Authorities on Saturday raised the casualty toll in an attack on a military compound in northern Afghanistan a day earlier by gunmen and suicide bombers wearing army uniforms. Some fear the death toll could exceed 200.
KABUL, Afghanistan —
They looked like Afghan army soldiers returning from the front lines, carrying the bodies of wounded comrades as part of the ruse.
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 16-year war. Some assailants blew themselves up among the soldiers fleeing for their lives, according to survivors, witnesses and officials.
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“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.
The attack punctuated the dismal outlook for Afghanistan, where much of the population of 34 million has known only war.
During the past two years, Taliban fighters have gained more territory in the countryside and now threaten several cities. Afghanistan’s forces, suffering enormous casualties and a leadership marred by indecision and corruption, have struggled to put up a defense.
More than 6,700 members of the Afghan security forces died in 2016, a record high that is nearly three times the total U.S. deaths for the war.
In a new sign of how badly the Afghan military is faltering, the commander of the NATO coalition forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John W. Nicholson, has requested a few thousand additional U.S. soldiers to assist in training Afghan recruits.
“The enemy has the strength — they have more people in their units now — and the speed of action,” said Rahmatullah Nabil, former head of the Afghan intelligence service. “Unfortunately, we have slowed down our decision-making.” He said mistrust between the soldiers and their commanders had made many more vulnerable to Taliban infiltration and recruitment.
Especially remarkable about the Friday attack was its location: The assailants struck on the outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif, long one of the safer cities in Afghanistan. Now it has been infected by fears of more mayhem as Taliban strength grows in surrounding provinces.
How such a small number of assailants could inflict such staggering carnage — and in such a highly secure area — only compounded the trauma and anxiety over what could come.
“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,” Nabil said.
Even the most guarded places in Afghanistan are not safe. In January, explosives placed in couches inside the Kandahar governor’s office, past five layers of security, almost wiped out the province’s leadership and a visiting Arab delegation. In March, militants entered the Afghan army’s main hospital in Kabul, the capital, and killed more than 50 people in a siege that lasted nearly seven hours and was claimed by the Islamic State group (ISIS).
Both those attacks, like the one Friday, were made possible by insider help, security officials say.
While ISIS has been getting attention in recent days because of the U.S. military’s use of its largest conventional bomb against a cave complex used by the group in eastern Afghanistan, the Taliban remain the biggest security threat to the country.
The Taliban quickly claimed responsibility for the army-base attack, releasing the names and a picture of 10 men dressed in military uniforms, replete with hard helmets and kneepads, who it said had taken part.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, said the assailants had been led by four soldiers in the base, home to the 209th Army Corps, who had long been working as militant infiltrators.
Details were still emerging Saturday, but several officials said the death toll was frighteningly high. Khairandish, of the Balkh provincial council, said 140 were killed. One Balkh official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said it was likely that at least 200 soldiers had been killed. A Western military official in Kabul, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, put the death toll at more than 100.
Gen. Dawlat Waziri, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense, said Saturday that “more than a hundred soldiers were killed and wounded” in the attack, but he declined to discuss precise numbers.
President Ashraf Ghani toured the army base during a visit to Balkh on Saturday and declared a national day of mourning.
Atta Muhammad Noor, the provincial governor, said the president had ordered an investigation to find the insiders who abetted the massacre.
“I assure our countrymen that we will avenge the blood of their children,” Noor said.
The 209th Army Corps base is one of the largest in the country, responsible for security in nine of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
Zabihullah Mohammedi, a soldier from eastern Nangarhar province who has served in the 209th Corps for four years, said 3,000 to 4,000 people had attended the communal Friday prayer services at the base’s mosque. As they exited, they heard gunshots 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,” he said in an interview. “There were four people in this Ranger — two in the front, two in the back. They started firing.”
Mohammedi said two of the attackers blew themselves up among the crowd, who were in civilian clothes and unarmed, while the other assailants went on a shooting spree. He sustained a shrapnel wound in the stomach and a bullet wound in the arm.
It took commando forces who arrived at the scene about five hours to kill the remaining assailants and end the siege. “If there is a gathering of birds, and you shoot with a scattergun, how many will fall?” Mohammedi said. “The two explosions alone, God forgive me if I am wrong, probably killed 80 people.”
As Ghani met with his security officials at the army base, dozens of relatives of soldiers waited outside to receive news, or the coffins.
Among the dead was Qari Ahmad Khan, 22, who joined the army after completing his studies at an Islamic school, said his brother, Mohamed Khan, 43. Khan said he had waited for hours near the base before army officials released his brother’s body.
“The army corps was not allowing anyone in, not even 100 meters close to the base,” Khan said.