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Pentagon chief visits Afghanistan after deadly Taliban attack

US Defence Secretary James Mattis (3R) is met by US Army Command Sergeant Major David Clark (L) and General Christopher Haas (2R) as he arrives at Resolute Support headquarters in the Afghan capital Kabul on April 24, 2017. US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis arrived in Afghanistan on an unannounced visit April 24, an American defence official confirmed, hours after his Afghan counterpart resigned over a deadly Taliban attack. Mattis, making his first visit to Afghanistan as Pentagon chief, was due to meet top officials including President Ashraf Ghani less than two weeks after the US dropped its largest non-nuclear bomb on Islamic State hideouts in the country’s east. / AFP / POOL / JONATHAN ERNST

KABUL: US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis arrived in Afghanistan on an unannounced visit yesterday, hours after his Afghan counterpart resigned over a deadly Taliban attack that triggered anger and left embattled security forces facing disarray. Mattis, making his first visit to Afghanistan as Pentagon chief, was due to meet top officials including President Ashraf Ghani less than two weeks after the US dropped its largest non-nuclear bomb on Islamic State hideouts in the country’s east.

He arrived as Afghan security forces, already paying a heavy price against the resurgent Taliban ahead of the spring fighting season, faced chaos with the resignations of defense minister Abdullah Habibi and army chief Qadam Shah Shaheem. The resignations, along with the announcement of a corps commanders reshuffle, came amid fury over the Taliban assault on an army base outside the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif on Friday.

Gunmen in soldiers’ uniforms and armed with suicide vests entered the base in army trucks and opened fire at unarmed troops in the mosque and dining hall in potentially the deadliest-ever Taliban attack on an Afghan military target. Afghan officials have so far ignored calls to break down the toll it has given of more than 100 soldiers killed or wounded. They have been known to minimize casualties in such attacks in the past.

The US has said that at least 50 soldiers were killed, and some local officials have put the number of dead as high as 130. The raid, the latest in a series of brazen Taliban assaults, underscores the insurgents’ growing strength more than 15 years since they were ousted from power by the US invasion of 2001.

Afghans slammed the government for its inability to counter the attack, though Habibi said at a press conference in Kabul yesterday that his resignation was voluntary, comparing himself to “a soldier who sacrifices in battle”. “Nobody in the world has been able to prevent such attacks,” he said of the base assault. “It is an intelligence war and a war on terrorism. It is very difficult.” He repeated that an investigation was ongoing and more information about the death toll would be given when it is complete, though he admitted the casualties were “high.”

Afghan security forces targeted

Mattis’ visit also comes after the US dropped a GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast, dubbed the “Mother of All Bombs”, on Islamic State hideouts in eastern Nangarhar province, killing nearly 100 militants, according to unverified figures from Afghan officials. The attack triggered global shockwaves, with some condemning the use of Afghanistan as what they called a testing ground for the weapon, and against a militant group that is not considered as big a threat as the Taliban.

Mattis, who has previously served with the US military in Afghanistan, has said he is compiling an assessment for President Donald Trump on the brutal and seemingly intractable conflict. The Afghan war is the longest in US history but Trump has scarcely given it a passing mention-other than to call the MOAB strike a success-while campaigning or since entering office.

Mattis said in February his commander-in-chief had been “rightfully reticent” on the matter, as he was waiting for input from his generals. The Pentagon chief, who is on a tour of the Middle East and Africa, is the second senior US security official to visit Afghanistan this month: National Security Advisor General HR McMaster arrived in Kabul days after the MOAB was dropped. The US has around 8,400 troops in the country with about another 5,000 from NATO allies assisting a much larger Afghan force in the war against the Taliban and other Islamist militants.

Afghan security forces, beset by killings and desertions, have been struggling to beat back insurgents since US-led NATO troops ended their combat mission in December 2014. According to US watchdog SIGAR, casualties among Afghan security forces soared by 35 percent in 2016, with 6,800 soldiers and police killed. More than a third of Afghanistan is outside government control and many regions are fiercely contested by various insurgent groups, as Kabul’s repeated bids to launch peace negotiations with the Taliban have failed. – AFP

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