A Taliban attack killed six U.S. service members near Kabul on Monday, U.S. officials said, in the latest sign of deepening violence across Afghanistan and the risks facing President Obama’s plan to leave the most intense fighting to local forces.
U.S. military officials said the attack, the most deadly insurgent assault on American forces in at least three years, took place a few miles from Bagram air base, when a motorbike rigged with explosives detonated and hit a group of U.S. troops attending a meeting with local figures.
The attack comes as the Afghan government struggles to beat back a series of large-scale Taliban offensives and contain a nascent campaign by militants linked to the Islamic State. The latest casualties also serve as a reminder that although most American forces have gone home, Afghanistan’s long war is not yet over.
The Pentagon said the blast wounded two other U.S. service members and a contractor. Three Afghan police officials were also injured, an Afghan official said.
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter called the attack “a painful reminder of the dangers our troops face every day in Afghanistan.” He said American troops would continue to work with local forces to secure the country.
Just three days ago in a brief holiday visit, Carter touched down at Bagram, the site of a sprawling military complex that has been the primary U.S. air base in Afghanistan since U.S. troops arrived in 2001. During his visit, Carter met with Afghan and U.S. military officials at a base in eastern Nangahar province, where local forces are grappling with a variety of militant groups arrayed along Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan.
In recent months, Afghan security forces have been overwhelmed by a series of militant offensives revealing the government’s vulnerability when it doesn’t have substantial foreign firepower to support it. A Pentagon report released this month found that insurgents are improving their ability to “find and exploit” Afghan government vulnerabilities.
This fall, it took local forces several weeks to reclaim Kunduz, a major city that was overrun by Taliban forces. In December alone, militants have mounted a deadly siege on an airport in southern Kandahar province and launched a suicide assault on a diplomatic complex in Kabul.
On Monday, just as the Taliban claimed the Bagram attack, the group also said it had taken Sangin, a district of Helmand that once symbolized the success of Obama’s decision to send additional U.S. forces in 2010.
In a statement on Twitter, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said that fighters had captured the Sangin bazaar and police headquarters and were entering the district center. Spokesmen for the Afghan Defense and Interior ministries acknowledged fighting across Helmand but said that Sangin had not fallen.
Still, the intensifying battle in Helmand and other areas of Afghanistan has reinforced fears of a nationwide Taliban takeover and increased pressure on President Ashraf Ghani to show he can contain the tide of violence.
The United Nations has said that control of around a quarter of all Afghan districts is now “contested” between state forces and Taliban militants.
American military leaders suggest the string of Taliban attacks is an attempt to demonstrate superiority over newly independent Afghan forces. They say it also reflects a power struggle within the Taliban, whose new leader may be seeking to cement control of the militant organization.
Gen. John F. Campbell, the commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, has called mounting losses among Afghan forces proof of their increasing independence on the battlefield. Those casualties increased by nearly 30 percent in the first 11 months of 2015, according to Pentagon statistics.
“For the most part, the Taliban were not able to get any of their strategic goals,” Campbell said during Carter’s visit on Friday. “They took over district centers, they took over Kunduz, as you know, temporarily. What was good is the Afghan forces continued to go back and take that back over.”
While Afghan forces are far more capable than they were a decade ago, they have been unable to repel the intensified Taliban campaign, according to observers.
“The military strategy is failing, and the [training] construct is under-resourced and undercapable,” said David Sedney, a former senior Pentagon official for Afghanistan and Pakistan who is now a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The war is transitioning to a new phase,” he said. “Overall it’s clear that the Taliban are both in more places, and where they are, they’re more effective.”
In keeping with the Obama administration’s plan to limit the remaining force of about 9,800 troops to a support role, American forces are now focused on training and advising Afghan troops. Although they are no longer launching routine combat operations against the Taliban, elite U.S. forces do conduct targeted counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda and accompany local special forces soldiers on their missions.
There are some indications that the White House, which has already adjusted its withdrawal plans several times, may make additional changes to reflect the government’s fragile grip on the country. The worsening security in Afghanistan, which coincides with steps to expand the U.S. military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, is a reminder that Obama has not been able to end the insurgent wars of the past decade as he has vowed to do.
The emergence of militants linked to the Islamic State in Afghanistan has added complexity to an already challenging battlefield. While officials think the Islamic State’s Afghanistan cell is made up of mostly opportunistic fighters from other groups, it is another adversary for local forces, who are already stretched for resources.
Although the new support role for American troops has kept U.S. forces away from the front lines, foreign troops are still exposed to risk while conducting security patrols and during other missions.
As of Dec. 21, 21 American troops have died in Afghanistan operations this year, 10 of whom died because of hostile militant activity, according to a Washington Post compilation of military casualties. An additional 68 were wounded in action. The others who died were killed in aircraft crashes and in a handful of incidents the military refers to as “non-hostile,” which usually refer to some sort of accident or a suicide.
Constable reported from Afghanistan. Julie Tate and Dan Lamothe contributed to this report from Washington.