The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Final weeks of fighting among deadliest for Afghan security forces, former official says: 4,000 dead and 1,000 missing

A group of Taliban fighters stand guard at one of the entrances of Kunduz airport base in Afghanistan on Oct. 29. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)
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KUNDUZ, Afghanistan — The 46-year-old shopkeeper searched street by street for three days, calling in countless favors in an attempt to recover his son’s body after this provincial capital fell to the Taliban in August.

When he found him, his son was still in his fatigues, lying in a shallow ditch on the outskirts of Kunduz airport’s military base. The 24-year-old police officer had been shot multiple times in the face and chest, as had the four other dead policemen dumped beside him.

No one came for the other bodies.

The weeks before the fall of Kabul, which was seized days after Kunduz, are emerging as one of the deadliest periods for Afghan security forces in two decades of war. The Taliban’s complete military takeover of Afghanistan left about 4,000 members of the country’s security forces dead and another 1,000 missing, according to Afghanistan’s former army chief of staff, Gen. Yasin Zia, citing data he collected from former military commanders from July 1 to Aug. 15.

Those numbers, in that time frame, represent a significant increase over the 8,000 Afghan security personnel who were killed on average each year for the past five years, according to Zia and a second former Afghan security official. Some 92,000 members of government security forces were killed since 2001, Zia said, citing official Afghan government records.

The extent of Afghan military casualties was closely guarded until now. The figures provided by Zia offer the first accounting since the Afghan government made casualty data classified in 2017. Zia said he collected the data about the final weeks of battle in an attempt to help the families of the fallen.

How Afghanistan’s security forces lost the war

Tallying the war dead became increasingly difficult as the Taliban seized territory. Unlike in earlier phases of the conflict, when fallen government forces were gathered at morgues or carried to military hospitals to be counted, systems for reporting the dead disintegrated as the militants closed in on Afghan provincial capitals. In the weeks leading up to the fall of Kabul, local officials ceased recording the number of killed and wounded, according to official Afghan Ministry of Defense documents reviewed by The Washington Post.

The chaos that accompanied the Taliban’s sweep to power in Afghanistan left 1,000 members of the security forces unaccounted for and their families without answers about what happened to their sons, fathers and brothers.

In Kunduz, the bodies of Afghan troops were left along roadsides, outside security compounds and beside checkpoints.

“The dead were everywhere,” said the shopkeeper, who like others in this report spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. He said he went out into the city’s streets in the days after the takeover and estimated he saw dozens of slain soldiers and police in just a few neighborhoods.

What the shopkeeper found was mirrored in other provinces, including Herat, Ghazni and Helmand, where months of intense battles were brought to a quick close.

Taliban leadership granted amnesty to all government forces and employees who surrendered. But few trusted the pledge, and many Afghans feared burying a relative who was in the security forces would put the rest of the family in danger. Others simply couldn’t find their loved ones.

When the surrender deal was brokered with the Taliban in Kunduz, the agreement allowed for senior officials to flee to Kabul. But it did not include provisions for what to do with the hundreds of Afghan forces killed in the province during the last days of the fight.

When Taliban fighters entered the airport base, they found an Afghan government military morgue overflowing and a small medical unit that had run out of beds, according to Mawlawi Mohammad Rahim Zulfaqar, who led one of the Taliban units into the base and is now the movement’s military commander of the compound.

Taliban recruits flood into Afghanistan from neighboring Pakistan as the group works to consolidate control

Doctors at the military hospital said they began to run out of space in the morgue and hospital days before forces in the province surrendered.

“We were surrounded. It was too dangerous for planes to land” to pick up the bodies, said one of the doctors who was at the base when it fell. He said the dead in the morgue at that time numbered around 75. “Then the Taliban got so close even the helicopters couldn’t land. We couldn’t send anyone for emergency treatment. We had to do everything ourselves.”

As the Taliban took control of the base, they moved the dead and wounded to the city’s central hospital, according to Zulfaqar.

“We took care of the dead and the injured,” Zulfaqar said. Families were told they could come to the central hospital to identify their relatives and take the body for burial, he said.

A morgue official said all the bodies were taken by family members and the facility is now empty, but the director of the central hospital — now under Taliban control — denied a Washington Post reporter access to the site.

A deadlier phase

Casualties among Afghan forces spiked over the summer as Taliban fighters launched a series of offensives against vulnerable provinces along Afghanistan’s most important roadways. The number of dead-on-arrival troops doubled at Afghan military hospitals, rising from 300 in May to 600 in July, according to the Ministry of Defense documents reviewed by The Post.

“It was like a flood,” said one of the military hospital doctors in Kabul of the last weeks of the war against the Taliban. After running out of beds, patients were being treated on the hospital’s hallway floors.

“The problem was transport. I guarantee you that half of the soldiers we received dead on arrival could have been saved if they arrived faster,” he said.

The military doctor blamed poor leadership in Kabul for the spike in casualties. Senior and local former Afghan security officials also attributed the high casualties to a lack of planning in Kabul for how to fight the war without sustained U.S. support just as Taliban forces ratcheted up attacks.

For months, a senior Afghan security official at the provincial level begged the government in Kabul to send his men more equipment and provide greater air support. As Taliban attacks increased, he proposed a series of operations out into the districts to disrupt the group’s operations.

Instead, he recalled, he was told to move in the opposite direction and pull all his forces inward to protect cities and towns.

“It didn’t make any sense. It felt like we were waiting,” he said. Grouped together without the authorization to act offensively, the officer said his men began being picked off one by one by Taliban snipers using night vision.

Military hospital records during the same time period also show a spike countrywide of Afghan troops killed by one or two sniper bullets.

The official said he sent multiple reports back to Kabul requesting a change in strategy, but never received a reply. Doctors at the main military hospital in Kabul also sent reports to the presidential palace voicing concerns about the large numbers of fatalities due to sniper wounds, but they too were never answered.

In a city besieged by the Taliban, Afghan military advances disappear with forces stretched thin

Helmand’s capital of Lashkar Gah was surrounded by the Taliban for months and endured some of the fiercest fighting of the war. One former government commander there estimated around 400 Afghan security personnel were killed in and around the capital in just the last few weeks of the war.

The government “knew they were losing the war,” said a farmer in Helmand whose 22-year-old son was among those killed at the end of the battle. “Every day they would fly the dead bodies out and the new soldiers in.”

“If the government had just made the decision to surrender earlier, they would have saved hundreds of lives,” he said. “I don’t know the exact number of soldiers killed, but during those days not a single graveyard in Helmand sat quiet.”

The missing

Officials in provinces where the fighting was the most fierce said families searching for missing relatives were too scared to reach out to the Taliban.

“The families cannot go to the Taliban, and without a government there is no other source for them to turn to,” said a former senior official in Herat who, in the days after the fall of the province, received countless phone calls from people desperate to find their loved ones.

“People are just searching on their own, but in secret,” he said. He described an informal network of former Afghan officials sharing information over WhatsApp groups. He said hundreds of cases are posted to the groups he’s a member of, but he cannot verify them all.

In Herat alone, he estimated, he has been in touch with about 100 families. “The calls that once came every day now only come once a week or less,” he said.

“I can’t describe how sad it makes me feel. Sometimes I almost wish God would grant me death,” he said. “Our soldiers serve our country and served with honor, but because of a small group of thieves, this is our situation.”

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In more remote parts of the country, he said he believes the situation is much worse. “In provinces like Badghis, Farah and Ghowr the numbers of the missing is a catastrophe,” he said.

Zamari, 45, last heard from his son the morning Kunduz fell. “He told me: ‘I will come back alive and help you. I won’t be the second dead body sent home.’” Zamari’s eldest son was also a member of the security forces and was killed in clashes with the Taliban years ago.

But just an hour later, Zamari could no longer reach his son by phone. He searched the city streets for days but never found a body. Since then, rumors have trickled in of sightings of his son in remote districts, but the months of uncertainty are increasingly difficult.

“I don’t know what I’m thinking anymore,” he said, trailing off. “I don’t know what I’m saying.”