Page 2 of 2   <      

8 U.S. Troops Killed in Siege of Afghan Outpost

"It is really hard to interdict the enemy," said the base's company commander in an interview with The Washington Post in late September. "There are literally thousands of trails around here. We just don't have the numbers of troops we need to be effective."

Although the village of Kamdesh is only about a mile from the base, U.S. and Afghan troops never visited it because it was too dangerous, the company commander said.

"We patrol the high ground around the base, but we have an agreement that we won't go into the villages around the outpost unless we are invited," the officer said. "We have not been invited yet."

Attacks on the outpost have been frequent -- approximately 50 since May, although they had rarely caused casualties before Saturday.

When soldiers from a new brigade took over the outpost earlier this year, one of their top priorities was to leave as quickly as possible, a process their commanders had begun planning as early as December 2008. Before the planned U.S. retreat, American and Afghan army commanders tried to strike a deal with a senior insurgent commander in Kamdesh, a man named Mullah Sadiq. He had been on the U.S. list of enemy targets for several years, and may have led or ordered Saturday's attack.

"Many civilians have been injured and killed during the fight, and I offer apologies to the Nuristani people for the bombings that hurt the innocent," Lt. Col. Robert B. Brown wrote in a letter to Sadiq dated Sept. 6. "We ask for your guidance in developing a plan that will improve security and development in the area."

Brown promised not to arrest Sadiq if he agreed to a meeting. But Sadiq, a local commander of the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin insurgent group, refused to meet with the Americans.

Meanwhile, the Americans were having trouble getting out. In the weeks leading up to the Aug. 20 presidential election, the Afghan government was reluctant to let Americans leave the Nurestan outposts and appear weaker by ceding territory to the Taliban.

In early July, Afghan President Hamid Karzai asked senior U.S. officials to dispatch about 100 U.S. soldiers to Barge Matal, a small village in Nurestan. The cargo helicopters required for the mission exacerbated a preexisting shortage, and left frustrated U.S. commanders without the airlift needed to withdraw from the Kamdesh outpost and another that they were planning to close. At the same time, the U.S. military was undertaking a major war assessment by McChrystal's team, and there was a sense that some troop movement should wait for that process to finish.

The provincial governor, Jamaluddin Badar, said on Sunday that security had steadily deteriorated around Kamdesh. The Taliban leadership has appointed a shadow governor in the province, Mullah Dost Muhammad, and had opened a training camp in the forest, he said.

"I have already warned the central government to help us and send more Afghan soldiers, and I warned the American soldiers they need to be more serious and stop the Taliban," Badar said in a telephone interview. "But unfortunately, nobody listened to me."

Badar said he was unaware of American plans to abandon the outpost. He said his province has a shortage of Afghan soldiers and an incompetent police force. The province is at risk of falling to the Taliban if the Americans pull out, he said.

"I request that they stay," he said. "If they leave, it will be very dangerous for Nurestan."

Jaffe reported from Washington. Special correspondent Javed Hamdard in Kabul contributed to this report.

<       2

© 2009 The Washington Post Company