Kabul, Afghanistan - It was one of the bloodiest days for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) as Taliban fighters launched a surprise attack on a remote military outpost near the border with Pakistan, killing 21 soldiers.
The Ministry of Defence said hundreds of foreign and Afghan "terrorists" executed the brazen February 23 raid in eastern Kunar province, which also left several troops missing and wounded during a four-hour battle as soldiers "fought to the death".
The late-night attack has struck a particularly raw nerve among the Afghan public, with accusations that President Hamid Karzai has done little to support the men and women who have died defending their nation.
While Defence Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi attended the funeral for the fallen soldiers, Karzai failed to show up, although he did postpone a trip to Sri Lanka because of the killings.
Cannons, tanks and planes - our forces need them... Our commander-in-chief for us, or for our enemies?
Fighting against armed opposition groups, including the Taliban, is dangerous work in Afghanistan. At least 13,700 ANSF members have been killed over the past decade with more than 16,500 wounded, according to a statement from the Office of Administrative Affairs (OAA), a body that compiles data for the president and his cabinet.
It said 13,729 families of security force personnel killed were provided financial support, while another 16,511 were compensated after a relative was wounded.
"Afghanistan supports the families of the martyrs and wounded, military and civilians, as a religious, national and official duty of the government," the OAA said.
But many Afghans have challenged that assertion. A member of parliament, Baktash Siawash, has launched an ongoing sit-in protest in Kabul's affluent Kartei Seh district, highlighting what he said was Karzai's lack of support for the military, while demanding that the outgoing president "take one day to visit the families of the ANSF martyrs".
The military remains well-respected among many Afghans in the war-torn country, and thousands of students from northern Afghanistan converged on Kabul to protest the Kunar killings in late February at a separate demonstration. They also insisted on stronger backing for soldiers battling the Taliban and other fighters.
"Cannons, tanks and planes - our forces need them," demonstrators chanted at Shahr-e Naw Park on a rainy day in the capital. "Our commander-in-chief for us, or for our enemies?"
Karzai has angered many Afghans in his efforts to achieve peace with the Taliban in recent years.
"We never planned to eliminate the Taliban. Not me, not the Afghan people, not the Afghan government," the president told Al Jazeera last April. "I declared complete amnesty to Taliban… from the leadership to everybody else… I'm still calling them brothers."
Other recent incidents have upset many Afghans, including the release of dozens of "dangerous individuals" held at Bagram Prison - a move denounced by US officials.
| Afghan honour guards stand next to the coffins as they pay tribute to 21 soldiers killed in a Taliban attack [Reuters]
Mawlawi Abdul Raqib, a senior Taliban official, was shot dead by unknown assailants last month in Peshawar, Pakistan. After the assassination, Karzai reportedly described Raqib as a "martyr for peace", sent condolences to his family, and dispatched a military helicopter to bring the body back to his Afghan village for the funeral, which was attended by Afghan officials.
The air transport of Raqib stood in stark contrast to the treatment of Afghan soldiers killed on the battlefield in past years, whose families were left on their own to retrieve the bodies of their loved ones.
Siawash said the father of one fallen soldier had told him he risked his life for his son's body by travelling to and from Taliban-controlled areas. "He had to hire a taxi to transport his son's body back to their home in Ghazni," he said.
Gardoo, 46, who like many Afghans uses only one name, was one of more than 100 rain-soaked protesters who gathered at Shahr-e Naw last month. He said Karzai's actions have shown that "our enemy's blood is worth more than our own".
Siawash said Karzai's tenure since December 2001 has been "stained" by his lack of support for the forces under his command, adding that meeting families of dead soldiers face-to-face would go a long way. "All they [officials] have to do is tell one orphaned child: 'Your father is a martyr, your father is a hero, and the person who martyred him is an enemy of the nation.'"
They should not let these young men die in vain.
A government spokeswoman told Al Jazeera the government does in fact provide moral support to families of those killed. "The president meets with families of security forces as needed. He has also instructed the relevant government institutions to provide necessary support to them on a regular basis," said Adela Raz, deputy presidential spokeswoman.
Those gathered in the park demanded the Afghan military be given a fighting chance against well-armed and organised opposition fighters by providing better weaponry. Afghan soldiers have in the past complained of old weapons and shoddy equipment.
Protester Ali Mohammad Faqeri said the president must view his dwindling presidency as a final chance to connect with the nation. "It's a good last opportunity for Karzai to possibly earn a place in the Afghan people's hearts, especially those unhappy with him. He should look at it as a positive step for his legacy."
Shokib, a member of the Afghan National Army based in the northern province of Takhar, who also uses one name, said providing greater support for the military would honour those killed in battle.
"The real power and emotion of such a loss can only be understood if officials continue to promote the love and responsibility for one's nation among the people," he said. "They should not let these young men die in vain."