In a remote part of Afghanistan over the weekend, one of the deadliest attacks against American bases in that country killed eight U.S. troops and three Afghan soldiers, as well as an Afghan policeman. The fierce battle over the two remote outposts highlights the difficulty U.S. forces face in defending Afghans and themselves against a growing insurgency.
The outposts are among many in Afghanistan's remote and volatile regions that U.S. forces plan to pull back from in a bid to turn the war around.
The attack occurred Saturday in the mountainous and heavily forested province of Nuristan, which borders Pakistan.
Shortly after the predawn call to prayer, hundreds of militants armed with guns and rocket-propelled grenades poured out of a village and an area mosque.
Their targets were two nearby American outposts — one on top of a hill, and the other on the slope.
"Our forces that were there engaged them and tried to prevent their assault as much as they possibly could," said U.S. Army Col. Wayne Shanks, a spokesman in Kabul for the coalition forces. "We used attack helicopters, close air support, mortars — all the weapons systems they had available to them — and this conflict continued throughout most of the day."
In the end, the American and Afghan troops were able to repel the attackers. Nuristan's governor, Jamaludin Badar, said that in addition to the American and Afghan casualties, 27 militants were killed.
Badar said another 11 Afghan policemen were kidnapped by the fleeing militants, as were two employees of a local radio station. Their fate remains unknown.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack. Badar also blamed the Taliban. But NATO officials said the attackers were part of tribal militias with loose links to a variety of groups, including that of Sirajudin Haqqani, an al-Qaida-linked militant.
Reached by phone, Badar said insurgents are pouring across the border into Nuristan, especially since Pakistani forces cleared them out of much of the Swat Valley in northern Pakistan earlier this year.
He said Nuristan, with its jagged peaks and thick forests, is a perfect haven for militants. To bolster their ranks, they recruit restless and underemployed Nuristani youth.
Badar said most Nuristanis don't support the militants.
But others say Nuristanis have never been happy with the American military or Afghan government presence.
Residents there revel in their isolation. They are of a different ethnic background and use different languages than other Afghans.
American soldiers might have never been deployed to this area, were it not for the vast trail network insurgents use to move in and out from al-Qaida and Taliban sanctuaries in the border region.
But there have never been enough U.S. troops in Nuristan to deal with the militants.
A raid 15 months earlier in the village of Wanat killed nine American soldiers and wounded more than two dozen more. That attack, which is still being investigated, helped drive a reassessment of the strategy of the war.
The new strategy calls for U.S. troops to pull out of these remote areas and concentrate instead around Afghanistan's population centers.
Shanks, the coalition spokesman, said the weekend attack won't change plans to move U.S. troops. He wouldn't say when the troops will be moved, but said community leaders are aware of the plans.
"We had gone through the community and explained the process of the repositioning throughout the community and the whole area that's up there," he said.
He added that the shift doesn't mean NATO won't be keeping an eye on the region, where Afghan soldiers and policemen will continue to be posted.
"Just because you don't have a particular force in any particular area doesn't mean you can't provide security for that area," Shanks said.
But Badar fears that Afghan security forces can't handle Nuristan without a Western presence.
He said the Afghan forces don't have enough experience or training to stop the militants or protect the porous border Nuristan shares with Pakistan.