KABUL, Afghanistan In a disastrous day for the NATO force in Afghanistan, four American troops were gunned down Sunday by Afghan police and a U.S. airstrike killed eight Afghan women foraging for fuel on a rural hillside.
Military officials also disclosed that a Taliban strike Friday on a southern base had destroyed as much as $200 million worth of planes and equipment in money terms, by far the costliest single insurgent attack in 11 years of warfare.
The assault late Friday at Camp Bastion in Helmand province, one of the largest and best-defended posts in Afghanistan, was troubling to NATO because the attackers were able to penetrate the base, killing two Marines in addition to inflicting the heavy damage on equipment.
The complex attack, which NATO officials said was conducted by three tightly choreographed teams of militants wearing Army uniforms, was a reminder that the Taliban remain capable of serious assaults despite the surge offensive against them. Now the offensive is over, and nearly 10,000 Marines have left Helmand province, a critical stronghold for the Taliban, over the past several months.
The events underscored some of the conflicts most damaging trends: an unrelenting tide of insider attacks, in which Afghan forces turn their weapons on coalition allies; the daily loss of civilian lives to wars ravages; and the continuing ability of insurgent forces to inflict disproportionate havoc on the far more powerful Western military.
The lethal encounter between U.S. forces and Afghan police took place soon after midnight in Zabol province in the south, military and Afghan officials said. The provincial governor, Mohammad Ashraf Naseri, said the shooting took place at a joint base in Zabols Mezan district.
The NATO force confirmed the deaths without disclosing the nationality, but U.S. officials said the troops were American. The killings came less than 24 hours after two British soldiers were gunned down by an Afghan policeman and brought to 51 the number of Western service members killed this year by Afghan security forces.
Both Western and Afghan officials acknowledge insider shootings have become an extremely serious problem about 15 percent of all coalition deaths come at the hands of Afghan forces and they have taken urgent steps to stop the attacks.
How to reduce such attacks is the subject of considerable debate. Moves that slow the training of Afghans to take over security in their own country could undercut the goal of a Western military withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. And steps seen as too heavy-handed could be taken by Afghans as an insult in a culture where perceived slights can swiftly lead to more violence.
The eight women killed in an airstrike in Laghman province, in eastern Afghanistan, were poor villagers gathering brush for cooking fires, provincial authorities said. In addition to those killed, seven others were reported injured. Villagers loaded their bodies into trucks and drove them to the provincial governors office, parading them through the streets in protest.
The NATO force acknowledged that between five and eight civilians were accidentally killed in a strike targeting a group of insurgents, and expressed regret.
A spokesman for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization coalition, Air Force Capt. Dan Einert, said the bombardment followed a significant engagement Sunday morning in the remote Alingar district of Laghman province. He said a unit of NATOs International Security Assistance Force positively identified a group of about 45 insurgents with hostile intent and called in the airstrike, which killed a large number of them.
In recent years, NATO and Afghan government forces have been responsible for a shrinking proportion of civilian deaths, with nearly all such deaths and injuries blamed on insurgents. But airstrikes remain the single largest cause of civilian casualties inflicted by international forces.
The 15 insurgents conducting the attack lost no time from the moment they blew a hole in the perimeter at one of the closest points to the airfield, military officials said. They then raced toward their targets, shooting and setting fire to parked Navy AV-8B Harrier jets and destroying three refueling stations, even as a quick reaction force was mustering to fight them off, a military official said.
It was a running gun battle for a while, two and a half hours, nonetheless they were able to get to the aircraft before we could intercept them, a military official said, noting that because it happened at night it was difficult until daylight to be sure that all the insurgents had been killed or captured. All but one was killed; the remaining insurgent is in custody, the military said.
Two Marines were killed in the attack, and nine coalition personnel, including a civilian contractor, were wounded, the military said in a statement.
The New York Times contributed to this report.