President Ashraf Ghani’s lament last Sunday that Afghanistan is “in mourning” was seemingly intended to mollify the general criticism of the country’s leadership in the aftermath of the deadliest attack by the Taliban on the army since 2001 ~ the year President Bush mobilised his forces to “smoke out” Osama bin Laden from the caves. The remarkably intrepid offensive on the military base at Mazar-i-Sharif was an attack on the increasingly fragile security establishment in a fractious land, most particularly after the pullout of the USled NATO forces three years ago. The striking feature of the outrage was the death of 140 soldiers, many of them unarmed. Small wonder that the Ghani regime has been accused by the people of “fumbling in its response to the atrocity”. One could argue that the elected civilian establishment has alienated the army no less. The Taliban offensive against a cantonment, with the perpetrators dressed in military fatigues, has jolted the system to its foundations. No less crucially, the army was targeted a week after the US had for the first time used its non-nuclear bomb to devastating effect against ISIS forces in Afghanistan. The tragedy reaffirms that it is the Taliban ~ and not ISIS ~ that is the fountainhead of Islamist terrorism in the country. President Ghani’s call for a “national day of mourning” is merely of sentimental value; his visit to the Mazar-i-Sharif base was greeted with strident demands of the people to come up with “answers, reassurances, and for government heads to roll”. This is suggestive of the degree of popular disaffection.
Suffice it to register that so catastrophic an attack on the army has somehow eluded the Intelligence network of the military and the civilian government in Kabul. Last Friday’s attack was the second major intelligence failure in two months, after Islamic State gunmen stormed an army hospital in Kabul in March, killing dozens of injured soldiers and nurses. The location and nature of the two attacks illustrate how pervasive and brutal the war within has become. Urban areas such as Mazar-iSharif and Kabul had previously been considered relatively safe.
The beleaguered country does deserve an answer from the presidential palace. “The government is disrespecting the martyrs by not telling the truth,” is the general refrain. Substantial is the fear that the military’s morale might suffer. The security forces are already struggling with a high attrition rate and recruitment problems. More than 6,700 soldiers and police were killed last year, a record high.
Public anxiety and anger have also been directed at the former President, Hamid Karzai, who often called the Taliban his “disgruntled brothers”. As disgruntlement turns to devastation, Karzai has stopped short of condemning the Taliban by name after the latest outrage.