The US Army in Afghanistan suffered one of its biggest single losses of life Sunday when nine soldiers were killed during a militant attack on an Army outpost in the northeast of the country – a further sign of the growing resurgence of Taliban-linked forces. The attack will increase pressure on neighboring Pakistan, where many of the militants are allegedly based, at a time when military chiefs are increasingly turning the focus away from Iraq and toward Afghanistan.
The fighting was set off after a multi-pronged militant assault on a small, remote US base. Militants fired machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars from homes and a mosque in the village of Wanat, in Kunar, a mountainous region that borders Pakistan, Nato's International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) said.
The several hours of fighting also left 15 US soldiers and four Afghan colleagues wounded, NATO said.
It added that the attackers – whom it did not identify - were repulsed from the outpost and were believed to have suffered heavy casualties.
Captain Mike Finney, a spokesperson for the Isaf, told Al Jazeera that while it was a very bad day for the force in terms of numbers killed, the "insurgents haven't gained any ground".
He said the attackers had failed in their goal to overrun the outpost which the isaf soldiers had only recently occupied.
An Afghan official said international aircraft had bombed the area during the fighting and there may also have been civilian casualties.
One factor in the consideration is the pressing need for additional American troops in Afghanistan, where the Taliban and other fighters have intensified their insurgency and inflicted a growing number of casualties on Afghans and American-led forces there.
More American and allied troops died in Afghanistan than in Iraq in May and June, a trend that has continued this month.
And increasingly, particular attention is being fixed on Pakistan. Many of the militants are said to find sanctuary in the country's northwestern provinces – where Osama Bin Laden is also said to be hiding – from where they pass easily in and out of Afghanistan, reports The Washington Post.
Gen. David D. McKiernan, the newly appointed commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, said in a recent interview with The Washington Post that insurgents have specifically increased roadside bomb attacks on NATO convoys, strategic roadways and police stations across the country. He attributed the rise in violence in part to an increased presence of NATO troops in Afghanistan. But he said insurgent activity along the border with Pakistan has significantly bedeviled efforts to quell the conflict in Afghanistan.
"Very troubling to all of us here is an increase in violence that is directly attributable to tribal areas across the border in the North-West Frontier Province and the Baluchistan areas in the south that allow the insurgents to maneuver," McKiernan said. "It causes a much greater security challenge inside Afghanistan. The problems of security issues in Afghanistan are linked to security issues in Pakistan."
The Pakistani government has long come under pressure to take action against militants. On Saturday, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to express renewed concern. However, as Pakistan has battled domestic political instability as well as the lawlessness of the rugged mountain region, it has been unable to prevent the use of its territory by militants.
According to The National, an Abu Dhabi-based English-language daily, the Pakistani government is now responding to renewed criticism by proposing the construction of a fence along the border between the two countries. But the government in Kabul has voiced its displeasure at the idea, saying that the cause of the insurgency lies elsewhere.
The Afghan government argues a fence would fail to stop militant activity, but would hamper trade and separate families and tribes living along the border.
Security officials in Kabul expressed dismay the plan had been given fresh life, saying Islamabad needed to stamp out the roots of militancy instead of fencing it in.
"We, and the international community, both know the Pakistan intelligence services are the source of the Taliban," said a senior Afghan intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Islamabad needs to stop aiding the Taliban and Al Qa'eda, stop sending them weapons and stop giving them money."
On the coalition front, the response to the spike in violence has been to suggest an increase in troop numbers. According to the London-based The Times, American and British military chiefs are looking to transfer troops from the Iraqi to the Afghan theater.
Both the United States and Britain are hoping to reduce their military commitment in Iraq to focus on Afghanistan....
American commanders have been calling for another 10,000 US troops for Afghanistan. The Pentagon has already sent an additional 3,200 Marines, who provide a mobile reserve force for southern Afghanistan, but it has been difficult for the US military planners to send more because of the commitment in Iraq. Britain is in the same position, struggling to maintain the required troop levels for two long-running campaigns.