Nine U.S. soldiers have been killed and 15 wounded after militants breached the outer walls of a remote U.S. outpost in eastern Afghanistan.
It was the deadliest ground assault ever by militants against U.S. forces in that country and the deadliest single attack since June 2005 when a U.S. transport helicopter was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade, killing 16 American troops.
U.S. troops had just completed their fortifications at a newly built forward operations base in rugged terrain near the boundary between Kunar and Nuristan Provinces when the attack occurred.
Hazrat Din Noor, who was appointed last week as governor of Nuristan Province, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that the militants had nearly surrounded the outpost when they launched their assault.
U.S. helicopter gunships finally arrived and helped drive the militants back.
An official in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, speaking on condition of anonymity, said some 40 militants were killed in the U.S. counterattack.
A second NATO official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, described the July 13 attack as a "concerted attempt" by militants to overrun the small base.
Ghulam Farooq, a top police official in Nuristan Province, says the insurgent forces included fighters from the Taliban and from Hezb-i-Islami, a militant group led by renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Farooq says Arab, Chechen, and Pakistani fighters also are operating in the area.
Noor described the attack as the culmination of days of militant activity.
"The security situation [has deteriorated] in two eastern districts [of Nuristan Province] -- Kamdish and Barg-e Matal. Insurgents gathered there. And from those places, they started their attacks in the district of Barg-e Matal," Noor said. "There have been serious clashes for the last three days there. Local people have been defending [against militants in] this area. But there are very few security forces there. The people have been using what they have available to them to fight. The enemy has been ousted, but the situation is still volatile there."
The coordinated ground assault stands in sharp contrast to the suicide and roadside bombings that have characterized many previous militant attacks. Indeed, U.S. officials say militant tactics are becoming more complex, intense, and better coordinated.
Death Tolls Rising
They also say militant attacks in eastern Afghanistan have increased 40 percent this year over 2007. Monthly death tolls of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan surpassed U.S. military deaths in Iraq in May and June. More than 2,500 people -- mostly militants -- have died in insurgency-related violence this year.
Civilian death tolls also are rising. On July 7, a suicide bomber attacked the Indian Embassy in Kabul, killing 58 people in what the deadliest attack in the Afghan capital since 2001.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned during a visit to Kabul last week that there are more foreign militants, including Al-Qaeda fighters, in Pakistan's tribal areas. Mullen said the militants often cross the border to launch attacks against U.S. and Afghan troops.
A report from Pakistan by The Associated Press says that about 300 fighters from different jihadist groups came together in June for a secret gathering in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.
That report says the groups were launched long ago with clandestine support from Pakistan's intelligence services in order to fight against India in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.
Toor Gul, a leader of the militant group Hezb-ul Mujahedeen, said the militants have agreed to resolve their differences and commit more fighters to battle U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. Gul said other groups now working together in Afghanistan include the Al-Qaeda-linked Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba. Both are banned by Pakistan and have been branded by Washington as terrorist organizations.
Mullen says he hopes improving security in Iraq will allow U.S. troops to be shifted this year from Iraq to Afghanistan in order to quell rising violence.
The Pentagon has said at least three more brigades are needed in Afghanistan -- about 10,000 troops more.