FRIDAY’S carnage at the Afghan National Army (ANA) base on the outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of the northern Balkh province, has raised a whole slew of disconcerting questions. The killing of 160 soldiers, mostly recruits with no warfare skills, has exposed the weak spots of the Western-trained Afghan forces.
Beyond an iota of doubt, the Afghan Taliban have once again demonstrated their ability to conduct complex attacks even on the most guarded targets anywhere in the country. Some of the assailants, having infiltrated the ranks of soldiers a long time back, were fully familiar with the layout of the military compound — home to the 209th Shaheen Corps tasked with securing the once stable northern zone.
The sneak assault, prompting vows of revenge from the Afghan government and its international backers, is a major setback to the local security forces and their coalition partners, who have been struggling with an unrelenting insurgency and the toxic presence of the militant Islamic State group.
A group of barely 10 fighters — clad in ANA uniforms — drove in two Ranger pick-ups past seven checkpoints before entering the sprawling installation, where German soldiers are also garrisoned. Soon after they came out of Friday prayers, thousands of troops were kept engaged in a five-hour battle.
The incident has highlighted the derisory level of ANA preparedness for heavy attacks. During the 16-year intractable conflict, it was the single deadliest strike on an Afghan military base, where some of the guerrillas blew themselves up among the soldiers fleeing for their lives. The recruits’ fumbles were all too familiar.
The raid will demoralise the troops.
For several hours after the raid, punctuating the bleak outlook for security in the north, top officials in Balkh and Kabul remained equally clueless about how a handful of militants stormed the fortified base. The raid will further demoralise the armed forces, most of them still wet behind the ears.
Grappling with a serious leadership crisis, desertions, indecision and corruption, the security forces have suffered increasingly unsustainable casualties. As social gains are eroding at a disturbing clip, 6,700 security personnel lost their lives while more than 12,000 were wounded in 2016. Psychologically speaking, the assault has struck fear into the hearts of army trainees and their families. Such concerns will impede enlistment besides bringing new complexities to the war.
Meanwhile, efforts at negotiating a lasting settlement between the Ashraf Ghani administration and the Afghan Taliban have either fallen through or been deliberately sabotaged by certain powers. The fact that Kabul has no writ in more than a third of the country comes as no surprise. Many areas are fiercely contested by rebel groups, notably the Taliban.
There is reason to link the massacre on the army compound to intelligence failures and security lapses by Afghanistan and its foreign allies. Similar allegations had swirled around them in early March when Islamic State fighters stormed the Sardar Mohammad Daud Hospital located in the heart of Kabul. At that time, too, we had heard warnings of reprisals.
The Taliban, who have ramped up their activities in many districts, have apparently set their sights on Kunduz, Balkh, Faryab, Sar-i-Pul and Baghlan provinces. Kunduz city collapsed like a house of cards in 2015 and for a second time a year later. Official assertions apart, the Taliban are effectively in charge of large swaths of territory — around 43 per cent.
With his policy on Afghanistan still shrouded in mystery, President Donald Trump is following the ‘do-more mantra’ of his predecessors in hectoring Pakistan to combat all extremist outfits active in Afghanistan. Despite the dismal failure of the jingoistic approach of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Donald Trump is also looking for new allies and scapegoats. Given Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s offer to combat ‘cross-border terrorism’ jointly with Afghanistan, India can be a willing partner, both for Ghani and Trump. Modi’s proposal is understandable, but it remains to be seen if Pakistan will also come up with a nuanced response.
Exceedingly hawkish as he was, Bush employed flimsy pretexts to invade Iraq and Afghanistan, conflicts that were inherited by Obama. Although the latter repeatedly promised an end to the mission in Afghanistan, his notoriously fickle strategy only contributed to more bloodshed. The trail of murder and mayhem continues unabated.
Meanwhile, a more combative Trump is yet to unveil his foreign and defence policy objectives. Indubitably, however, Trump’s tough tweets offer a glimpse into how he will up the ante in Afghanistan. The dropping of the biggest conventional bomb in Afghanistan, where the “strategic landscape is changing as regional powers forge links with the Taliban” and jockey for influence, ominously indicates the hard line he is going to adopt.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Peshawar.
Published in Dawn, April 25th, 2017