By Joshua Partlow and Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 5, 2009; A01
KABUL, Oct. 4 -- U.S. commanders had been planning since late last year to abandon the small combat outpost in mountainous eastern Afghanistan where eight U.S. soldiers died Saturday in a fierce insurgent assault.
The pullout, part of a strategy of withdrawing from sparsely populated areas where the United States lacks the troops to expel Taliban forces and to support the local Afghan government, has been repeatedly delayed by a shortage of cargo helicopters, Afghan politics and military bureaucracy, U.S. military officials said.
The attack began in the early morning hours. Taliban-linked militiamen struck from the high ground using rifles, grenades and rockets against the outpost, a cluster of stone buildings set in a small Hindu Kush valley that has been manned by 140 U.S. and Afghan forces. By the end of a day-long siege, eight Americans and two Afghan security officers were dead, marking the highest toll for U.S. forces in over a year.
The deaths brought into stark relief the dilemma the Obama administration faces in Afghanistan. Without more soldiers and supplies, the Taliban and allied insurgents are gaining ground, but committing more forces could sink the country deeper into an increasingly deadly and unpopular war.
Several U.S. soldiers were injured in the attack, Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, a U.S. military spokesman, said Sunday, but he did not specify the number. The province's deputy police chief, Mohammad Farouq, said more than 20 Afghan soldiers and police had disappeared since the fighting began and may have been taken hostage. A Taliban spokesman said the district police chief and the intelligence chief were among the hostages.
The fighting came on a day when poor weather limited visibility. The insurgents struck from positions in a mosque, village buildings and hillside positions above the outpost, which is in the Kamdesh area of Nurestan province. Surrounded by enemy fighters and under heavy fire, U.S. soldiers called in ground reinforcements, along with attack helicopters, airplanes and surveillance drones. U.S. forces eventually repelled the attack while inflicting "a significant amount of casualties" on insurgents, Smith said. "Virtually everything that could be thrown at it was thrown at it."
Due to the "very challenging terrain," the insurgents had effective firing positions, Smith said. "It was obviously a very, very difficult day."
A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, claimed responsibility for the attack. "If the Americans want to increase their troops, we will increase our fighters as well," Mujahid said by telephone.
Another American died in a separate attack in eastern Afghanistan on Saturday, bringing the day's total to nine.
The violence on Saturday, in its severity and geography, mirrored an onslaught in an adjacent valley of Nurestan province in July 2008. About 200 insurgents attacked an American outpost in Wanat, killing nine U.S. soldiers and wounding 27 in one of the bloodiest battles of the war for U.S. forces.
The military investigations into what went wrong that day helped precipitate a war-strategy assessment that led to the decision to pull some troops from rural areas dominated by insurgents and to move them into larger cities and towns. The move was in line with the counterinsurgency approach of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, of trying to protect population centers.
In addition to 50 U.S. soldiers, about 90 Afghan army and police personnel were stationed at the base, which was set up several years ago to try to stop fighters moving into the country from Pakistan. But the insurgents learned long ago to maneuver around the outpost, and U.S. troops there said they had not detained anyone in months.
"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.