ASADABAD, Afghanistan – 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 canceled a planned state visit to Sri Lanka in response to the attack, in the Ghaziabad district of Kunar province, near the eastern 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 once 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 he may have been referring to the presidential campaign or to Karzai’s continued refusal to sign a long-term security agreement with the United States.
Though the security deal was agreed to last year, 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 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 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 at around 4 a.m. and that most of those who died had been killed in their sleep. Jalala put the death toll at 20, with eight other soldiers reportedly taken prisoner by the insurgents.
A spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, Gen. Zaher Azimi, later posted on Twitter to update the estimate to 21 dead and three wounded.