KABUL, Afghanistan — Hundreds of insurgents on Tuesday attacked Afghan police checkpoints in a remote eastern province with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, but failed to overrun the government positions, officials said.
The assault in Nuristan province, a rugged and mountainous area bordering Pakistan, is the second significant Taliban attack on Afghan government forces in less than four days and is part of the insurgents’ long-awaited spring offensive.
The effectiveness of the Taliban’s campaign could affect the size of President Barack Obama’s planned drawdown of U.S. troops in July, the scale of which military officials have said will depend on conditions on the ground.
Nuristan province police chief, Gen. Shams-ul Rahman Zahid, said about 400 Taliban fighters launched their assault at dawn, striking government security outposts around a base housing reserve police units some 11 miles south of the provincial capital of Parun.
The gunbattles tapered off just before nightfall with the police still in control of the four checkpoints, which had been reinforced by more police from Parun, he said.
Zahid declined to say how many police had come under attack or the size of the security force based in Nuristan, although it is thought to be small. He acknowledged asking NATO and the Afghan army for help.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack.
In Kabul, the Afghan military said it would not send reinforcements, while NATO claimed to know nothing about the attacks. There are few coalition or Afghan Army troops in mountainous Nuristan, near the Pakistan border.
Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said the army was aware that “hundreds of insurgents” had attacked police forces in Nuristan, but had no immediate plans to dispatch troops to the area. He said he did not have further details because there are no army forces in the area.
Asked why he wasn’t dispatching troops, Azimi said that at this point the police were still holding their ground. He said the Afghan army does not have troops stationed in Nuristan because it doesn’t have the personnel available to cover the remote area.
The American commander in charge of the area disputed the number of Taliban attacking but said the U.S. sent an unmanned drone to the area to check on the situation.
Speaking from Bagram Air Base, Maj. Gen John Campbell told a Pentagon press conference that in the year he has been there, “we have never seen … 400 insurgents mass.”
The Taliban launched the first major strike in its spring campaign over the weekend in the city of Kandahar, the movement’s birthplace and the economic hub of southern Afghanistan, hitting government buildings across the city in a full frontal assault. At least two dozen insurgents, two members of the Afghan security forces and one civilian were killed in two days of fighting in the city.
The Taliban and other insurgent groups control large swaths of Nuristan, Kunar and other northeastern provinces near the Pakistani border. Insurgents retain safe havens in Pakistan’s neighboring lawless tribal regions and cross the border into Afghanistan to attack NATO troops.
Hizb-i-Islami, a militant group made up of loyalists of regional warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, also has a large presence in the region. They are not thought to be taking part in the attacks. The area also has smaller ultraconservative Salafist groups.
Zahid said he had intelligence that the strikes were being carried out by Pakistanis and Arabs who have been crossing the border into Afghanistan.