(MILITARY TIMES) KABUL — U.S. forces have withdrawn from an isolated base in eastern Afghanistan that insurgents attacked last week in one of the deadliest battles of the war for U.S. troops, the NATO-led coalition said Friday.
The pullout from the Kamdesh outpost near the Pakistani border is likely to embolden insurgent fighters in the region. The Taliban swiftly claimed “victory” for forcing the coalition to leave and said they had raised their flag above the town.
The withdrawal, however, had been planned well before the Oct. 3 battle and is part of a wider strategy outlined by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who has said for months he plans to shut down such isolated strongholds to focus on more heavily populated areas in an effort to protect civilians.
The firefight in Kamdesh left eight Americans, three Afghans and an estimated 100 insurgents dead, according to NATO. Insurgents fought their way into the base during the battle, a rare breach of security that underscored how thinly manned the post was. It was the largest loss of U.S. life in a single skirmish in more than a year.
The Kamdesh base was largely burned down during the violence. But Master Sgt. Thomas Clementson said the damage did not affect the timing of the withdrawal and the U.S. was “just days” away from pulling out when the attack happened.
Clementson said coalition forces destroyed what was left of the outpost. The action was likely taken to prevent insurgents from using the base.
Speaking by telephone from an undisclosed location, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the U.S. bombarded the outpost with airstrikes after leaving, as well as the local police headquarters.
“This means they are not coming back,” Mujahid said. “This is another victory for Taliban. We have control of another district in eastern Afghanistan.”
“Right now Kamdesh is under our control, and the white flag of the Taliban is raised above Kamdesh,” Mujahid said.
In a statement Friday, the NATO-led force said the move was “part of a previously scheduled transfer.” It said “troops and equipment were moved … to other locations in eastern Afghanistan in preparation for future assignment to more populated areas.”
The move comes days after the war entered its ninth year and as the Obama administration debates a way forward as the conflict deepens. President Barack Obama, who on Friday won the Nobel Peace Prize, is considering a request from McChrystal for up to 40,000 more troops to boost the 65,000 who are already in the country along with 40,000 from other NATO nations.
In the latest reported coalition death, the NATO-led force said one of its soldiers died in a bomb strike Thursday in southern Afghanistan. It gave no other details.
On Thursday, a suicide car bomber detonated his vehicle outside the Indian Embassy in Kabul, killing 17 people in the second major attack in the city in less than a month. The Afghan Foreign Ministry hinted at Pakistani involvement — a charge Pakistan denied.
Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao arrived in Kabul on Friday and visited the embassy compound to assess the damage.
The Press Trust of India said she was expected to hold talks with Afghan authorities. The agency said India was undeterred by the attack and would remain committed to development work in Afghanistan.
“India believes that cause of democracy and peace in Afghanistan can be best served through development programs, which the Afghan government and people need most urgently,” the agency quoted Minister of State for External Affairs Parneet Kaur as saying.
Over the last decade, India has poured nearly $1.2 billion into Afghanistan, helping fund projects such as a new Parliament building in Kabul, roads and power plants.
On Friday, Gen. Jalander Shah Bahnam, the Afghan army commander responsible for western Afghanistan said a joint Afghan-coalition force had launched an operation in the region the day before, killing 20 insurgents including a senior Taliban commander.
Bahnam identified the slain commander as Ghulam Yahya Akbari, who served as the mayor of Herat from 2003-04 before joining Taliban forces. He said Akbari was responsible for a wave of kidnappings for ransom of a businessman in Herat, as well as beheadings, suicide attacks and roadside bombings.
In the eastern province of Paktia, a suicide car bomber rammed a convoy of road construction workers in Wazi Zadran district on Friday, killing five people and wounding four others, said provincial police chief Gen. Azizudin Wardak.
In Kunar, another eastern province bordering Pakistan, around 100 insurgents attacked a series of checkpoints and the police headquarters in Chapadura district, said the region’s police chief Khalilullah Zaiyi.
Seven of the attackers were killed in the ensuing gunbattle, and four police were wounded, Zaiyi said.
On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously to extend U.N. authorization for the NATO force in Afghanistan for a year, underlining the importance of protecting civilians at a time when the U.S. and international commitment to the war is under review.
Britain’s U.N. Ambassador John Sawers said the resolution’s adoption by all 15 council members “underlines the extent of international support for the international effort there.”
The resolution calls for more personnel, equipment and other resources for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force. But it makes no mention of the debate taking place in some NATO capitals on whether to increase or reduce the force.