Taliban insurgents overran an Afghan National Army base near here Sunday morning, killing 21 soldiers in their bunks in what appeared to be the worst single blow to government forces since 2010, according to both government and insurgent officials.
President Hamid Karzai ordered an investigation and cancelled a planned state visit to Sri Lanka in response to the attack, in the Ghaziabad district of Kunar province, near the easten border with Pakistan.
The attack highlighted the vulnerability of Afghan military units, which are generally no longer accompanied by American or other NATO advisers and do not have the close air support they often enjoyed. And it raised questions about the Afghans’ ability to hold out against the insurgents on their own as the NATO mission winds down and international forces prepare to leave Afghanistan at the end of 2014.
At the same time, there were new signals that efforts to start peace talks with the insurgents were foundering. In an unusual statement released Sunday, the Taliban acknowledged that it had suspended talks with the Americans aimed at a prisoner exchange: the release of five Taliban prisoners held at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in exchange for the lone American prisoner of war held by the Taliban, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, said that the talks had taken place with the mediation of Qatar, but that the insurgents had broken them off because of the “complicated political situation” in Afghanistan. He did not elaborate, but may have been referring to the presidential campaign or to Mr. Karzai’s continued refusal to sign a long-term security agreement with the United States.
Although the security deal was agreed to last year, Mr. Karzai imposed additional conditions, including U.S. help in promoting peace talks with the insurgents. The Qatar-mediated talks – which took place over the past two months, according to Mr. Mujahid – may have been part of that. The Taliban statement said that as part of the initiative, the insurgents had handed over a video showing that Sgt. Bergdahl was alive.
The prisoner exchange was intended as an initial confidence-building measure to get serious peace talks under way. On the battlefield, there has been little evidence that the Taliban have any other goal but to keep on fighting, and Sunday’s attack bolstered that impression.
The governor of Kunar province, Shuja al-Mulk Jalala, said it appeared that infiltrators had let the Taliban insurgents into the base around 4 a.m., and that most of those who died had been killed in their sleep. Mr. Jalala put the death toll at 20, with eight other soldiers reported to have been taken prisoner by the insurgents.
A spokesman for the Afghan Defence Ministry, Gen. Zaher Azimi, later posted on Twitter to update the estimate to 21 dead and three wounded.
One of the Afghan soldiers taken prisoner, who later escaped and was interviewed in the eastern city of Asadabad, said he believed that the insurgents had entered the fortified base with the collusion of infiltrators who had been on guard duty in the base’s three watchtowers and outside its barracks. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media.
“I believe these four soldiers had links with the Taliban,” he said. “They shot our soldiers while they were sleeping. When others woke up, they were taken alive, along with me.” He said that he and three other soldiers had managed to escape from the insurgents as they fled the area.
Local Taliban officials, reached by telephone, denied that they had infiltrators in the base. “When U.S. warplanes were over our heads, we conducted our operations successfully, and now that they no longer fly above us, we conduct our operations still more successfully,” said an insurgent official who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect himself from capture.
A statement from the Defense Ministry said the fighting with “local and foreign terrorists” lasted four hours. “These ANA soldiers resisted the enemy assault and fought to death against hundreds of both insider and outsider terrorists who assaulted them,” the statement said.
A battalion of reinforcements was sent to the area, but the soldiers were ambushed by insurgents using a suicide bomber. “They were not hurt and reached the area to begin a counterattack to chase the enemy away,” the statement said.
Afghan officials said it was the worst attack on the Afghan National Army since 2010, when the Taliban thwarted an Afghan offensive in Laghman province and killed, wounded or dispersed an entire 100-man company, although the exact death toll was never divulged.
Last year in Kunar province, in Nari district, which borders the district where the attack on Sunday took place, all 13 Afghan soldiers at a remote outpost were killed. Afghan officials had complained at the time that although U.S. warplanes were operating in the area, they did not intervene to support the Afghan soldiers.
American officials say they cannot launch air raids without forward air controllers on the ground to avoid the possibility of civilian casualties, which have been a major issue of contention with Karzai.
There have been larger losses of life in attacks on the Afghan police, such as an incident last September in which 25 police officers were killed in Badakhshan, but the better-trained army has been less prone to such disasters.
Nonetheless, fatalities among Afghan soldiers have been steadily rising. Based on the latest statistics available, through last June, ANA fatalities had more than doubled compared with the previous year, coinciding with a steady decrease in American and NATO forces in country.
“This incident is so painful and upsetting, and why did it happen?” said Mirdad Khan Nejrabi, head of the Afghan Parliament’s internal security committee. He criticized Karzai for appearing to show more concern for Taliban prisoners than for his own troops in the field.
Karzai’s government recently ordered the release of 65 men from Bagram Prison whom the U.S. military had identified as insurgents likely to return to battle.
“In the name of defending civilians’ rights he always shows affinity to the insurgents, which demoralizes the security forces,” Nejrabi said.
Karzai condemned the killings in Kunar and noted that they came shortly after the Pakistani Taliban killed 23 Pakistani paramilitary soldiers close to the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. “Terrorism is a big threat to both nations,” he said, adding that the countries should work together to combat insurgents in border areas. Insurgents on both sides of the border seek refuge on the other side, and the Pakistani government said its 23 soldiers were taken to the Afghan side of the border and killed there.