by Simon Assaf
The battle for a military outpost in a forgotten corner of Afghanistan has vividly exposed the turmoil inside the Nato-led occupation of the country.
Rebel tribes, together with insurgents and locals enraged by a US airstrike on a wedding party, overran a US military outpost last Sunday in the town of Wanat, in the east of Afghanistan, about 35 miles from the Pakistan border.
Nine US soldiers were killed in the ensuing battle – the biggest loss of life for US troops in ground battles since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.
The occupation is often presented as a “good war”, in contrast to the turmoil in Iraq. But the Wanat incident shows how this war is also heading into crisis.
The attack prompted Barack Obama, widely touted as the “anti-war” US presidential candidate, to promise an extra 10,000 US troops for Afghanistan. But this falls short of the 250,000 Nato says it needs to stabilise the occupation.
Sir Jock Stirrup, the British chief of defence staff, insisted to the BBC that the war “is going well”, but admitted that British troops would have to remain in Afghanistan for “a few years”.
One serving Nato general was more direct in his assessment. “Where there were embers seven years ago, we are now fighting flames,” he said.
The Wanat base is one of dozens springing up along the border between Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan. It was established only days before the attack that overran it.
At first Nato commanders and US officers attempted to paint the attack as a victory for the occupation forces. One officer boasted that they had not yet finished counting the “scores of [Afghan] dead”.
According to the military, the attack on Wanat was only ended after B1 bombers, unmanned drones and ground attack warplanes joined the battle and levelled nearby villages.
By Tuesday a British officer serving with Nato admitted that only 15 Afghan militants had been killed in the battle.
Whatever the truth of the casualty figures, it has become clear that the rebel opperation was highly organised involving mortar teams and multi-pronged attacks. It is also clear that half the US forces in the outpost were either killed or wounded.
The latest setback for the occupation has led to a breakdown in relations between the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan – both US allies.
The US-imposed regime in Afghanistan accused Pakistan of aiding the insurgents. One Afghan official said Pakistan’s army is the “world’s biggest producer of terrorism and extremism”.
The war of words has now led to Afghanistan suspending relations with its neighbour.
At the heart of the tension are the demands by the US and Nato that Pakistan allows them to extend the Afghanistan war into the north of its country.
The Wanat attack prompted Mike Mullen, chair of the US joint chiefs of staff, to fly unannounced to the Pakistani capital.
He warned the Pakistani government that it had to move on the border and crush the growing rebellion there or face having Nato and US troops pour in from the north.
Either situation would lead to a massive escalation of the war and trigger a conflict that could engulf Pakistan itself.
The battle of Wanat also mirrors continuing battles in the Helmand province, in the south of the country, where British troops are based.
According to Nato, insurgents launched an offensive last weekend from “multiple concealed and fortified positions”.
The rebels staged attacks using over 30 boats along the Helmand river. Yet Helmand was supposed to have been “pacified” last year.