July 14, OEF Update: Nine U.S. Soldiers Killed as U.S. Base in Afghanistan Attacked by Taliban

New York Times

Kabul, Afghanistan, July 13 — Taliban insurgents mounted a large-scale attack on an American forward operating base in eastern Afghanistan in the early hours of Sunday, killing nine American soldiers in fierce fighting that continued through the day.

Mark Laity, a spokesman for NATO, confirmed that nine soldiers had been killed and 15 more wounded, but did not give their nationality. Separately, a senior American military official confirmed that the nine soldiers killed were Americans. Four Afghan soldiers also were wounded, Mr. Laity said.

The Taliban assault on the base was the deadliest single attack on the NATO security force in Afghanistan, known as ISAF, in several years.

The American commander of ISAF, Gen. David D. McKiernan, said in an interview on Sunday afternoon that Taliban insurgents had mounted the attack and that fighting was continuing, but he did not give details on casualties.

The attack was the worst of several reported on Sunday in Afghanistan, including a suicide bombing that killed 25 people, 20 of them civilians, in the central part of the country. They add to a asualty count that has already made 2008 the deadliest year in Afghanistan since the United States-led military intervention in 2001. Casualties of American and allied troops for the last two months have been higher than those inflicted in Iraq over the same period. Nearly 700 Afghan civilians were killed in the first five months of the year, a marked increase on previous years, United Nations officials have said.

General McKiernan, who commanded allied land forces during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and took over command in Afghanistan in June, said that there were several reasons for the increase in violence this summer. He described the spring and summer as the “high season” for fighting.

The violence in 2008 was certainly greater than in the same period in 2007, and 2007 was worse than 2006, he said. NATO officials have said that attacks on its forces have increased by 40 percent from the same period last year.

The general said there were three main reasons: a tactical shift by the insurgents toward smaller attacks on more vulnerable targets, like civilian marketplaces, local government centers and convoys; inroads made by Afghan and NATO forces in regions previously controlled by the Taliban; and the “deteriorating situation with tribal sanctuaries across the border” in Pakistan. Roadside bombs are now causing 80 percent of ISAF casualties, according to one NATO official.

Throughout the interview, General McKiernan repeatedly returned to the issue of the sanctuary that militants enjoy in the tribal areas of Pakistan, as a growing problem that is directly causing instability in Afghanistan.

The forward operating base that came under attack on Sunday is in Kunar province, close to the Afghan-Pakistan border in one of the most inhospitable mountainous regions of the country, where American forces have frequently faced fierce battles with insurgents.

The attackers were repulsed, according to a statement from the NATO press office in Kabul, which said that it was thought that the insurgents had suffered heavy casualties.

The United States coalition also reported a heavy clash between Taliban insurgents and Afghan and American forces patrolling in Helmand province in the south. The report estimated that 40 militants were killed by air strikes as boats and bridges across the Helmand River were destroyed.

A suicide bomber on a motorbike blew himself up in a busy shopping bazaar in the town of Dehrawud in the southern province of Uruzgan, killing the local police chief and four of his men. Twenty civilians, mostly shopkeepers and including some children, were also killed in the attack, and some 30 more were wounded, the provincial police chief, Juma Gul Himat, said by telephone.

General McKiernan said that militant insurgents are firing almost daily across the border from Pakistan at Afghan, American and NATO military border posts. Those attacks are a main factor in the sharp increase in combat violence in Afghanistan in the last few months, he said.

“A cross-border kinetic event — we have probably had at least one almost every day I have been here,” the general, who has been in the post for 40 days, said in an interview at the Kabul headquarters of ISAF, known formally as the International Security Assistance Force.

The interview marked the first time that a senior commander has stated so clearly that militant groups are firing into Afghanistan from positions inside Pakistan, as well as infiltrating across the border.

His comments followed a weeklong visit to the region by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen. Admiral Mullen discussed a wide array of security issues with Pakistan’s leaders on Saturday, and according to an American military official, he spoke of growing concern over the flow of insurgents across the border with Afghanistan.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, after conferring with President Bush and Steven J. Hadley, the national security adviser, directed Admiral Mullen to add the stop in Pakistan to his week-long trip to South Asia last week. Given that this was Admiral Mullen’s fourth trip to Pakistan this year and second in two months, the admiral’s talks on Saturday with Pakistani officials underscored the Bush administration’sincreasing concern over the rising violence in Afghanistan caused largely by insurgents launching attacks into Afghanistan from sanctuaries in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

“The Secretary wanted to take advantage of the fact that Admiral Mullen would be in the region to reinforce our concern with the Pakistanis about the spike in violence in Afghanistan and to keep the pressure on in the tribal areas,” Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, said by telephone. “Without consistent Pakistani military pressure in the tribal areas, there has been an increase in the number of foreign fighters coming into the tribal areas and crossing into Afghanistan, and that’s resulted in increased violence there.”

Mr. Morrell and other senior military officials said Admiral Mullen did not bring any new proposals for dealing with the violence, and was not pressing for any new deployment of American Special Operations forces into the Pakistani tribal areas. “It was more to convey the urgency and gravity of the situation, not to formalize any new military plans,” said one senior military official.

“This wasn’t about setting or expecting specific deadlines, so much as it was about conveying our deep concern and urging greater action,” the military official said.

General McKiernan expressed determination and confidence that Afghanistan could meet the challenges before it. “The insurgency will not win in Afghanistan” were his first words in an hourlong interview.

“It is mostly localized by region — I don’t think it is that well connected at the operational, strategic level — and I think the legitimate government of Afghanistan will prevail over time,” he said.

How long that will take depends on “three big ifs,” he said: how quickly Afghan capacity and ability in security and government can be built up; whether the international community stays committed in Afghanistan; and whether Pakistan curbs the militants on its side of the border.

“I look at this problem regionally,” he said. “The viable outcome in Afghanistan to a large degree is dependent on some outcome in Pakistan with these tribal areas. Those are the three big variables which try to get at the question of how long will it take.”

Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar, Afghanistan, and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.

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