KABUL, Afghanistan – About an hour after the sun rose on Friday, some 200 Afghan soldiers – two companies belonging to the 5th Battalion, 7th Brigade of the Afghan Border Police – holding court in Zibak District of Badakhshan Province in the far northeastern corner of Afghanistan were barraged from all four sides by an estimated 1,500 terrorists.
"They suddenly just surrounded us," commanding officer Colonel Mohammad Nader told Fox News on Tuesday, adding that his 5th Battalion generally operates out of Kunduz, but a few months ago deployed to Badakhshan to offer support as insurgency there swelled.
Such surprise assaults are hardly unusual, but this one seemingly small battle in a long war could prove to be a major strategic loss for U.S-backed Afghanistan.
Outnumbered and outgunned on Friday, the Afghan forces repelled the enemy fighters several times, seeking support from higher ups that Nader claims never came. Fearing a complete bloodbath and with morale fast falling, the colonel ordered his men to retreat. With that, he continued, they had no choice but to abandon their military vehicles and much of their ammunition and flee as the enemy moved in.
With little food or water, and that sunken feeling of having been forgotten by the leaders for whom you fight for, the down-trodden forces embarked on what would prove to be a tortuous three-day expedition. Already at 8,500-feet altitude, and then ascending to 10,000 feet and slogging 30 miles through uninhabitable frozen terrain, Nader said 20 soldiers "died or disappeared" along the trek.
On Monday, the remaining made it to the Ishkasham region of Badakhshan and instantly came under enemy assault – calling on locals to help defend their beleaguered group.
As of today, the Afghan soldiers have established a new front line of sorts running through a stretch of small villages. Nader emphasized that there are only a couple of hundred of them armed with light weapons and stretched thin along the porous, almost four-mile front line.
What's more, he lamented that they are without appropriate cold weather clothing and weapon supplies. But just how long they can keep the much better equipped enemy out, Nader does not know.
"We don't care about food, we just want what we need to survive," he contended. "And it will be a big problem if the terrorists capture this area."
Commander Ahmad Muslem Hayat, a former Mujahideen army chief and later military attaché for Afghanistan's British Embassy, stressed the strategic importance of this land parcel, which is nestled between Tajikstan and northern Pakistan, and edging the province's border with China.
"During the Soviet war, we built this road running from Chitral in Pakistan straight to Zibak, so we had an effective supply and logistics route," he explained. "If this road falls, it would be a terrible loss logistically and economically. The Taliban and ISIS would get everything they need from Pakistan and other neighbors."
Also, it would cut off the Badakhshan peninsula, and vital trade partner China, from the rest of Afghanistan.
Despite the oft-cited narrative of the Taliban and ISIS frequently turning their weapons on one another, Nader insisted that attacks against government troops in the region are often coordinated between these factions, and that the initial assault on Friday involved both parties as well as Al Qaeda and Uzbek elements. He also said that such co-operation continues at their new post.
"We are fighting all of them now," he said. "The Taliban are usually the ones on the mountain and ISIS and foreign fighters are below in the valleys."
Back in their origin of Zibak, a small group of Afghan Special Forces Commandos have since arrived in an attempt to recapture the region from the terrorists. Several airstrikes are said to have been conducted.
Three years ago, the northeastern region was relatively stable – thus resources were increasingly diverted to the terrorists teeming southeast and east. But in recent months especially, the security situation here has sharply deteriorated – symptomatic of much of the conflict-ridden country.
“I hope Resolute Support (the NATO mission in Afghanistan) recognizes the strategic importance of this battle,” information analyst and former Marine, Will Semmes, observed from Kabul this week. “It is indicative of the current state of Afghan military command-and-control and a loss of this key area would further embolden the Taliban and their hosts in Pakistan. There’s a reason thousands of Afghan soldiers are being killed every year.”
According to a new report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), at least 6,785 Afghan soldiers were killed last year, with an additional 807 casualties in the first six weeks of this year.
The Pentagon is subsequently mulling the deployment of 5,000 more US troops to assist with the grave scenario.
Former Afghanistan Vice President Ahmed Zia Massoud told Fox News that it's not unusual for national fighters to endure some 100 deaths a day.
"The U.S has given us a lot, but the Afghan leadership and corruption remains bad," he added. "And we are seeing that reflected in our worsening security situation."