The Mazar-i-Sharif Tragedy: Taliban Militants Murder Unarmed Soldiers In Afghanistan

Last month, a squad of 10 Taliban militants dressed in military uniforms and traveling in two army Ford Ranger trucks, drove past seven checkpoints in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan. They arrived inside Afghanistan’s largest military installation as unarmed soldiers were emerging from Friday prayers and preparing for lunch.

The militants went on a rampage for the next five hours in what is now considered the single deadliest known attack on an Afghan military base in this deadly 16-year war. At least 140 soldiers and officers were killed and, according to witnesses, some assailants blew themselves up among the soldiers who were running for their lives.

Reuters reported that President Ashraf Ghani declared a national day of mourning following the deadly attack.

One official told Reuters that the death toll could be even higher than originally thought, after the attack in Mazar-i-Sharif. Sadly, this attack simply highlights the continuing struggle by the Afghan government to defeat the Taliban and insurgency.

President Ghani visited the base on Saturday, and ordered that flags be flown at half-mast on Sunday in memory of those who lost their lives. While there, he held an emergency meeting with senior security officials requesting that a serious investigation be held into the attack. In his online statement he condemned the cowardly attack as the work of infidels.

The Taliban fighters driving military vehicles and dressed in Afghan army uniforms used rifles and rocket propelled grenades, while several detonated suicide vests packed with explosives. According to witnesses, it was a scene of confusion because soldiers were uncertain about the identity of their attackers.

One army officer who was wounded in the attack described it as a “chaotic scene,” admitting that he simply “didn’t know what to do.”

“There was gunfire and explosions everywhere.”

Acting as a spokesperson for the Taliban, Zabihullah Mujahid said that the attack was retribution for the recent killing of several senior Taliban leaders in northern Afghanistan. According to the United States military command in Kabul, an American airstrike on April 17 had killed a commander, Quari Tayib, and several other Taliban. Mujahid said as many as 500 soldiers, including senior commanders, were killed during the attack on their base.

U.S. Navy Captain Bill Salvin is a spokesperson for the NATO-led Resolute Support mission. He said there were a small number of coalition force advisers on the base at the time of the attack.

“They sheltered in place during the incident. The Afghan Special Forces brought the attack to an end.”

General John Nicholson is the United States Commander of Coalition Forces, and in his statement he said that the attack shows “the barbaric nature of the Taliban.”

In northern Afghanistan, the international mission has long been led by German forces, and military officials in Berlin said the work on the base would be placed on hold for a couple of days while the Afghan army investigated the deadly attack; however, work would resume.

“The situation shows that we cannot stop supporting, training and advising our Afghan partners.”

The New York Times reported the deadly attack in Mazar-i-Sharif simply confirms the continuing dismal outlook for Afghanistan and its population of 34 million, most of whom have only known war.

Ibrahim Khairandish, a member of the provincial council in Balkh Province, said that there was even a shortage of coffins after the Taliban slaughtered so many unarmed soldiers.

Taliban fighters have gained more territory over the past two years, and now several cities are threatened. Afghanistan has struggled to put up a defense: it’s struggling with a leadership marred by corruption and indecision, and its forces have suffered enormous casualties.

In 2016, more than 6,700 members of the Afghan security forces were killed, almost three times the total American casualties. The situation deteriorated to the point where General John W. Nicholson, commander of the NATO coalition forces in Afghanistan, has requested thousands more additional American soldiers to assist in training Afghan recruits.

Rahmatullah Nabil is the former head of the Afghan intelligence service.

“The enemy has the strength – they have more people in their units now – and the speed of action. Unfortunately, we have slowed down our decision-making.”

He added that mistrust between soldiers and their commanders had left many soldiers vulnerable to Taliban infiltration and recruitment.

Mazar-i-Sharif has long been considered one of the safest cities in Afghanistan, which makes April’s attack even more frightening and more threatening. Today this city is full of fear because Taliban strength is increasing in surrounding provinces. The fact that such a small number of Taliban inflicted such shocking carnage, and in such a high security area, has simply compound the anxiety and fear over what may lie ahead.

“In a time when, in a lot of places, we are caught in war of attrition, this will certainly have an impact on the morale and the will of the soldiers to fight.”

It seems that, today, nowhere in Afghanistan is safe. Explosives placed in January in couches inside the governor’s office in Kandahar almost decimated a visiting Arab delegation and the province’s leadership, and these explosives were able to pass five layers of security.

In March, militants entered the Afghan army’s main hospital in Kabul, killing more than 50 people in a siege that lasted almost seven hours. Like the deadly attack last month, it is believed those attacks were made possible by insider information.

The Taliban still remain the biggest security threat to Afghanistan, even though Islamic State has received much attention in recent days due to America’s military use of its bomb against a cave complex used by Islamic State in eastern Afghanistan. The Taliban were quick to claim responsibility for Friday’s deadly attack on the Army base, and released a photo of the 10 men dressed in military uniforms, complete with their names.

Zabihullah Mujahid said the militants were led by four soldiers in the base who had long been working as militant infiltrators.

The provincial governor, Atta Muhammad Noor, said President Ghani has ordered an immediate investigation to locate the insiders who abetted the massacre.

“I assure our countrymen that we will avenge the blood of their children.”

The 209th Army Corps base in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif is responsible for security of nine of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, and is one of the largest in the country.

Zabihullah Mohammedi is a soldier from eastern Nangarhar Province and has served in the 209th Corps for four years. He said between 3,000 and 4,000 people had attended the communal Friday Prayer at the base’s mosque. On exiting they heard gunshots coming from the direction of the security checkpoints.

“We were trying to figure out what it was when we saw a Ranger vehicle coming at a very fast speed from the direction of the checkpoint. There were four people in this Ranger – two in the front, two in the back. They started firing.”

Mohammedi said two of the militants blew themselves up among the crowd of unarmed people, while the others went on a shooting spree. Commando forces who arrived at the scene took five hours to kill the remaining assailants and end the deadly attack.

“If there is a gathering of birds and you shoot with a scattergun, how many will fall? The two explosions alone, God forgive me if I am wrong, probably killed 80 people.”

While Mister Ghani was meeting with his security officials, dozens of soldiers’ relatives waited outside to receive news. Mohamed Khan had to wait for hours before army officials released the body of his brother, Qari Khan, just 22-years-old.

“The army corps was not allowing anyone in – not even 100 meters close to the base. Tens of people were waiting there, crying and wailing. Some were searching for the bodies of their martyrs. Others didn’t know whether the person they were waiting for was dead or wounded.”

[Featured Image by Massoud Hossaini/AP Images]

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