gunfire. About 100 to 150 U.S. and Afghan soldiers struggled to repel the early morning attack, firing a fusillade of bullets at insurgents who had taken up positions in a village mosque and several other locations.

In addition to the nine U.S. troops killed, 15 American and at least four Afghan soldiers were wounded after insurgents breached the outer area of the outpost. The attack was the deadliest in Afghanistan since 16 U.S. troops were killed when their helicopter was shot down in 2005.

NATO officials said dozens of insurgents also were killed in the hours-long skirmish and its immediate aftermath.

Finney said Wednesday that ISAF troops were reinforced shortly after the devastating attack on the outpost and will remain in other parts of the region to fight the insurgency for the foreseeable future.

"We aren't abandoning the area. Far from it," Finney said. "The Taliban have dispersed, and we're hunting them down to make sure they don't do something like this again."

The Taliban assault, in the increasingly volatile region along Afghanistan's 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, occurred less than a week after U.S. officials reported that the U.S. death toll in Afghanistan in June nearly equaled the number of American troops killed in Iraq during the same period. Twenty-eight U.S. troops were killed in Afghanistan last month compared with 29 killed in Iraq, even though there are nearly five times as many American troops in Iraq, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

Insurgent attacks across Afghanistan were up 40 percent last month compared with attacks reported in June 2007, NATO officials said. About 314 clashes with Taliban fighters were reported in June -- a 50 percent increase from clashes reported in May, according to a report recently released by AFCEA International, a Virginia-based nonprofit military and government research and advisory organization.

NATO officials have attributed the increase in attacks to greater numbers of coalition forces on the ground. But military and Afghanistan experts say the recent loss of ground in Afghanistan's eastern provinces could signal a strategy shift and an increase in the number of Taliban insurgents fighting in the country. NATO, Afghan and U.S. officials say the flurry of clashes in the country's east and south has been fueled by a surge in the number of foreign fighters who have joined the Taliban, many of whom have crossed the border from Pakistan.

The trend has set off alarms in Washington and Kabul, heightening tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan. In recent weeks, Afghan and Pakistani officials have engaged in a testy public exchange, sparked in part by widespread suspicions that Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence agency, or ISI, is aiding the insurgency in Afghanistan.

After Afghan President Hamid Karzai accused Pakistan's ISI of supporting Taliban attacks, his government on Tuesday canceled meetings with Pakistani officials on border-control issues. The move came just two days after a council of Afghan government ministers endorsed a resolution accusing the ISI of fomenting the resurgence of Taliban activity in Afghanistan.

"The people of Afghanistan and the international community have come to the reality that Pakistan intelligence institutions and its army have become the largest center for breeding and exporting terrorism and extremism to the world and particularly to Afghanistan," the council of cabinet ministers said in a written statement issued Monday.

Pakistani officials have dismissed the accusations as political rhetoric on the part of Karzai's government. On Tuesday, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi called the allegations "baseless" and said the Afghan cabinet had canceled the meetings on "flimsy grounds."

Special correspondents Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad and Javed Hamdard in Kabul contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company