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Ghazni battle exposes nascent Afghan forces’ shortcomings

Shadi Khan Saif visits Ghazni, site of a four-day battle between government and Taliban forces that killed hundreds, and finds plenty of anger and grief to go around

GHAZNI, Afghanistan – An entire village on the outskirts of the Afghan capital Kabul, Farza, was gloomy instead of celebrating Eid al-Adha, the Muslim festival of sacrifice, after losing four of its young people among over a hundred government forces in a four-day battle for Ghazni city.

Anger and grief were palpable all over Afghanistan as the country reeled from losing hundreds of lives to the escalating militancy exploiting the shortcomings of the nascent security forces.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that by August 25, its partners had identified more than 21,000 displaced people that need humanitarian assistance in eight neighborhoods of the city.

The Ghazni debacle has left deep scars on the morale of Afghan National Defense and Security Forces in the face of worrying mortality rate on multiple fronts nationwide.

Lying strategically at the center of the key Kabul–Kandahar highway in central Afghanistan, the ancient city of Ghazni links the rest of the restive south and west with the capital. It was stormed by hundreds of Taliban fighters earlier this month.

In conversations with the Defense Post, a number of Afghan soldiers and police officers in this city – besieged by the Taliban rebels for up to four days – narrated tales of utter chaos in communication and coordination among the government forces over urgent need for additional troops, ammunition and supplies. Not authorized to speak to the media, the dejected soldiers spoke on condition of anonymity.

“We were in small numbers and they [Taliban] were too many, attacking us with many heavy and sophisticated weapons … not many of my fellow policemen survived,” one officer said.

On the record, top Afghan security officials have acknowledged up to 100 security personnel were killed and wounded while over 200 insurgents were killed during the Taliban’s assault on Ghazni.

Afghanistan security forces in Ghazni
Afghanistan security forces in Ghazni on August 12, 2018. Image: Afghanistan National Directorate of Security

Taliban ‘warnings’ not heeded?

Ehsan Ullah – a grieving neighbor of four soldiers, who were all blood-relatives, from Farza and killed in Ghazni – told The Defense Post the friends and relatives of the martyrs blame the higher-ups in the government for their failure in preventing an attack of the mammoth scale.

“The Taliban had even warned bus operators to suspend their operations as they were about to launch the attack, why were the intelligence agencies not aware?” Ullah asked, adding that those who have relatives still serving in the security sector have asked their sons to quit the armed forces.

Amid growing concerns over spate of deadly clashes across the country, defense minister General Tariq Shah Bahrami, and interior minister Wais Ahmad Barmak briefed the press in Kabul on fourth day, Monday, August 13.

Vowing the government was in full control and the situation would further improve in next 24 hours, Bahrani confirmed close to 100 casualties among the security forces. “Close to 30 civilians have been, unfortunately, killed,” he added.

The city center in Ghazni depicted a picture of complete destruction following a full-blown war with nearly every building marred by bullet holes, shops looted and government installations torched.

The head of the main public hospital in Ghazni, Baz Mohammad, told The Defense Post that in addition to those killed in the fighting, scores of security personnel, particularly police, were brought to the hospital with multiple bullet wounds throughout the four-day battle.

“It was totally out of our capacity to handle the situation, fears were all over the place,” he said.

OCHA says the hospital is functioning, but “continues to be overstretched with treating trauma patients,” and medical supplies in Kabul are on standby, ready to be dispatched if needed.

Weak leadership and endemic corruption

In the view of Dawood Shah, an army veteran, security analyst and Ghazni native, government forces were almost immediately on the defensive due to poor intelligence, weak leadership and low morale in the face of a well-coordinated brutal assault by hundreds of rebels.

“Apart from the intelligence, strategic and logistical shortcomings in Ghazni, there is a serious issue of nepotism and corruption that has severely weakened the security institutions,” he said.

Shah said that, despite being the son of a top serving diplomat, he rose to the rank of brigadier after years of disciplined military service in the 1980s, but relatives of politicians and top public servants are immediately promoted to senior ranks without the due procedure these days.

President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani himself labeled the Ministry of Interior, which controls the police force, as the ‘heart of corruption’ in the country.

This week, interior minister Barmak was caught on live TV engaging in a heated exchange of abuses with a police officer during an official meeting.

“This attitude by the senior security officials is the height of embarrassment,” Shah said.

On Saturday, National Security Advisor Hanif Atmar resigned. Ghani said Sunday that Barmak, defense minister Bahrami and National Directorate of Security chief Massoom Stanikzai subsequently submitted their own resignations, which he refused to accept.

Ghani appointed Hamdullah Mohib, Ambassador to the United States, to replace Atmar.

Afghan National Army (ANA) cadets
Afghan National Army (ANA) cadets practice drills on the parade grounds at the Afghan National Defense University in Kabul, Afghanistan, May 7, 2013. Image: Staff Sgt. Dustin Payne/US Air Force

Ghazni police ‘ready to sacrifice their lives’

Among all this chaos, there are some motivated individuals in the security sector who are taking on the resilient armed insurgency head-on.

Colonel Farid Ahmad Mashal, Ghazni’s police chief, fought the Taliban on the frontline throughout the four-day siege. “Me and my team were ready to sacrifice our lives to defend our city,” he told The Defense Post.

In a series of live Facebook videos during the clashes, he claimed more than 500 insurgents – including Pakistanis, Chechen and Arabs – were killed. “The rebels have taken their dream of capturing Ghazni with them to Hell,” Mashal asserted.

Earlier this year, Mashal acknowledged over 1,000 ‘ghost police’ are present in Ghazni who are receiving salaries, but not showing up for duty. This has been a recurring phenomenon, particularly in remote areas where security forces are registered, but for the sake of salaries rather than serving to ensure law and order.

The office of the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction warned in 2016 about the endemic corruption, saying there were “significant gaps between the assigned force strength of the ANDSF and the actual number of personnel serving.”

“Salaries of ghost soldiers had been received during the past eight months and the money has gone to personal accounts,” SIGAR cited the Helmand province police chief as saying at the time.

For grieving Afghans, such as Ehsan Ullah who lost their loved ones serving in the ranks of the police and army, nothing can console their pain.

“With the passage of time, we might forget the ‘martyrdom’ of Hidayat Ullah, Anar Gul, Wali Mohammad and Abdul Raziq,” Ullah said of his four neighbors killed in Ghazni. “But with no signs in sight for the end of war, we are frightened for our children’s future.”

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