At least 45 people were killed and 70 wounded in a devastating Taliban attack on a military compound Monday, provincial officials said.
The final death toll could be even higher.
Militants used an American Humvee captured from Afghan forces to enter the base in central Maidan Wardak province, detonating a bomb hidden in the car within the perimeter before gunmen stormed the compound.
A building collapsed from the explosion, trapping dozens in the rubble, reported Afghan news outlet TOLO, which cited eyewitnesses as saying the attackers were dressed in the uniforms of Afghan security forces.
The attack targeted a campus of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) on the outskirts of Maidan Shar, the provincial capital, about 25 miles from Kabul. The base also serves as a training center for a pro-government militia.
Unconfirmed reports put the number of dead even higher. Reuters and The Guardian quoted unnamed senior officials as saying the death toll could be more than 100, and that the government was obscuring the true total in a bid to preserve morale among the security forces.
Officials would not comment on those claims, and the Afghan government has stopped releasing detailed figures for casualties among security forces in recent years.
The office of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said in a statement: “Terrorist groups and their foreign supporters cannot weaken the high morale of our brave security and defence forces, because they have a great will to repress terrorists.”
In a statement claiming responsibility for the attack, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said 90 people had been killed and more than 100 wounded.
The brazen daylight attack on the high-security base, the most serious against Afghan security forces in months, was carried out even as Taliban representatives met with a U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in Qatar, underlining the growing confidence of the Islamist group as the U.S. looks for an exit from the seventeen-year conflict.
Despite tentative diplomatic overtures towards a peace settlement, the Taliban has sustained a relentlessly brutal campaign against the government, killing at least 47 in a seven-hour assault on a government building in Kabul last month. On Sunday, a Taliban suicide bomber killed at least seven guards in an attack targeting the governor of Logar province.
The presence of more than 12,000 troops involved in the NATO-led Resolute Support mission has not been enough to slow the ascent of the Taliban, which now controls or contests nearly half the country and carries out attacks on a daily basis. In November, U.S. Gen. Joseph Dunford described the situation as a stalemate, conceding that the Taliban were “not losing.”
Hours after Monday’s attack, Taliban spokesman Mujahid said that talks between Taliban officials and U.S. representatives had resumed in Qatar, as the U.S. steps up efforts for a negotiated end to the grinding conflict.
The Afghan government has been largely sidelined from the process, with the Taliban insisting on direct negotiations with the U.S., rather than the Kabul government which it views as a puppet regime.
Cover image: An Afghan military vehicle is seen near the attack site after a car bomb detonated on a military base in Maidan Sharar in Wardak province on January 21, 2019. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)