WASHINGTON, JULY 14, 2008— -- This weekend's deadly attack on an American combat outpost in remote eastern Afghanistan that killed nine U.S. servicemen was a highly organized assault by as many as 200 Taliban fighters that coalition military officials believe was staged from neighboring Pakistan.
A senior Defense Department official told ABC News today that attacks on outposts in eastern Afghanistan are a tactic often used by Taliban militants, but that this attack was noteworthy for its significant discipline, training and size of the attacking force.
Only days before the attack, 70 U.S. and Afghan soldiers had established their new combat outpost in the town of Wanat in Kunar Province, about 35 miles from the border with Pakistan.
There are many other similarly small outposts located throughout this part of eastern Afghanistan, manned by small groups of soldiers whose mission it is to interdict the lines of communication used by the Taliban from Pakistan into Afghanistan.
British Royal Navy Capt. Michael Finney, a spokesman for NATO forces in Afghanistan, told ABC News today that the camp defenses had yet to completed, possibly making it easier for the militants to breach the perimeter during the attack.
The assault began at 4:30 Sunday morning and lasted until noon as U.S. and Afghan forces engaged in intense combat to fight off 100 militants who had stormed the outpost armed with small weapons and rocket-propelled grenades.
Another 100 militants provided mortar support from nearby areas, using houses and a mosque in an adjacent village for cover. Village residents had been evacuated, although coalition officials are not sure if the Taliban forced them out or if they left because they knew of a potential attack, Finney said
U.S. troops quickly called for air cover from American warplanes, which dropped hundreds of pounds of bombs on the attackers. They included a B-1 bomber that dropped several 500-pound bombs, A-10 Thunderbolts that fired cannon rounds and bombed, and an Air Force Predator drone that fired a Hellfire missile at the militants.
After nearly five to eight hours of intense combat, nine U.S. soldiers lay dead, with another 15 Americans and four Afghan soldiers wounded — meaning one in five of the American defenders was killed and one-third wounded in the attack. All told, it's an alarming casualty rate of 50 percent for the small American force.
Finney said scores of militants were killed, but a senior military official says early reports indicated 15 militants had been killed, with between 20 to 40 of their number wounded.
Clean-up operations in the adjacent village took nearly 15 hours and combat operations continue in the area as U.S. forces search for militants who managed to escape.
Last week, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, visited another U.S. outpost in Kunar Province, south of Wanat, in the dangerous Korengal Valley. Mullen handed out medals to several soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team who had faced constant conflict and attacks during their 15-month tours of duty in the region. The 3,500 soldiers from the brigade were in the process of returning home to their home base in Italy by the end of the month.
Mullen has in the past called the military fight in Afghanistan under-resourced in both personnel and equipment. He has said that if the security situation in Iraq continues to improve, a drawdown of troops there could enable him to send additional troops to Afghanistan.
The greatest need has always been for 3,000 military trainers to help prepare Afghan police, but military commanders in Afghanistan have also said they would like an additional two combat brigades, or the equivalent of 7,000 more troops.
While this weekend's deadly attack is a rare case in which Taliban militants have taken a U.S. military force head-on, they are increasingly shifting to more tactics used in Iraq by insurgents, in particular roadside bombs.
The Pentagon has already sent more than 800 of the large vehicles known as Mine Resistant Ambush Protection vehicles, or MRAPs, to Afghanistan to help counter the growing use of roadside bombs. Mullen is reviewing a new request from commanders in Afghanistan for an unspecified number of even more of the vehicles.