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Taliban Was Able To Penetrate Afghanistan Military Base Before Attack


We turn now to a developing story in Afghanistan. More than 100 people are reported dead from a Friday attack on an Afghan military base, making it the deadliest attack there since 2001. Taliban fighters disguised as Afghan military attacked the base as soldiers were observing Friday prayers at Camp Shaheen near Mazar-e-Sharif, the nation's third largest city. And since the attack, the death toll has risen steadily.

To help us understand what this attack means in the years-long struggle to contain the insurgency in Afghanistan, we've reached Ahmed Rashid. He's a journalist and author of several books on Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Taliban. He joins us from Lahore, Pakistan. Ahmed, welcome back to the program. What makes this incident so significant?

AHMED RASHID: Well, quite simply it has been a massacre in a whole division of the Afghan army. Casualties are still coming in. We don't know exactly, but it's certainly over 100 dead and a large number wounded. And I think there will be an extreme state of shock within the Afghan army. This will unfortunately be a very demoralizing factor considering that it's come right after an attack on the main army hospital in Kabul a few weeks ago in which 50 people were killed, including many patients. And the fact that there's so many other issues which are pending - there's a political crisis in Kabul, an economic crisis because money is running out of the government, and a refugee crisis with thousands of Afghans fleeing to Europe.

SUAREZ: As much as this tells us something about the audacity and organization of the Taliban, is this also a story of the weakness and insufficiencies of the Afghan army after 15 years of U.S. investment and training?

RASHID: Well, that's very true. I think the major problem with the Afghan army arrived from day one, when the Americans started training an army which at the same time has been fighting a war. And building an entire army from the bottom up when they're also fighting a war is extremely difficult.

SUAREZ: Is there a problem of divided loyalties among elements inside the Afghan army? The Taliban attack was able to penetrate the base, dress their fighters in Afghan army uniforms, penetrate some of the protocols that were set up just to prevent this kind of attack. Does the attention now have to turn to elements inside the army?

RASHID: Well, certainly. I mean, you know, we have seen Afghan soldiers turning on their officers, even killing American trainers, young men who've then fled or expressed their loyalty to the Taliban. In this particular attack, sources are saying that four or five soldiers inside the camp were Taliban. And in fact, they helped these attackers come into the camp. And then once they were inside the camp and the battle started these four or five soldiers who were actually Taliban also turned their guns on their fellow soldiers.

So this has been a huge problem right along. The issue of divided loyalties has been there. The Taliban have been able to bring in soldiers into the Afghan army and make them sleepers, as it were, until the right time. This is a strategy that has been working very effectively for the Taliban and is something that the Americans and the Afghan command has been able to do very little about.

SUAREZ: That's journalist Ahmed Rashid, author of "Taliban." We reached him via Skype in Lahore, Pakistan. Ahmed, good to talk to you again.

RASHID: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.