US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis arrived in Afghanistan on an unannounced visit Monday, an American defense 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 said it had dropped its largest non-nuclear bomb on ISIL hideouts in the country’s east.
Mattis, who has previously served in Afghanistan, has said he is compiling an assessment for President Donald Trump on Afghanistan’s brutal and seemingly intractable conflict.
He arrived as embattled Afghan security forces faced chaos with the resignations of defense minister Abdullah Habibi and army chief Qadam Shah Shaheem.
The resignations, announced in a terse one-line statement from the presidential palace, came amid fury over the Taliban assault on an army base outside the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif on Friday.
Ten gunmen dressed in soldiers’ uniforms and armed with suicide vests entered the base in army trucks and opened fire at unarmed troops at close range in the mosque and dining hall.
It is believed to be the deadliest-ever Taliban attack on an Afghan military target, though the exact toll from the assault remains unclear.
Afghan officials have so far ignored calls to break down the toll it has given of more than 100 soldiers killed or wounded, but have been known to minimize casualties in such attacks in the past.
Mattis’ visit also comes after the US said it had dropped a GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast, dubbed the “Mother of All Bombs”, on ISIL hideouts in Achin district 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.