HERAT, Afghanistan -- Taliban insurgents attacked an Afghan outpost near the border with Pakistan on Friday, killing 13 soldiers, according to local officials.
The fighting began around dawn and lasted four to five hours, said Wasifullah Wasifi, spokesman for the governor of Kunar province. “One more soldier is missing, so the total may turn out to be 14,” he said.
The restive province is often used as an entryway for militants arriving from Pakistan’s lawless northwestern area. Afghan officials have often accused Pakistan of not doing enough to stem the use of its territory to train and provide a haven for insurgents intent on attacking their nation, a charge that Islamabad denies, frequently adding that Pakistan is the biggest victim of terrorism.
Wasifi said communication was problematic in the remote mountainous area, which left the Afghan National Army troops dependent on satellite phones, therefore delaying the arrival of reinforcements.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack in a message to the media.
This year’s fighting season -- which tends to coincide with warmer weather and periods when opium is not being harvested -- is being closely watched. At issue is whether Afghan security forces have the capability, training and equipment to assume responsibility for the country's safety as foreign combat troops prepare to leave by late 2014.
A series of recent attacks suggest the Afghan forces are not ready, Afghan military analysts say, adding that the army suffers from high turnover, weak morale, inadequate equipment and a determined adversary.
Early this month, nine Taliban militants forced their way into a court compound in western Farah province, killing 10 soldiers and 34 civilians in a seven-hour fire fight.
Underscoring the vulnerability of government security, the militants were able to easily pass through checkpoints by using Afghan uniforms and a Ford Ranger truck of the type commonly employed by security forces.
As U.S.-led NATO forces reduce their role in Afghanistan, their ability to monitor the distribution of foreign aid also becomes more difficult. In a report released this week, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction cited weaknesses in Defense Department procedures that could see contractor funds being routed to the Taliban and other insurgent groups in Afghanistan.
"The possibility that taxpayer money could be supporting the insurgency is alarming and demands immediate action,” Special Inspector General John F. Sopko said in a statement. “Every effort should be made to implement stronger controls that protect our troops and ensure the success of our reconstruction efforts."
The oversight group said State Department and USAID contracts, as well as contracts under $100,000 -- which make up 80% of contracts awarded in Afghanistan -- are under less stringent review, potentially paving the way for millions of dollars going to suspect subcontractors.
Sopko said poor planning, weak security, insufficient monitoring and the lack of a comprehensive anti-corruption plan have contributed to wasted U.S. taxpayer money in Afghanistan.
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Special correspondent Hashmet Baktash in the Times' Kabul bureau contributed to this report.