War in Afghanistan

More than 120 may be dead after Taliban suicide attacker rams captured US Humvee into Afghan troop compound

  • Reports of the death toll varied widely, with military officials forbidding discussion of the incident in Wardak Province
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 January, 2019, 3:16am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 January, 2019, 12:42pm

On Monday, a Taliban suicide bomber in a captured US Humvee crashed through the entrance to a provincial training compound of the Afghan intelligence service, followed by several gunmen.

The attack left scores of trainees and others dead and wounded, and some officials put the death toll as high as 126.

At the same time, Taliban representatives were meeting with foreign diplomats in Qatar, part of a US-initiated push to start peace talks and reach a settlement to the 17-year insurgent conflict.

Even as a Taliban spokesman said its forces had killed 190 in the Wardak province attack, he said in an email to journalists that talks in Qatar would continue.

Although the simultaneous massacre and olive branch might seem contradictory, Afghan and foreign experts said they are more likely part of a deliberate dual strategy.

It is believed to be aimed in part at increasing insurgent leverage in peace talks and at keeping morale high among hard-line Islamist fighters while unarmed Taliban emissaries converse with the enemy.

The Taliban spokesman said the ongoing talks would focus on “ending American occupation with assurance that no one will be harmed in Afghanistan”.

lthough the group’s battlefield targets are mostly Afghan security forces, its diplomatic target is mainly the United States because the Taliban regards the Kabul government as a US puppet.

The Wardak attack followed high-profile, aggressive actions by the insurgents as the talks continued. On Sunday, a Taliban suicide bomber rammed an official convoy in Logar province, which borders greater Kabul.

The provincial governor survived, but the blast killed eight of his bodyguards, police officials said. Other recent insurgent attacks have included the kidnapping of a court official in Parwan province and a shooting at a wedding in Helmand province.

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Monday’s insurgent assault, which destroyed the security compound, was especially deadly and humiliating.

Exact casualty figures could not be determined, with officials in Wardak and Kabul giving wildly varying estimates, in part because officials of the Afghan spy agency, which prides itself on high-level skills and sophistication, refused to release information.

But with even conservative accounts putting the death toll between 30 and 50, it was by far the deadliest attack at any national intelligence target. If the final toll passes 100, it would rank among the highest at any Afghan security compound.

The record toll was in April 2017, when a Taliban attack at a military base in Balkh province killed 140. The intelligence agency headquarters in Kabul has been attacked several times, and one 2013 bombing at its gate killed at least 30 people, mostly civilians.

Sharif Hotak, a member of the Wardak provincial council, said that he saw the bodies of 35 Afghan forces in a hospital and that “many more were killed”.

He said the government was “hiding the accurate casualty figures to prevent a further dip in morale of the Afghan forces”.

Afghan officials said recent changes in President Ashraf Ghani’s security team were aimed at sending a strong message to the Taliban that the government is equally ready to negotiate or keep fighting. Ghani said last year that 28,000 Afghan police officers and soldiers have been killed since 2015. On Sunday, in a speech formally launching his re-election campaign, Ghani said his government was determined to bring peace, but “we will not beg for it”.

A US military official here, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak publicly, also said this week that “Afghan and foreign forces are killing record numbers of Taliban.”

Although US President Donald Trump has said he may withdraw half the 14,000 US troops stationed in Afghanistan, US.military officials here have recently described intensifying their combat involvement in an effort to force the Taliban to reach a settlement.