KABUL – Insurgents fought their way inside an American base in Afghanistan last weekend in a rare security breach before they were driven back under heavy fire during the deadliest battle for U.S. troops in more than a year, a U.S. official said Wednesday.
The bold assault raised serious questions about the security of thinly manned outposts spread across the troubled nation’s volatile border region with Pakistan, and reflects growing insurgent resolve.
It comes as pressure is building on the Obama administration to decide a way forward in the conflict. Wednesday marked the eighth anniversary of the U.S. invasion that ousted the Taliban for harboring Osama bin Laden after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on Washington and New York.
Saturday’s nearly six-hour battle in mountainous Kamdesh district, near the eastern border with Pakistan, left eight American and three Afghan soldiers dead – one of the heaviest U.S. losses of life in a single battle since the war began.
NATO says around 100 insurgents were also killed.
Most U.S. installations in Iraq and Afghanistan are heavily guarded with rings of razor wire, huge sand-filled barriers, blast walls and security cameras. It is rare – almost unheard of – for insurgents to breach such defenses and get inside.
Maj. T.G. Taylor, an American public affairs officer, said it was unclear how the attackers penetrated the base or how many there were. He stressed he was not in Kamdesh at the time and his information was based on preliminary reports.
Taylor said 24 Americans and 10 Afghan soldiers were wounded during the fighting. Large portions of the base burned down, probably from incoming rocket and machine gun fire, he said.
The evening before the attack, insurgents comprised mostly of local Nuristani fighters began warning villagers “that something was going to go down and asked them to evacuate,” Taylor told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from nearby Jalalabad.
It’s unclear whether civilians fled, but local police units abandoned the village – nearly all except the police chief who was later captured and executed.
In Washington, the Pentagon said the remote outpost was slated to close as part of a consolidation of far-flung bases.
“The Taliban was trying to claim credit for driving us out of this combat outpost,” Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said, but the decision was already made.
“We need to focus our resources on those areas where they can have the biggest impact on population centers,” Morrell said.
The assault began around dawn Saturday.
Some 200 fighters bombarded a joint U.S.-Afghan army outpost with small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and mortar shells. Fire came from three sides simultaneously – including a local mosque they took over, buildings in the village and high ground above the outpost.