Deadly Afghanistan Attack Raises Questions of U.S. Strategy

Soldiers say they want a clearer sense of why they are fighting in Afghanistan.

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan, Oct. 6, 2009— -- It was a small outpost in a remote part of eastern Afghanistan where eight young U.S. soldiers and two Afghan troops gave their life in one of the deadliest attacks so far by Taliban supporters.

Today, as the president gathers 30 members of Congress to the White House to discuss the future strategy in Afghanistan, the bodies of the dead come home to the Dover Air Force base in Delaware.

Among the dead are Pfc. Kevin Christopher Thomson, 22, from Reno, Nev., who had been Army for 18 months; Specialist Christopher Griffin, 24, of Kincheloe, Mich., who had previously served in Korea and served 15 months in Iraq; Sgt. Joshua Kirk from South Portland, Maine; and Specialist Michael Scusa from Villas, N.J., who recently celebrated the birthday of his 1-year-old son, Conner Allen, named after another fallen soldier.

As their families mourn, ABC News is learning new and harrowing details of how bravely the soldiers fought, as soldiers express frustration at the direction of the war strategy.

The attack in Nuristan province, close to the border with Pakistan, began on Friday and raged through the weekend, U.S. army officials said. The military says more than 100 enemy fighters were killed during the attack that also injured 24 people.

The coordination included a .50 caliber machine gun -- a weapon so powerful it can blast through concretewalls -- positioned on a mountainside, firing directly at the smal army compound in the valley below. At the same time, other insurgents advanced from low-lying areas, surrounding the camp.

In addition, the Taliban set fire to the base and the blaze, fanned by high winds, began to consume the camp, forcing troops into a corner.

ABC News' Karen Russo, who was embedded with the Medevac unit that went to help the wounded soldiers Saturday night, was the only journalist at the scene.

"On the ground, it was difficult to see anything except for smoke from the conflict rising across the moonlight. It was difficult to hear any of the noise of the conflict because of the propellers of the helicopter. The area smelled of burned-out pine trees something one solider described as death and hell. The soldiers were quickly placed on the helicopter and received immediate medical attention," she said.

"There were actually several wounded and injured soldiers who were at these attacked bases who refused medical care. They stayed and fought while wounded because they didn't want to leave their base. They didn't actually have blood on the bases ... so the soldiers were actually giving blood, and they were quickly transfusing it into the soldiers who were wounded," Russo said.

U.S. 'Long Term' Mission

The terrain in Nuristan is rocky and steep, but the U.S. outposts are located at the base of the mountain, deep in the valley so soldiers can be close to the local population. But the location also leaves soldiers vulnerable. Insurgents, watching from cliffs above, fire at troops constantly. Even going to the bathroom requires planning, making daily routine nearly impossible during daylight. At night, there are no lights and soldiers use night vision goggles or less detectable small red lights.

In the winter, temperatures can drop below zero at night, with snow and wind making it nearly impossible to do much more than wait.

The base, which was two days away from being closed as part of a consolidation of troops in eastern Afghanistan, is located only a few dozen miles from Wanat, where another deadly onslaught killed nine U.S. soldiers in July of last year.

Since Gen. Stanley McChrystal took charge of military operations in Afghanistan, troops are being moved from remote bases in vulnerable areas, such as the one that was attacked, to bases in populated areas.

The top commander in Afghanistan has said more troops are needed to fight the Taliban, but the Obama administration wants to reassess the strategy in the country before committing more soldiers.

On the ground, there's hurt and frustration about the Nuristan attack. Soldiers believe that until the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is decided, they could be vulnerable to more of these attacks. They want to know whether their mission is to fight the enemy or to help the Afghan people, which are two separate goals, some say.

President Obama is meeting with members of Congress today to discuss the future strategy, but the final decision is not expected for weeks. Officials rejected speculation that the United States is shifting its policy in Afghanistan completely.

"We're going to come up with what we think is the best approach, but the goal remains the same," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at an event at George Washington University Monday night.

Meanwhile, soldiers, sensitive to Sunday's attack, want a clear sense of why they are here.

But there is no question from the administration that the United States intends to stay in Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the U.S. will be in this for a long time.

"We're not leaving Afghanistan," he said Monday. "There should be no uncertainty in terms of our determination to remain in Afghanistan and to continue to build a relationship of partnership and trust with the Pakistanis. That's long term. That's a strategic objective of the United States."

ABC News' Huma Khan contributed to this report.