US troops killed near Bagram, Taliban insurgency intensifies

(Maya Alleruzzo/AP Photo/File)


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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A suicide attacker rammed an explosives-laden motorcycle into a joint NATO-Afghan patrol Monday, killing six American troops in the deadliest attack on international forces since August. Two U.S. troops and an Afghan were wounded.

The soldiers were targeted as they moved through a village near Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. military facility in Afghanistan, NATO and Afghan officials said. The Taliban claimed responsibility.

A U.S. official confirmed that six American troops were killed and two wounded. An Afghan was also wounded. The official was not authorized to discuss the incident publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.

"Our heartfelt sympathies go out to the families and friends of those affected in this tragic incident, especially during this holiday season," U.S. Army Brig. Gen. William Shoffner, head of public affairs at NATO's Resolute Support base in the Afghan capital Kabul, said in a statement.

In New York, Police Commissioner William Bratton said Monday that a New York City police detective, Joseph Lemm, was one of the six American killed in the attack.

Lemm was a 15-year-old veteran of the New York Police Department and worked in the Bronx Warrant Squad. Bratton says Lemm served in the U.S. National Guard and, while a member of the police force, he had been deployed twice to Afghanistan and once to Iraq. He leaves behind a wife and three children.

In Washington, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the nation's thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their families and their loved ones, and that the U.S. will continue to work jointly with Afghans to promote peace and stability in their country.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter in statement called the attack "a painful reminder of the dangers our troops face every day in Afghanistan."

It was the deadliest attack on foreign troops in four months. On Aug. 22, three American contractors with the RS base were killed in a suicide attack in Kabul. On Aug. 7 and 8, Kabul was the scene of three insurgent attacks within 24 hours that left at least 35 people dead. One of the attacks, on a U.S. special operations forces base outside Kabul, killed one U.S soldier and eight Afghan civilian contractors.

In the year since the international drawdown, the Taliban insurgency has intensified. Although the combat mission ended last year, around 9,800 U.S. troops and almost 4,000 NATO forces remain in Afghanistan. They have a mandate to "train, assist and advise" their Afghan counterparts, who are now effectively fighting a battle-hardened Taliban alone.

Monday's attack came as Taliban fighters and government forces battled for control of a strategic district in the southern province of Helmand after it was overrun by insurgents, delivering a serious blow to the government's thinly spread and exhausted forces.

Mohammad Jan Rasulyar, Helmand's deputy governor, said insurgents took control of Sangin district late Sunday.

Rasulyar had taken the unusual step of alerting Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to the dire security situation and requesting urgent reinforcements through an open letter posted on Facebook on Sunday, saying that he had not been able to make contact through other means.

"We had to take to social media to reach you as Helmand is falling into the hands of the enemy and it requires your immediate attention," Rasulyar wrote in his Facebook post to Ghani.

On Monday, Defense Ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri said Afghan Army commandoes and special forces had arrived in Sangin to push a counter-offensive. He told reporters the Afghan air force had conducted 160 combat and transport flights over Sangin in the past 48 hours.

Helmand is an important Taliban base as it produces most of the world's opium, a crop that helps fund the insurgency.

Sangin district has bounced in and out of Taliban control for some years, and fighting there has produced some of the highest casualty counts among Afghan and international forces in 14 years of war.

British forces saw intensive fighting there at the height of the war in 2006 and 2007. Among the 450 British troops killed during the country's combat mission in Afghanistan, more than 100 died in Sangin. In 2008, a battalion of U.S. Marines arrived in Helmand, followed a year later by the first wave of President Barack Obama's "surge" effort against the Taliban, comprising 11,000 Marines who conducted operations across the province.

The head of Helmand's provincial council, Muhammad Kareem Atal, said about 65 percent of Helmand is now under Taliban control. "In every district either we are stepping back or we are handing territory over to Taliban, but still, until now, no serious action has been taken," he said, referring to a perceived lack of support from the capital.

Districts across Helmand, including Nad Ali, Kajaki, Musa Qala, Naw Zad, Gereshk and Garmser, have all been threatened by Taliban takeover in recent months. Insurgents are also believed to be dug in on the outskirts of the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.

Taliban fighters, sometimes working with other insurgent groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, have managed to overrun many districts across the country this year, and also staged a three-day takeover of the major northern city of Kunduz. They rarely hold territory for more than a few hours or days, but the impact on the morale of Afghan forces, and people, is substantial.

Atal said more than 2,000 security forces personnel had been killed fighting in Helmand in 2015. He said a major reason Afghan forces were "losing" was the large number of soldiers and police deserting their posts in the face of the Taliban onslaught.

Fighting in Afghanistan has intensified since the announcement in late July that the founder and leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar, had been dead for more than two years. His deputy, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, succeeded him, causing internal ructions and delaying the likelihood that a peace dialogue with the Afghan government, halted after the announcement of Mullah Omar's death, will restart in the foreseeable future.

The expected winter lull in fighting has not yet taken place in the warmer southern provinces. U.S. and Afghan military leaders say they are expecting a hot winter, followed by a tough fight throughout 2016.

The Pentagon released a report last week warning that the security situation in Afghanistan would deteriorate as a "resilient Taliban-led insurgency remains an enduring threat to U.S., coalition, and Afghan forces, as well as to the Afghan people."

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Associated Press writers Mirwais Khan in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and Humayoon Babur and Amir Shah in Kabul and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this story.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Monday's attack came as Taliban gunmen and government forces battled for control of a strategic district in the southern province of Helmand after it was overrun by Taliban insurgents, delivering a serious blow to government forces.

Mohammad Jan Rasulyar, Helmand's deputy governor, said insurgents took control of Sangin district on Sunday. Only Afghan army facilities in the district had not been taken by the insurgents, he said. Casualties among Afghan security forces were high, he added, though he gave no figures.

Afghan Army commandoes and special forces had arrived in Sangin to push a counter-offensive, the Defense Ministry spokesman, Dawlat Waziri, said. He told reporters the Afghan air force had conducted 160 combat and transport flights over Sangin in the past 48 hours.

Among the insurgent forces in Helmand, "three out of 10 are foreign fighters," he said, adding that they included Pakistanis, Chechens, Uzbeks, Arabs and Chinese Uighurs. "The presence of the foreigners in this imposed war complicates the sitaution in Helmand," he said, echoing the government line that the war is run by a Taliban leadership believed to be based in Pakistan with official protection.

Helmand is an important Taliban base as it produces most of the world's opium, a crop that helps fund the insurgency.

Sangin district has bounced in and out of Taliban control for some years, and fighting there has produced high casualties among both Afghan and international forces. British forces in particular saw intensive fighting there at the height of the war in 2006 and 2007. Britain lost more than 450 troops during its combat mission in Afghanistan, more than 100 of them in Sangin.

Helmand's deputy governor Rasulyar on Sunday took the unusual step of using his Facebook page to warn President Ashraf Ghani that the entire province of Helmand was in danger of falling to the insurgents if central authorities failed to send help.

In Helmand, more than 90 members of the Afghan security forces died fighting in the two days before his Facebook plea, with hundreds killed in the past six months, he said in his open letter to Ghani.

The head of Helmand's provincial council, Muhammad Kareem Atal, said that 28 members of the Afghan security forces — usually a reference to army and police who also fight on the front lines across the country — were killed fighting on Sunday. Another 15 were critically wounded, he said.

"Around 65 percent of Helmand is now under Taliban control," Atal said. "In every district either we are stepping back or we are handing territory over to Taliban, but still, until now, no serious action has been taken," he said, echoing Rasulyar's plea to the central authorities for help.

Important districts across Helmand province, including Nad Ali, Kajaki, Musa Qala, Naw Zad, Gereshk and Garmser, have all been threatened by Taliban takeover in recent months. Insurgents are also believed to be dug in on the outskirts of the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.

Taliban fighters, sometimes working with other insurgent groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, have managed to overrun many districts across the country this year, as well as staging a three-day takeover of the major northern city of Kunduz. They rarely hold territory for more than a few hours or days, but the impact on the morale of Afghan forces is substantial.

Atal said more than 2,000 members of the security forces had been killed fighting in Helmand in 2015.

He said a major reason "that our forces are losing" was that many soldiers and police were deserting their posts in the face of the Taliban onslaught.

"There is a big difference between the number of both soldiers and police recorded as on duty, and the real number," he said, saying the official record was stuffed with "ghost police and soldiers."

The Taliban insurgency has spread across the country this year, following the withdrawal of international combat forces at the end of 2014. This has stretched government resources thin, as the traditional winter lull in fighting has so far failed to take place in the warmer, southern provinces.

The war has intensified since the announcement in late July that the founder and leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar, had been dead for more than two years. His deputy, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, succeeded him, causing internal ructions and delaying the likelihood that a peace dialogue with the Afghan government, halted after the announcement of Mullah Omar's death, will restart in the foreseeable future.

The Pentagon released a report last week warning that the security situation in Afghanistan would deteriorate as a "resilient Taliban-led insurgency remains an enduring threat to U.S., coalition, and Afghan forces, as well as to the Afghan people."

The U.S. now has about 9,800 troops in Afghanistan, some of which are involved in counterterrorism missions. With NATO contributions, there are about 13,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan.

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Associated Press writers Mirwais Khan in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and Humayoon Babur and Amir Shah in Kabul and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this story.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Lynne O'Donnell

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