Two American service members died of wounds after an overnight clash with insurgents in a province near the capital, Western military officials said Friday.
In a statement, the NATO force also said that five insurgents were killed in the firefight in Lowgar province, which borders Kabul province.
Over the last year, Lowgar has been the focus of increased insurgent activity as the Taliban and other militant factions seek to gain a foothold around Kabul, the capital. Military officials said one of the insurgents killed in the overnight fighting was a commander affiliated with the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, which has been blamed for many attacks in Kabul and elsewhere in eastern Afghanistan.
At least twice in the last month, Afghan authorities have said they intercepted suspected members of the Haqqani network seeking to carry out suicide attacks, perhaps large-scale ones, in the capital. The Haqqani network is thought to have been behind several sophisticated multipronged assaults in heavily fortified precincts of Kabul.
NATO’s International Security Assistance Force said the engagement in Lowgar began after Afghan and foreign troops came under “heavy and sustained fire” from a compound they were approaching in the Pul-e-Alam district.
The commander of Western forces in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, has sought to limit the use of nighttime raids because they often result in gunfights that kill and injure civilians who believe their homes to be under attack.
But nighttime also lends an element of surprise, which troops who are hunting mid-level Taliban figures consider crucial. Insurgent field commanders are being intensely targeted by American and other Western forces in advance of a major offensive this spring and summer in the country’s south.
Tension has been building between Western commanders and the Afghan government over civilian casualties that occur during nighttime operations.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization acknowledged this month that its forces had mistakenly killed five civilians, including two pregnant women, in a February nighttime raid in the Gardez district of Paktia province. A joint Afghan-Western investigation is attempting to determine whether the U.S. troops involved had attempted to cover up the circumstances of the deaths.
Civilian deaths occur with such regularity that at almost any given time, the Western military is apologizing for one such instance or another. Afghan President Hamid Karzai this week condemned the killings of four civilians in Khowst province, in eastern Afghanistan, after troops apparently mistook a carload of teenagers returning from a volleyball match for insurgents.
After initially identifying the dead as insurgents and their associates, NATO expressed regret over the incident.
The four young men, now acknowledged by the Western military to have been civilians, were shot as their vehicle approached a military convoy Monday night. None was armed.