The Afghan Army’s Last Stand at Chinese Camp

Afghan National Army soldiers from the 209th Corps march on their base in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, in 2015.

MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan — First Lt. Mohammad Reza, 23, got up from his bedroll on Monday morning and put on civilian clothes underneath his uniform. He was sweltering in the summer heat, but before the day was over, he would be glad he had done so.

Lieutenant Reza was a platoon leader and the senior officer of what was left of Company A, Sixth Battalion, First Brigade, part of the Afghan National Army’s 209th Corps. His base, known as Chinese Camp, was in Ghormach District, a longtime Taliban stronghold in northern Faryab Province.

Battered by heavy Taliban attacks for three nights in a row, the company’s officers said they had lost half of their 106 soldiers — 21 were dead, including the company commander, and 33 were wounded. Fifteen border police officers based there had also been killed.

By the day’s end, they would all be gone.

The army’s last stand at Chinese Camp is an object lesson in the difficult conditions under which many Afghan troops fight and the inability of their military to support and resupply them — especially when forces are stretched thin by a big fight with the Taliban elsewhere.

On Friday, more than 1,000 Taliban insurgents sought to overrun the strategic city of Ghazni in southeastern Afghanistan, some 300 miles from Chinese Camp. When Ghazni came under attack, Chinese Camp was doomed, its defenders said.

On Tuesday, an Afghan military spokesman, Ghafoor Ahmed Jawed, claimed the insurgents had been cleared from the main part of Ghazni. But residents said fighting continued for a fifth straight day and hundreds of bodies were either in the streets or dumped in the Ghazni River.

The fiercest attacks on Chinese Camp came on Saturday and Sunday, just as the fighting for Ghazni was at its heaviest. The insurgents in Faryab massed their forces and attacked the base throughout both nights, according to officers there.

The defenders repeatedly begged for air support and helicopter resupply from their regional command in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif; ammunition and food were perilously low.

“They kept saying: ‘We’ll be there in an hour,’ and when we called back, they said half an hour. But they betrayed us and never came,” Lieutenant Reza said. The defenders said the insurgents numbered about 1,000 and seemed to have no problem resupplying themselves.

After dressing on Monday morning, Lieutenant Reza walked over to the camp’s fortified outer wall. Originally built by the American-led international military coalition, it was among many bases handed over to the Afghan military as foreign troops withdrew.

The first thing he noticed was that no one was in the guard tower.

“He had escaped to surrender to the Taliban,” he said.

The base itself was protected by outposts surrounding it and another layer of defenses some distance away. But the army’s positions were all on the flat valley floor, where a long-abandoned Chinese development project had given the camp its name.

The Taliban were in the surrounding hills, firing down into the camp during the day and moving closer in at night. The wounded and dead lay everywhere around the base, the lieutenant said.

“They stunk, but we couldn’t do anything about it,” he said. “It was too dangerous to get them. Their bodies were swelling in the heat.”

“The whole camp was covered in blood,” said First Lt. Shah Fahim, another platoon leader. On Sunday night, speaking by phone, he wept and worried he would be killed in the night. On top of that, the family of the dead company commander, Capt. Sayid Azam, kept calling him, asking for news of the captain.

“I couldn’t tell them,” Lieutenant Fahim said. “I told them I would tell him to call them back later.”

Lieutenant Fahim and a squad of five men were assigned to one of the outposts around the camp on Sunday night. On Monday morning, all six surrendered to the Taliban, Lieutenant Reza said. He knew that because some soldiers taken prisoner began calling their friends still on the base at the Taliban’s urging.

“They kept asking us to go with them.”

Throughout the morning, groups of five or six soldiers at a time began disappearing from the base and the outposts.

“Finally, the 40 of us who were left decided to surrender, too,” he said.

At American urging, the Afghan military has been shifting its strategy to concentrate on holding population centers instead of territory. That previous territory-based strategy left numerous small bases scattered around rural Afghanistan highly vulnerable when the insurgents mass against them, as happened in Ghormach.

But giving up Ghormach District to the Taliban would hand them a coup in a part of the country where the insurgents were weak only a couple of years earlier. So Company A was sent to Chinese Camp a year ago.

Before he was killed, the company’s captain expressed concern that even without a Ghazni, the Afghan military’s priorities were skewed at the expense of troops in the field. Politicians commandeered badly needed military helicopters for their own use at times when bases like his were struggling for resupply.

Captain Azam was particularly incensed to learn that three Army helicopters had been used to ferry Islamic State fighters who surrendered to the government on Aug. 2 so they would not have to travel on a dangerous highway. The next day, the captain said, one helicopter came to resupply Company A.

“All we got was three sacks of rice. Can you imagine? For 100 men?”

On top of that, the captain said, he and his men had not been paid in 10 months.

The Army “was afraid once they got their pay, they wouldn’t come back,” he said.

Desertion is rife from the Afghan military. The attrition rate was running at 30 percent a year, according to the last figures, made public in 2016. Since then, the military has classified the attrition and desertion rates as secret.

“We all think they have sold us out to the enemy,” Captain Azam said in a phone interview four days before he was killed on Sunday.

On Monday, Lieutenant Reza said he and the remaining 40 soldiers in Chinese Camp walked out with their arms up and surrendered to the Taliban. The insurgents made them line up and turn over weapons and bulletproof vests, but let them keep their cellphones and other personal items.

Then the insurgents stopped two buses near Chinese Camp and made the passengers disembark so they could commandeer them for the prisoners. The passengers, it turned out, were all Afghans who had just been deported from Iran, a routine occurrence.

According to a senior Afghan military official, the entire 106-man contingent was believed to have been either killed or captured by the Taliban.

All except Lieutenant Reza.

In the melee as the buses were being loaded, the lieutenant surrounded himself with civilians and quickly stripped his uniform off, then mingled in with the deportees. When the Taliban left with their busloads of prisoners, he began walking with the deportees.

Soon the Taliban came back, aware they were short one officer among the prisoners. None of the deportees let on that he was among them, however, and the insurgents left. The deportees then asked him to leave them in case the Taliban returned. So Lieutenant Reza said he walked in the other direction.

Fortunately it was soon dark.

He walked all night, arriving in the early morning at the nearest Afghan Army base, also in Faryab Province.

“I don’t know what the Taliban did to the captured soldiers,” he said, reached by cellphone on Tuesday.

The Afghan military spokesman, Mr. Jawed, was asked on Tuesday what happened at Chinese Camp and he said he did not know anything other than that 17 soldiers were killed and 19 wounded.

“We are working to figure out the number of forces in the camp,” he said. Asked about reports that many had surrendered, he did not answer.

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