Taliban’s deadliest attack in years highlights Afghanistan’s security woes | The World Weekly
Friday evening offered an opportunity for a little peace for the Afghan National Army’s 209th Corps, stationed at Camp Shaheen in Balkh province. Most of the soldiers, many of whom were new recruits, could be found at Friday prayers, or enjoying dinner in the mess hall.
This peace was broken in brutal fashion. Around 10 Taliban fighters, disguised as Afghan soldiers and driving military vehicles, infiltrated the base, passing multiple checkpoints using forged documents. Once inside, they drove to the mosque, where prayers were drawing to a close, and unleashed carnage. Armed with assault rifles and rocket launchers, they were able to devastate the largely unarmed soldiers before the violence was put to an end; one insurgent was taken captive, the rest died on the scene. Current estimates put the death toll at over 140.
The attack on the base in Mazar-i-Sharif, the first Afghan city to be taken from Taliban hands by the US-backed Northern Alliance in 2001, highlights the difficulty for Afghanistan’s fragile government in defending against the insurgents’ guerilla tactics. As the Taliban advances, the government is struggling to maintain security.
Faced with criticism in the wake of the assault, Defence Minister General Abdullah Habibi and army Chief of Staff General Qadam Shah Shahim both resigned on Monday. The atrocity is believed to be the Taliban’s deadliest attack on Afghanistan’s armed forces since 2001, and has echoes of a similarly horrific incident last month, when militants disguised as doctors invaded a military hospital, killing at least 50 people.
That the Taliban was able to penetrate a base regarded as the most heavily fortified in Afghanistan may show that the government’s ability to defend against such tactics is limited. Analysts have noted that the attack was sophisticated (it was probably planned over several months) and that assailants may have had help from inside the base. “Unless Afghan intelligence services receive a human intelligence-based warning of a forthcoming attack staged with inside help, there is not a great deal they can do to prevent them,” Tom Hussain, an Islamabad-based security analyst and journalist, told The World Weekly.
President Ashraf Ghani’s government is struggling to keep militants at bay. As the number of foreign troops in the country has gradually declined, the Taliban and other rebel groups have been resurgent. A report by a US watchdog group released earlier this year found that the Afghan government controls less than 60% of the country. As the Taliban grows stronger, attacks in government-held areas can be expected to continue.
This resurgence has forced Washington back into a conflict from which it has been determined to disentangle itself. “The US has been back in the fight since early 2016. US commanders are drawing up strategies and tactics, advisers are accompanying Afghan forces in operations supported by US air power. B-52 bombers have been reintroduced and drone operations scaled up,” explained Mr. Hussain.
President Trump signalled his willingness to take a proactive role in the region with his use of the so-called ‘mother of all bombs’, the most destructive non-nuclear weapon in America’s arsenal, on Islamic State targets in Afghanistan two weeks ago.
This may not be enough. Mr. Trump is weighing up the possibility of sending more troops, a measure recommended by General John W. Nicholson, commander of the American-led coalition in Afghanistan, who worries that the conflict is stuck “in a stalemate”.
President Ghani may not be the only one receiving help from abroad. Afghanistan has long suspected Pakistan of aiding the Taliban via sanctuaries offered to Taliban fighters. Now a new potential threat has emerged: General Nicholson this week refused to refute reports that the Taliban is receiving arms from Russia. The Soviet Union was embroiled in a decade-long war with US- and Pakistan-backed mujahideen in the 1980s, a conflict which incubated the Taliban.
A game-changing option?
If the Taliban cannot be beaten back, perhaps they can be brought to the negotiating table. A report released by the International Peace Institute this week described peace talks with the Taliban as “the only potentially game-changing option remaining, considering that more than 15 years of directly attacking the group has failed to yield permanent results.”
The Afghan government is open to making deals with its enemies, having secured a peace deal with Hizb-e-Islami militants last year. Negotiations with the Taliban have so far broken down, but renewed Russian interest has initiated a new series of six-party talks mediated by Moscow.
Without a peace deal, and short of an influx of foreign troops turning the tide, the conflict will drag on. While it does, President Ghani will have a hard time preventing further tragedies from ravaging the ever smaller portions of the country he controls.