The Afghan Army and US military launched a major air assault yesterday in a remote district in eastern Afghanistan that borders Pakistan.
More than 700 US and Afghan troops were inserted by US Black Hawk helicopters into the Marawara district in Kunar province on Sunday and immediately came under fire from a large force of Taliban fighters, estimated at more than 200 men. Soon more Taliban fighters poured into the area to battle the battalion-sized assault force.
“Once the battle began, others from the area tried to maneuver into the area,” Colonel Andrew Poppas, the US Army commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, told The Washington Post. “This was a tough fight.”
The US military claimed that more than 150 Taliban fighters were killed in the attack during heavy fighting. Two US soldiers and one Afghan soldier were reported to have been killed during the assault.
The intense fighting ended earlier today, and US and Afghan forces are establishing security outposts in the remote district.
The US military announced the operation on Sunday but would not disclose details of the offensive to The Long War Journal, citing “operational security” concerns. Details of the operation in Kunar were later provided to The Washington Post by military officers in eastern Afghanistan.
On Sunday, the US military said that the operation targeted “al Qaeda and Taliban leadership in the area.” The names of the al Qaeda and Taliban leaders were not disclosed, and no senior leaders have been reported killed or captured at this time.
Taliban commander Qari Zia Rahman is the group’s top regional commander. He is also a seniro member of al Qaeda. Rahman operates in Kunar and neighboring Nuristan provinces, and also operates across the border in Pakistan’s tribal agency of Bajaur. The Pakistani government claimed they killed Rahman in an airstrike earlier this year, but he spoke to the media and mocked Pakistan’s interior minister for wrongly reporting his death.
The top al Qaeda commander in Kunar is Abu Ikhlas al Masri, an Egyptian who has spent years in Afghanistan and has intermarried with the local tribes. Abu Ikhlas isal Qaeda’s operations chief for Kunar province in Afghanistan. He took command of Kunar province after Abu Ubaidah al Masri was promoted to take over al Qaeda’s external operations branch (Abu Ubaidah died in early 2008 of a disease).
It is unclear if the assault in Marawara marks a shift from the US’ strategy of retreating from the remote outposts in eastern Afghanistan. Last fall, ISAF began withdrawing forces from remote districts in Nuristan and neighboring Kunar province as part of its new counterinsurgency plan that emphasizes securing major population centers over rural areas. According to ISAF commanders, the remote provinces of Nuristan and Kunar will be dealt with after more strategic regions in the south, east, and north have been addressed.
While US officials have viewed northeastern Afghanistan as less strategically significant than the south and east, the Taliban have seized on the opportunity to carve out safe havens in the region, which has facilitated the flow of insurgents into the region from Pakistan. Last fall, a US military official told The Long War Journal that the abandonment of these provinces would force the US and the Afghan military to retake the ground.
“Kunar and Nuristan have become magnets [for the Taliban and al Qaeda] in the northeast and we’re eventually going to have to deal with that problem,” the official said.
The withdrawal of US forces from the outposts in Kunar and neighboring Nuristan province over the past year has provided the Taliban with major propaganda victories. The Taliban released propaganda tapes showing large-scale assaults on the US outposts followed by scenes of the Taliban occupying the abandoned bases. Weapons and ammunition that had been hastily abandoned by US and Afghan forces were displayed by the Taliban in the tapes.
The outposts in Nuristan and Kunar were initially created in 2006 as part of a plan to establish a string of bases to interdict Taliban fighters and supplies moving across the border from Pakistan. But the plan was not completed, because US forces were diverted to the south in Kandahar after the Taliban began launching increasingly sophisticated attacks.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.