Afghanistan’s defence minister and army chief of staff resigned on Monday after the deadliest ever Taliban attack on a military base, and U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis arrived in Kabul as Washington looks to craft a new strategy for the country.
Mattis was expected to meet Afghan officials and U.S. troops, but his arrival coincided with the fall-out from Friday’s Taliban assault on a base in the north of the country in which more than 140 Afghan soldiers were killed.
“Defence Minister Abdullah Habibi and Army Chief of Staff Qadam Shah Shahim stepped down with immediate effect,” the office of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced in a post on its Twitter account.
Shah Hussain Murtazawi, acting spokesman for Ghani, told reporters the resignations were because of Friday’s attack on a major army base in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
Ghani’s office also announced that he had replaced the commanders of four army corps in response to the attack.
The attack underlines the scale of the challenge facing the Western-backed government and its international partners more than 15 years after the United States invaded the country.
In a serious security failure, as many as 10 Taliban fighters, dressed in Afghan army uniforms and driving military vehicles, made their way onto the base and opened fire on soldiers and new recruits eating a meal and leaving a mosque after Friday prayers, according to officials.
Multiple Afghan officials said the final death toll was likely to be even higher.
The attackers used rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns, and suicide vests, they said.
U.S. officials acknowledge that Afghanistan has rarely in recent years been considered a priority by decision-makers, who have instead been consumed by Syria, Iraq and, increasingly, North Korea.
But there are signs the administration of new President Donald Trump is making progress in crafting a policy for Afghanistan.
Trump’s National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster visited Afghanistan this month, becoming the first senior official from the new administration to do so.
The White House recently offered Lisa Curtis, a researcher with a Washington-based think-tank, the position of senior director for South and Central Asia – at a time when many other jobs in the Trump administration are still vacant.
U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said there was currently an inter-agency review under way, which could take several weeks, to determine the goals and milestones for the United States in Afghanistan.
Ghani declared Sunday a day of mourning for those who died in Friday’s attack, ordering flags to be flown at half-staff.
The attack came just over a week after the United States dropped a 22,000 pound bomb, known as the “mother of all bombs”, against a series of Islamic State caves and tunnels near the border with Pakistan.
U.S. officials say they were surprised by the level of attention that particular bomb got, since it does little to change the overall situation ground where the larger threat remained the Taliban, not Islamic State.
The Afghan army is preparing for what is expected to be a year of hard fighting against Taliban militants, who now control or contest more than 40 percent of the country.
Nearly 9,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, in addition to thousands of international coalition forces.
General John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, recently told a Congressional hearing that he needed several thousand more international troops in order to break a stalemate in the long war with Taliban insurgents.
U.S. officials say that Nicholson’s request was making its way through the chain of command.
Conversations, however, according to current and former officials, were revolving around 3,000 to 5,000 additional troops.
One official said that there was an emphasis on creating a strategy that was not tied to artificial deadlines. Former President Barack Obama had wanted to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan before he left office.
While Mattis is no stranger to Afghanistan – he served there and was also the head of U.S. Central Command – there are questions about what a few thousand additional U.S. troops can achieve in the country.
Last month, Taliban fighters captured the strategic district of Sangin in the southern Afghan province of Helmand after security forces pulled out, leaving the district centre to the insurgents.
Scores of U.S. and British soldiers died fighting in Sangin in some of their bloodiest battles following the 2001 U.S.-led military intervention.
“Let’s face it, no matter how many troops you may send to Afghanistan it is going to be very difficult to end the war, we had 100,000 troops fighting in Afghanistan during height of the surge and we didn’t end the war,” said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert and the Woodrow Wilson Center.