On Friday early in the afternoon, two Afghan Army Ford Ranger vehicles with 10 soldiers on board stopped before the first security check point of the main entrance to 209 Shaheen Corps, in Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of northern Balkh province.
The soldiers on board were Taliban militants, disguised in Afghan National Army (ANA) uniforms with fake identification cards.
Inside the first vehicle, there was a wounded soldier who was pleading for urgent care.
“The soldier was covered in blood, and when the guard at the first checkpoint communicated with his superiors in the second checkpoint, he was told to let them in,” an Afghan soldier from the military base told VOA on condition of anonymity.
“They were allowed to cross the second checkpoint as well, and when they were stopped and asked for their guns in the third checkpoint, they started firing at the guards,” the Afghan soldier added.
According to the soldier, the security guard at the main gate was convinced that the assailants were returning from a mission from northern Faryab province and that the wounded soldier would die if not taken care of immediately.
“As soon as they gunned down the security guards in the third checkpoint, they spread inside the base, and two of the assailants rushed towards the cafeteria and the mosque detonating their suicide vests,” the source added.
The attack reportedly left at least 140 soldiers dead and many more wounded. The death toll may rise as some soldiers are said to be in critical condition.
General Mohammad Radmanesh, spokesperson of the Afghan Ministry of Defense, confirmed that the attackers faked a wounded soldier scenario to get inside the base.
“We are soldiers and we have emotions towards our fellow comrades. The soldier was covered in blood,” Radmanesh said, referring to how the wounded soldier scenario has led to the loosening of security protocol.
“Two of the assailants were suicide bombers, and the remaining eight others were armed with guns and went on a rampage to kill unarmed soldiers before they were gunned down by Afghan commandos inside the base,” Radmanesh added.
Zabiullah, a wounded officer from eastern Nangarhar province, told Afghan media that they were confused about who was fighting whom inside the military base as the assailants were all in Army uniform.
“As we came out of the mosque, we heard gun shots and we saw a Ranger coming towards us at a very fast speed. There were four people in it – two in the front and two in the back seat. The two in the front seat were armed and the other two had suicide vests.” Zabiullah told Ariana News, a local TV station in Afghanistan.
“One of my colleagues said they were Afghan army soldiers as they were dressed in military uniforms. But as we were trying to figure out who they were and what to do, they started firing at us,” he added.
Zabiullah said it is impossible to get inside the military base without proper identification.
“Even soldiers are not allowed in without presenting their identification cards. How were they [assailants] able to get in?” Zabiullah asked.
Noorullah, another wounded soldier, accused the senior leadership at the base of mismanagement and corruption.
“All our seniors at the Corps are corrupt. They sell us off and they never stay in the base,” he said while talking to Tolo News, a local TV Channel. “When a poor soldier wants to visit his ailing mother during a weekend, he is not allowed to do so, but senior officials regularly use government vehicles for personal business.”
“Those who helped them and gave them our guns must be hanged in public. They are using our guns against us,” Mohammad Zabih, another wounded soldier from Nangarhar told Radio Liberty.
Radmanesh told VOA an investigation is underway.
“We have sent a high level investigation team to the base and they will investigate every aspect of the attack,” Radmanesh said. “This sophisticated attack has been planned and executed with help of intelligence agencies of regional countries.”
Some security analysts, however, charge that militant groups, whether they are the Taliban or Islamic State, have previously engaged in similar attacks and security forces have failed to adapt to them.
“The Taliban used the same tactics they used for attacking the military hospital in Kabul last month, Abdul Wahed Taqat, a retired Afghan general said. “As was the case in the attack on the hospital, the militants had deployed infiltrators inside the base in Mazar as well. They had 5-6 infiltrators in the base.”
Last month’s attack on the military hospital in Kabul was claimed by Islamic State, but Taqat believes IS and the Taliban have the same foreign support.
Taqat warned that the militants have infiltrated every sector of the Afghan security structure.
“It must be thoroughly probed. The enemy has infiltrators in almost all security departments including army corps, national security, and they are used when needed,” he added.
Wahid Muzhda, a Kabul-based Taliban expert echoes some of Taqat’s concerns.
“The militants plan such attacks with a high degree of sophistication. They use information they receive from infiltrators in planning their attacks,” said Muzhda. “The timing of the attack on the army base was based on the information provided by four of the attackers who had previously worked inside the base and had a good knowledge of how the base operated. They knew that the Friday prayer would be concluded around 1:30 p.m. and the soldiers would not be carrying guns.”
But spokesperson Radmanesh downplayed the allegations of infiltration and charged that the attack happened because militants faked a wounded soldier scenario.
VOA Afghan Service’s Mirwais Bezhan contributed to this report from Mazar-i-Sharif