KABUL, Afghanistan — At least five Marines were wounded on Tuesday during a Taliban rocket attack on a military base in southern Afghanistan, according to three defense officials. The high number of casualties came a day after Defense Secretary Mark. T. Esper visited the country.
The incident occurred in the provincial capital of Helmand Province, Lashkar Gar, where American Marines keep a small base at the airfield there.
The attack highlights that — despite President Trump’s assertion that the American military is hitting the Taliban “harder than they have ever been hit before” — the insurgent group is still capable of hitting a fortified military base in a well-defended provincial capital.
Following the attack, the Taliban tweeted that their fighters had fired more than 60 “missiles” at the outpost and killed and wounded “tens” of Americans and Afghans. One defense official said it was only several rockets and those wounded were in a stable condition.
In a tweet, Col. Sonny Leggett, a spokesman for the American-led mission in Afghanistan said that there were no “U.S. or coalition casualties” but the “Taliban’s indiscriminate and inaccurate rockets resulted in two innocent Afghan civilians being injured.”
It was unclear whether Col. Leggett meant that no one was wounded in the Taliban attack. A statement from the American-led mission said: “We do not discuss or provide information on military personnel experiencing an illness or injury without the consent of the individual.”
There are several hundred Marines in Helmand Province, most assigned to advise the Afghan military from the larger joint American-Afghan base at Camp Bastion. Helmland Province, which has sprawling opium fields and is known as the Taliban heartland, remains one of the most volatile provinces in the country, with the insurgent group controlling several districts and contesting almost all of the others.
So far this year 17 Americans have been killed in combat in Afghanistan, the highest number of losses in a year since 2014, when the Pentagon announced the end of combat operations in the country. The death toll has been significantly higher for Afghan security forces, who have lost more than 50,000 in the last five years.
Civilians casualties have risen dramatically, according to United Nations report released last week, An estimated 1,174 civilians were killed and 3,139 wounded from July 1 to Sept. 30, a 42 percent increase from the same period last year.
The uptick in casualties likely correlates with the increase in joint American-Afghan ground operations to bloody the Taliban during the final months of the peace negotiations between the U.nited States and the insurgent group.
In September, President Trump called off the talks, pointing to the increased violence in the country and the death of an American soldier, along with 11 other people, in a Taliban-directed suicide bombing in Kabul. Days later, on Sept. 11, the Taliban fired a rocket at the American embassy in Kabul.
In October, Zalmay Khalilzad, the lead American negotiator during the talks, met informally with Taliban leaders in Pakistan, raising the possibility that negotiations might eventually resume.
While Washington’s strategy in Afghanistan is unclear, Mr. Esper said during his visit to Kabul, the country’s capital, on Monday that the United States “will continue to pursue an aggressive military campaign against the Taliban and terrorist groups that continue to conduct violence against the people of Afghanistan.”
There are roughly 12,000 to 13,000 American troops currently in Afghanistan. On Monday, the commander of all American forces in the country, General Austin S. Miller, said he had withdrawn roughly 2,000 troops from the country in the last year.