A force of about 700 U.S. and Afghan troops launched a major assault along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan in an attempt to destroy a growing insurgent haven and blunt rising violence in the area, senior Army officials said Monday.
The assault represents one of the largest in eastern Afghanistan in the past several years and reflects growing concern among U.S. commanders and Afghan leaders that Taliban insurgents are seeking to intensify pressure in the east as troops prepare for a tough summer of fighting in the south.
"The Taliban know we are bringing our surge of forces, and they realize they can't just let that happen, so they are pursuing their own surge," said Maj. Gen. John Campbell, the senior commander in eastern Afghanistan.
The U.S. and Afghan troops, flown in on Black Hawk helicopters, seized the mountainous high ground in Konar province's Marawara district in the pre-dawn hours Sunday and were soon attacked by a force of as many as 200 insurgents.
Two U.S. troops died in the assault, and as many as 150 insurgent fighters were killed by the U.S. and Afghan troops in what U.S. officials said was one of the most intense battles of the past year. "Once the battle began, others from the area tried to maneuver into the area," said Col. Andrew P. Poppas, who commands a swath of territory the size of Massachusetts along the border with Pakistan. "This was a tough fight."
Afghan officials had been complaining for several weeks that the Afghan Taliban, which traditionally has been strongest in Kandahar and Helmand provinces in the south, had been infiltrating the province as part of an effort to open a second front. Some Pakistani Taliban fighters, who are only loosely connected to the Afghan insurgents, also had sought sanctuary in the area, fleeing a Pakistani army attack on the other side of the border, U.S. officials said.
Before the battle, the Afghans estimated that as many as 250 insurgents had infiltrated the remote district, and U.S. officials said there had been a steady increase in deadly roadside bomb, mortar and rocket attacks throughout the area. "I was kind of incredulous when I heard there were that many enemy in there," said Brig. Gen. Stephen Townsend, a senior Army official in the region.
In contrast to the lead-up to the major battle in Marja this year, U.S. and Afghan troops did not send any warning of the offensive into the mountainous border region, which has been the site of several deadly ambushes on U.S. troops in the past two years. "We needed the element of surprise in that terrain," Poppas said.
The Afghan army, police and border force made up about 60 percent of the attacking force and played a central role in planning the assault, U.S. officials said. The district subgovernor in the valley had been a mujaheddin commander decades earlier and battled occupying Soviet forces in the same mountains. "He knows the valley so well," Poppas said. "Our guys were on the key high ground before the sun even came up."
U.S. officials said that the heaviest fighting in the district had ended by Monday morning and that U.S. and Afghan forces had shifted their effort to reestablishing the Afghan police and local government in the district's main village. "The tough part is still ahead," Poppas said.