At least 140 Afghan soldiers were killed in a Taliban attack on a military base near Mazar-i-Sharif on Friday, the deadliest such attack against a military target since the start of the war in Afghanistan in 2001. As the New York Times reports:
Dressed in military uniforms, a squad of 10 Taliban militants drove in two army Ford Ranger trucks past seven checkpoints. They arrived inside northern Afghanistan’s largest military installation just as hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unarmed soldiers were emerging from Friday Prayers and preparing for lunch.
For the next five hours, the militants went on a rampage, killing at least 140 soldiers and officers in what is emerging as the single deadliest known attack on an Afghan military base in the country’s 16-year war. Some assailants blew themselves up among the soldiers fleeing for their lives, according to survivors, witnesses and officials.
“Today, there was even a shortage of coffins,” said Ibrahim Khairandish, a member of the provincial council in Balkh Province, where the attack took place. Other officials feared that the death toll could exceed 200.
This the latest in a long string of attacks in what have been an increasingly deadly past few years for the Afghan army. The Afghan security forces suffered about 15,000 casualties in the first eight months of 2016, about as many as the entirety of 2015. Amidst the heavy losses, the government is also losing territory: today, the central government controls only a little more than half the country, a double-digit decline from the 72% it controlled in November 2015. While the dropping of the “Mother of all Bombs” on ISIS positions in Nangarhar may have sent signals internationally, the Taliban attack in Mazar-i-Sharif should be a clear signal that it’s the Taliban— not ISIS— who remain the deadliest actor in the country.
There’s reason to think the Trump administration will renew focus on Afghanistan despite, or perhaps because of, the government’s failure to resist the Taliban. Earlier this month, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster visited Afghanistan ahead of an expected strategy review; Secretary of Defense Mattis arrived in a surprise visit this morning. In a statement, Mattis said that 2017 is likely to be another “tough year” in the fight and suggested that Russia may arming the Taliban. If proven, it would be an historical irony in a war whose end remains beyond sight.