Saturday, April 22, 2017

140 Afghan soldiers killed in a Taliban attack on an army base.

Soldiers stand guard outside a military base in Balkh Province. New York Times/EPA

At least 140 soldiers were killed in a Taliban raid on an Army base in the northern Balkh province in Afghanistan. New York Times. The soldiers were mostly unarmed and were either shot while eating or emerging from a mosque after Friday prayer services, with most of the dead killed in the mosque. The Taliban took credit for the attack and they used the familiar tactic of bombing a checkpoint and then rushing in riflemen. The Taliban were dressed in Afghan uniforms and at least four of the fighters were turncoats that were working at the base. The death toll in the attack is staggering and may increase as more details are known. The Taliban has been putting considerable pressure on the Afghan government and such a deadly attack right before the traditional spring campaign season is not a good sign. The attack is already considered to be the worse loss of life during an attack on a military base for the entire 16 year war.

My Comment:
How on earth did this happen? I understand that the Taliban used the very successful bombing and rifleman attack that has worked so well for them and other terror groups in the past. I also understand that the soldiers that were killed were not prepared for battle. But there was nobody that could fight back against these soldiers? Nobody had a weapon near them? Were there not sentries posted besides the ones at the checkpoint? Were there no officers to rally the men so they could retrieve their weapons and mount a defense? How do 10 men kill 140 and wound even more? 

I'm sorry, but the fact that 10 Taliban fighters without any artillery or air support were able to kill almost a company's worth of men is almost totally unbelievable. And these weren't the normal front line troops either. From what I understand this was the leadership of the 209th Corps. For dozens of headquarters troops to die is almost unimaginable. This is a decapitation strike against the 209th Corps and I think they will have to reorganize after this brutal attack. 

It's crucial that four of the Taliban that pulled off this attack were turncoats and the rest were using Afghan Army uniforms. That's a war crime and it may have had a lot to do with why the casualties of this attack were so bad. It would be very difficult of single out who the bad guys are if they are wearing the exact same uniforms as you. The potential for friendly fire would be sky high. It has been a massive problem for the Afghan Army and they need to somehow prevent them from happening. Given how frequent they have been, that seems like an impossible goal.

This attack is part of a larger campaign by the Taliban to destabilize and recapture land they have lost since the start of the war. This campaign has been very successful and the Afghan Army is on the back foot almost everywhere. They also now have to deal with the threat of ISIS as well which is taking and holding territory in the southeastern part of the country. The MOAB strike helped with that problem, but did nothing to stop the Taliban.

The Afghan government is losing the war against the Taliban. Even before this terrible attack, they were taking unsustainable casualties. In the first 8 months of 2016 alone they suffered 15,000 casualties and 5,500 deaths. That rate of casualties continued for 2016 and has not abated in 2017. More importantly, the Taliban and ISIS have pulled off some spectacular terrorist attacks that have targeted the very heart of the Afghan government. In Kabul alone we have seen a suicide bombing at the Supreme Court, a major attack on a military hospital and a terror attack on the American University. These attacks alone have killed dozens and adds to the chaos already caused by the major battles happening throughout the country. 

It seems to me that if the Afghan government doesn't get some kind of major help it is going to lose and lose badly to the Taliban. In may take a few years, but it seems inevitable at this point. Though we still have some troops in country training Afghan forces, we no longer have major combat units there. We still offer air support but we mainly target ISIS. In short, I don't think our current strategy is going to work. The Afghan government needs bodies and trained fighters and I don't think they are going to get them. 

It's always tough to tell what President Trump is thinking on foreign policy. Unlike previous presidents he rarely announces policy before he carries it out, so it's hard to gather what he wants to do in Afghanistan. It never really came up during the election and after he hasn't said much. I think the MOAB strike offers a major clue though. That strike was targeted on ISIS and ISIS alone and given Trump's recent statements on Libya where he said our only role there was to fight ISIS, I think that just might be the official policy. When Trump said America First, I think he really meant it, despite the saber rattling in Syria and North Korea.

If so, I am not sure what to think. On the one hand, I do not want eternal war in Afghanistan where our troops keep dying for little gain. We couldn't win there in more than a decade of fighting and to send back troops now might save the Afghan government but I doubt it would win the war unless we went all out. We can't afford to keep fighting unwinnable wars and I think the American people elected Donald Trump to prevent that from continuing. The political will just isn't there.

On the other, letting the Taliban, or worse, ISIS, take over might result in the same Afghanistan that we had in 2001. The one that gave al-Qaeda a safe space to plan and execute the 9/11 attacks... That's a huge risk and I don't know if we can mitigate it. I guess we could take a hands off approach and let whatever happens happen and only target ISIS and al-Qaeda fighters with limited airstrikes, but that still seems very risky. Plus, a large amount of government loyalists and innocent people would die if Afghanistan would be returned to the Taliban. Whatever progress Afghanistan has made in civil rights would be erased and the economic potential of the country would remain untapped. 

I also think there is a risk to our prestige and honor if we were to allow the Afghan government to be defeated. We lost a lot of both when Saigon fell at the conclusion of the Vietnam War. We lost quite a few good soldiers in the fight for Afghanistan and it seems like a shame for it to have all been for nothing...

That does look like the way things are heading though. This attack which killed so many people in such an embarrassing way really does seem to be a turning point in the Afghan war. I just don't see how the government can get it together after this, along with the string of terror attacks in Kabul. I hope that I am wrong and the government can somehow turn it around without foreign intervention, but I just don't see it happening at this point... 

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