Disguised perfectly as Afghan soldiers, the 10 attackers launched the Taliban’s spring offensive in spectacular fashion, rolling undetected into one of the most secure army bases in northern Afghanistan, and killing some 170 recruits as they left Friday prayers.
The Taliban attack at Mazar-e Sharif’s Camp Shaheen appeared aimed at further undermining Afghanistan’s embattled leaders and security forces. And it delivered another psychological blow to Afghans hoping that this year might finally see government gains against a methodical, years-long Taliban advance.
It also served as a reminder that the Taliban, and not the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), still represent the most potent Islamist insurgency threatening Afghanistan.
No detail appears to have been overlooked as the Taliban signaled how their tactics have evolved for the 2017 fighting season. One attacker was dressed like a wounded soldier, complete with a bloodied head bandage and intravenous drip stuck in his arm, as the Taliban’s look-alike vehicles passed through seven checkpoints to access their target.
According to the Taliban, a number of disgruntled Afghan soldiers inside the base helped orchestrate the slaughter – the deadliest attack on any military base in the 16-year war.
“The tactics have shifted,” says Javid Ahmad, an Afghanistan analyst at the Modern War Institute at West Point and the Atlantic Council in Washington.
“The Taliban actually understands Afghan military intelligence gaps far, far better than their opponents do, and they exploit these grievances to target key weaknesses in the civil-military apparatus, which is the deep, deep aversion to casualty numbers,” says Mr. Ahmad.
“When there are a rising number of casualties, civilian or military, it drives a wedge between the Afghan people and their leaders and the security forces and creates disillusionment, disenchantment,” says Ahmad.
Both the Afghan defense minister and Army chief of staff resigned after the attack, and four corps commanders have been suspended. On their watch, a record number of Afghan soldiers – roughly 6,800 – were killed last year, nearly three times more than the US deaths throughout the entire conflict. More than 12,000 Afghans were wounded in the same period.
Taliban's territorial gains
The Taliban carried out the attack just a week after the US military dropped, for the first time, the biggest non-nuclear bomb in its arsenal, a 21,600-pounder nicknamed the Mother of All Bombs, on a cave-complex headquarters of ISIS in the remote east of the country.
ISIS has claimed responsibility for an attack on a Kabul military hospital last month, in which gunmen disguised as doctors reportedly killed more than 100 people and battled security guards for hours, as well as several earlier attacks.
But analysts say the far more serious threat comes from the Taliban, which has made steady gains since the US and NATO pulled out most combat forces in 2014. The Islamic insurgents were ousted from power by US forces in 2001. But according to official US estimates, the 57 percent of the country that the government controlled or had influence in at the end of January represents a nearly 15 percent decrease since November 2015.
The Taliban made advances last month in the south, capturing the strategic district of Sangin in Helmand Province, after years of fighting that took several hundred British, American, and Afghan lives. US commanders have called for several thousand more troops to bolster the 8,400 now on the ground, who are primarily training and advising Afghan forces in the longest war in US history.
“We’re under no illusions about the challenges associated with this mission,” US Secretary of Defense James Mattis said during a visit to Afghanistan hours after the Mazar-e Sharif base attack.
“As if we needed a reminder of the type of enemy we’re up against, the killing of Afghan citizens and soldiers – protectors of the people – just as they were coming out of a mosque, a house of worship, it certainly characterizes this fight for exactly what it is,” Secretary Mattis said.
Boost to special forces
The continued spread of Taliban insurgents, the growth of ISIS since 2014, and the chronic inability of the gridlocked unity government to gain the upper hand in the fight have all added to a sense of foreboding in Kabul.
“This major attack points to the growing sophistication of the insurgency, and the rising pressure on provincial capitals as the Taliban push close to urban zones,” says a Kabul-based Western official who asked not to be further identified.
“Still, it’s been a cold winter and the initial months of 2017 haven’t seen any dramatic escalation of violence overall,” says the official. “Some parts of the country are becoming peaceful as they fall under Taliban control and the government forces assume a defensive posture.”
Despite the top-level resignations, there are plans to double the number of Afghan special forces troops, from 17,000 to 35,000 or so. Already these units account for 70 percent of offensive operations, according to a report this month by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG).
“Though stretched thin and suffering high casualties, the army repelled insurgent advances in conflict-hit provinces ... and prevented the Taliban from retaining a major provincial capital or district centre,” noted the ICG.
But on the other hand, the record toll among Afghan security forces and a high desertion rate suggests the need for a minimum recruitment level of 35,000 per year to keep Afghan forces at the current level of 320,000 strong. Finding so many recruits is increasingly difficult, as frequent attacks on security forces, widespread corruption, and incompetence take a toll.
“It is amazing to me how the Taliban have increasingly shifted their focus into exploiting these grievances of disgruntled Afghan soldiers, and then using them,” says analyst Ahmad, referring to causes of unhappiness in the ranks: incompetent leadership, high risks, and frequent cases of Taliban intimidation and pressure. “These are very limited resources, but [they are] using them to get maximum effect.”
In a study published this month by the Modern War Institute, Ahmad found that insider attacks have become “the preferred war-fighting tactic of the Taliban” since 2011.
The report tabulates that since 2007 at least 157 NATO personnel – most of them Americans – and more than 550 Afghans died from insider and impersonation attacks. In some months, those fatalities outnumbered deaths caused by direct fighting with the Taliban.
“The attacks, though statistically small in number, have a corrosive effect on the NATO mission,” the report concludes. The deaths in the past week at Camp Shaheen will add to that total – and to the challenge.
“Unfortunately, these incidents will continue to occur, unless there is a sweeping reform of the Afghan intelligence apparatus, with better human intelligence and some [signals] intelligence … to effectively predict and prevent these attacks in the future,” says Ahmad.
He notes that it is relatively easy for the Taliban to impersonate soldiers, when a military ID can be made in the local bazaar for the equivalent of 50 cents.
“They have the gear, they have the boots, they have the jackets; you can get an Afghan military uniform made easily for $20,” says Ahmad.
“Things are going to be bad and we are going to see other security setbacks in the months ahead, unless the Afghan security and intelligence leadership get their act together.”