KABUL, Afghanistan - Taliban insurgents carried out a bold assault on a remote base near the border with Pakistan yesterday, NATO reported, and a senior U.S. military official said nine U.S. soldiers were killed.
The attack, the deadliest against U.S. forces in Afghanistan in three years, illustrated the growing threat of Taliban militants and their associates, who in recent months have made Afghanistan a far deadlier war zone for U.S.-led forces than Iraq.
The assault on the U.S. base in Kunar province was one of the fiercest by insurgents since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan routed the Taliban and al-Qaida militants in late 2001.
The militants have regained their strength in the tribal areas of Pakistan, which they have often used as a base for raids into Afghanistan, an increasingly sore point for the U.S. and Afghan governments.
The new U.S. commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan emphasized that issue yesterday in an interview that took place before details of the Kunar attack were disclosed, asserting that the militants were not only entering Afghan territory but also firing at targets from the Pakistan side.
"It all goes back to the problem set that there are sanctuaries in the tribal areas that militant insurgent groups are able to operate from with impunity," said the commander, Gen. David D. McKiernan, who took over the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in June.
The base that came under attack lies in one of the most inhospitable mountainous regions, where U.S. forces have frequently faced fierce battles with insurgents.
A NATO news release issued in Kabul said the insurgents attacked the Kunar base with rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, using houses, shops and a mosque in the nearby village of Wanat for cover. Both sides suffered casualties as the insurgents were repulsed, it said.
McKiernan said insurgents based in Pakistan had carried out some kind of attack on Afghanistan "almost every day I have been here."
It was the first time a senior commander had stated so clearly that militant groups were not only infiltrating from across the border to attack but were also firing from positions inside Pakistan.
NATO officials reported that nine soldiers were killed in the Kunar attack but did not specify the nationalities, in accordance with the policy of letting member countries report them first. A senior military official in Washington said that all nine were American.
The Kunar attack also left wounded at least 15 other NATO soldiers - almost certainly Americans - and four Afghan soldiers, and it was one of at least three significant attacks yesterday, including a devastating suicide bombing in a southern city's bazaar that killed at least 25 people, 20 of them civilians.
This year of the Afghanistan war is already proving to be the deadliest since the U.S.-led invasion. Bush administration officials are considering a redeployment of troops to Afghanistan from Iraq to help deal with the rising threat.
Deaths of U.S. troops and their allies for the last two months have been higher than those inflicted in Iraq. In addition, nearly 700 Afghan civilians were killed in the first five months of the year, a marked increase over previous years, U.N. officials have said.
McKiernan, a four-star general who commanded allied land forces during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, said there were three main reasons for the increase in violence: a change in tactics by the insurgents to small attacks on more vulnerable targets, such as the civilian population, district centers and convoys; the increasing progress of Afghan and NATO forces in pushing into regions previously controlled by the Taliban, which has led to more fighting; and the "deteriorating situation with tribal sanctuaries across the border" in Pakistan.
McKiernan's comments followed a weeklong visit to the region by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, who discussed an array of security issues with Pakistan's leaders Saturday in a surprise visit to Pakistan.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, after conferring with President Bush and Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, directed Mullen to add the stop in Pakistan.
Given that this was Mullen's fourth trip to Pakistan this year and his second in two months, the admiral's talks with Pakistani officials underscored the Bush administration's increasing concern over the rising violence in Afghanistan and its links with the Pakistan 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 in a phone interview about Mullen's Pakistan stopover.