The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Death of famed Afghan commander in Taliban massacre highlights the country’s struggles and fears

A color guard leads the cortege in Kabul on June 19 for Afghan Col. Sohrab Azimi, whose coffin is mounted on a tank. Azimi and 22 other special forces members were killed by the Taliban on June 16 while defending a base in northern Afghanistan. (Pam Constable/for The Washington Post)

KABUL — He was a general's son, a U.S.-trained officer with a dazzling academic record and a daring military reputation.

Col. Sohrab Azimi, a field commander in Afghan special forces that often rescue troops and retake outposts from Taliban attacks, symbolized the country's best hope to fend off an insurgent takeover as U.S. troops began to withdraw from the fight.

Azimi, 31, and his squad of 22 men were massacred Wednesday by Taliban forces while defending a base in northern Faryab province and waiting for reinforcements.

The loss unleashed a flood of emotions across social media — grief, anger and fear that even the nation’s most skilled defenders would be undercut by poor military leadership and the departure of Afghanistan’s major foreign military ally.

At a ceremony outside a military hospital in Kabul on Saturday morning, a Muslim cleric blessed the velvet-draped coffins of Azimi and two other commandos, released by the Taliban and flown to Kabul by the Afghan Air Force.

They were lifted onto artillery trucks, followed by goose-stepping soldiers and a marching band, then loaded into ambulances.

“This is the price we pay for defending our country’s independence, freedom and dignity,” Rangin Dadfar Spanta, a former foreign minister, told the silent, mostly uniformed crowd that included Azimi’s father, a retired army general. The two men, classmates from another era, embraced and wept.

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“No one will be allowed to occupy our land or take our freedom away,” Spanta vowed.

But in Faryab, one of numerous provinces where the Taliban has launched repeated assaults in recent months, the mass killing added to a deepening sense of despair and defeat. After weeks of attacks that wore down local security forces and led many to surrender, the highly trained commandos sent to save the day had been surrounded, isolated and mowed down en masse.

“Government forces don’t have the will to fight. Their morale is weak and there is little coordination among the forces,” Sayed Babur Jamal, a provincial legislator, said Saturday.

He said the insurgents control eight districts in Faryab and continue to overrun military and police bases, seizing military vehicles and weapons from surrendering local forces. 

“There is a strong possibility that Faryab will fall,” he said.

Officials say the pace and aggression of Taliban attacks have increased since the Biden administration announced in April that all remaining troops would be withdrawn by Sept. 11. In some areas, local forces have surrendered after negotiations between community elders and the Taliban. In others, departing U.S. troops have destroyed bases or stripped them of everything usable to keep them from falling into Taliban hands.

Despite the drumbeat of attacks, military officials play down the significance of local Taliban advances and note that many are quickly reversed. After the commando slayings in Faryab’s Dawlat Abad district, the district was recaptured by Afghan forces by Thursday, with insurgents suffering heavy casualties, authorities said.

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“The situation that has happened does not mean the victory and power of the Taliban,” Fawad Ahmad, a spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, said Friday in response to written questions. He said the Afghan security forces have sufficient “combat and professional capabilities” to defend Afghanistan.

“A Taliban victory through military means is impossible,” he said.

Many Afghans say the curtailing of U.S. airstrikes has been a critical loss for ground forces, and some suggest that such strikes could have saved Azimi and his men. Another widespread complaint is ongoing discord and poor coordination by senior Afghan military officials. Some field commanders, desperate for supplies and food, have resorted to appealing for help on social media.

The volatility in Afghanistan could affect how the U.S. military departs in coming days.

On Saturday, two U.S. defense officials said that discussions are underway that would delay the U.S. military’s expected withdrawal from its largest airfield in Afghanistan, Bagram air base, by early July.

One official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that some service members at Bagram already have been told to expect their departure to be postponed. The second official acknowledged that discussions to delay are underway, without describing the plan as definitive.

The air base has been used for years to launch both manned strike aircraft and drones. Without it, the United States is expected to rely on long-range flights from bases in the Middle East to provide air support in Afghanistan.

Officials at the top U.S. military headquarters in Kabul referred questions about the delay to counterparts in the United States, who declined to comment on any delay.

“While we cannot provide any timeline for closure of any specific facility in Afghanistan, we are still firmly on track to safely and deliberately withdraw all combat forces from Afghanistan by September in accordance with the direction of the president,” Navy Capt. Bill Urban said.

Davood Moradian, director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies and a distant relative of Azimi, said the Faryab fiasco exposed a “huge failure of the system” as the country confronts several problems at once.

“People love the army and admire the commandos, but the government and the military are poorly led, U.S. troops are leaving, and the Taliban are feeling bolder. It is a tragic triangle,” he said.

For the Taliban, Azimi’s killing was a potential propaganda coup.

The group released a video showing him with bullet holes in his chest, lying amid the corpses of men he had led in battle. But Azimi’s father, Zahir, a former Defense Ministry spokesman, wrote on Facebook that he felt pride when he saw the bullets had struck his son from the front.

“You fought face to face with your enemy until the last moment,” he wrote.

In an interview at his home Friday, the elder Azimi also noted that his son — who studied in the United States and Turkey, held several academic degrees and married an American citizen — could have easily chosen a prestigious desk job or foreign posting.

“He had many opportunities, but he wanted to go into operations. Regular Afghan families related to him, those who lost husbands and sons,” he said.

He spent years at war in Afghanistan. Now he’s in charge of the withdrawal.

The elder Azimi, 67, who fought Taliban extremists before they took power in 1996, said he was disturbed by the lack of planning that had preceded the dangerous mission in Faryab, leaving the commandos with no backup.

He said that with up to 50 of 370 Afghan districts under Taliban control or attack, it would be better to temporarily withdraw from some vulnerable areas and prevent bloodshed.

The ex-general said he respected Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces but that the president was wrong to rush into the pullout just months after U.S. officials signed a deal with Taliban leaders.

“[The Taliban] came to believe they were winning, and they began to attract thousands of volunteer fighters and support from abroad,” he said. “They have a lot more capacity now.”

Among the hundreds of visitors who called on the Azimi family in recent days, former classmates of the slain commando leader were far more critical. Some bitterly accused the United States of abandoning them for selfish interests at the worst possible time.

“They left the fight and left the field to the Taliban,” said one former classmate. He identified himself only as Sulieman to express a critical opinion. “They preached values like democracy, but now they are going, and we are losing our best men, the real warriors and patriots like Sohrab who fought for those values.”

The slain commando leader was promoted posthumously to brigadier general. His body was flown Saturday to Herat, his ancestral base in far western ­Afghanistan, and buried before sunset.

Sharif Hassan in Kabul and Dan Lamothe in Columbus, Ga., contributed to this report.