KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghan officials confirmed Tuesday that dozens of victims killed the previous day in a brazen Taliban attack on a military base not far from Kabul were members of the country’s intelligence agency — a severe blow to the government which has already lost control of nearly half of Afghanistan to insurgents.
Provincial officials said at least 45 people were killed and as many as 70 were wounded when a suicide bomber drove a Humvee into the base in eastern Maidan Wardak province and detonated his load as he rammed the vehicle into the main building there on Monday.
There were fears, however, that the death toll from the daytime assault on the base, which also serves as a training center for a pro-government militia and is run by the country’s intelligence service known as the National Directorate for Security, or NDS, is even higher.
The NSD on Tuesday said its reports show 36 military personnel were killed and 58 were wounded. Though the agency’s figures were lower than what provincial officials had reported, it was still an unprecedented casualty toll for the agency, among the best equipped and trained in Afghanistan.
The agency said the suicide bomber in the armored Humvee had managed to penetrate the gate of the base on the outskirts of Maidan Shar, the provincial capital located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Kabul, even though guards fired at the vehicle.
Khawanin Sultani, a council member in the province, said the building collapsed from the explosion, which likely contributed to the high casualty numbers.
“Most of the bodies were under the destroyed building,” he said.
The Taliban, who promptly claimed responsibility in a statement to the media just hours after the attack, later said in a separate statement that they had met again on Monday with U.S. representatives to discuss “ending the invasion of Afghanistan” in talks that would continue on Tuesday. They are meeting in Qatar, where the Taliban have a political office.
The simultaneousness of the events — the deadly attack, one of the worst Taliban assaults on Afghan forces in recent years — and the Qatar meeting that was meant to pave way for talks aimed at resolving Afghanistan’s 17-year war, underscored the audacity of the insurgents in the face of stepped-up U.S. peace efforts.
The Taliban now hold sway in almost half of Afghanistan and carry out attacks on a daily basis, mainly targeting the country’s beleaguered security forces.
Sultani, the provincial council member, said that after the bomber’s Humvee exploded, four other attackers engaged in a shootout with Afghan troops. All the attackers were killed, he said.
Sultani said there were about 150 military personnel and others at the base at the time. The pro-government militia that was hit had been highly effective in securing the province, especially two important highways linking Kabul with the provinces of Kandahar, Maidan Wardak and Bamyan.
“They had participated in so many operations alongside other security forces and had fought against insurgents,” Sultani added.
A provincial security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, told the AP that he personally counted as many as 75 dead bodies at the base. There was no official confirmation of this higher toll.
Dozens of ambulances took the wounded to the main provincial hospital as well as to Kabul for further treatment, the official said. The blast was so strong that windows of civilian homes seen in the distance from the base were also shattered, he said.
A statement from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s office said the “enemy had carried out a terrorist attack against the intelligence agency’s personnel, killed and wounded a number of honest sons of this homeland who were defending their country and protecting their people.” Ghani also ordered an investigation, the statement added.
There was no official breakdown on the casualties or indication how many were members of the militia in training, military or intel personnel.
Mirza Mohammad Yarmand, a former deputy interior minister and a military analyst, said the attack was a “tragedy and a big loss to the Afghan security forces.”
Yarmand said it was difficult to believe that the country’s vaunted NSD could have lost such a high number of personnel in a single attack and that there must have been serious negligence on someone’s part. He also complained that there were no other checkpoints along the highway and leading up to the base, any one of which could have stopped the vehicle and prevented the bombing.
The Taliban statement on Monday said they had met with U.S. representatives to discuss “ending the invasion of Afghanistan” in talks that would continue on Tuesday in Qatar.
“Peace talks and negotiations are important and essential for Afghanistan, but not under these unacceptable circumstances,” Yarmand said. “If such attacks continue, there must be a cease-fire agreement first.”
Last week, the Taliban threatened to walk away from the talks, accusing Washington of seeking to “expand the agenda” — presumably a reference to American demands that the insurgents hold direct talks with the Kabul government.
The Taliban view the Afghan government as a U.S. puppet and have long insisted they will only negotiate directly with Washington.