KABUL — The nerve center of Afghan and NATO combat activities in northern Afghanistan is a sprawling military base in Balkh province. There, thousands of Afghan National Army troops live and train, regional deployments and attacks are planned, and U.S.-supplied helicopters and fighter planes are launched to support Afghan troops battling the Taliban.
On Friday, in a stunning blow to the Western-backed war effort, the base on a sun-baked plain near the city of Mazar-e Sharif became the target of the deadliest single attack by Taliban insurgents since their regime in Kabul was overthrown in 2001. A spokesman for the Islamist militia claimed responsibility for the attack.
There were conflicting reports on the number of casualties, but some Afghan officials said Saturday that at least 140 people had been killed and 60 injured when a handful of Taliban fighters, disguised as Afghan military personnel, entered the base in army vehicles and opened fire. A Defense Ministry spokesman said that only 100 were confirmed dead, however.
Witnesses and survivors said the assailants sprayed gunfire among mostly unarmed Afghan soldiers and officers, many of whom were either just leaving weekly prayers at the base’s mosque or eating in its canteen.