U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis arrived unannounced in Kabul Monday for talks on the potential deployment of additional American troops to Afghanistan, as the fallout from one of the deadliest Taliban attacks on the country's security forces continues.
Both Afghan officials and U.S. military commanders have called for more American troops to help counter recent Taliban gains on the battlefield.
The latest devastating attack happened Friday at Shaheen army base near the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, when a group of Taliban militants – dressed as Afghan soldiers and pretending to be transporting wounded comrades – entered the base and opened fire on unarmed soldiers leaving a mosque and others in a canteen.
The killing spree lasted for hours as the insurgents, armed with guns, rocket-propelled grenades and suicide vests, fanned out and targeted soldiers throughout the complex, before eventually being killed. The Taliban said that four of the 10 attackers had infiltrated the Afghan military by posing as soldiers in order to carry out the attack.
The final death toll has yet to be confirmed, but the Afghan government said that more than 100 people were killed in the attack. Reuters quoted one official as saying at least 140 had been killed with the number was expected to rise, while the BBC reported that officials said that at least 136 had been killed.
Theo Farrell, an Afghanistan expert at City University, London, told VICE News that the "spectacular success" of the attack was "a timely warning of the Taliban's ability to conduct complex assaults, and it is likely to provide a boost to Taliban morale."
The attack has fuelled public anger over the government's apparent inability to contain the Taliban insurgency. The office of President Ashraf Ghani announced Monday that Defense Minister Abdullah Habibi and Army Chief of Staff Qadam Shah Shahim had resigned in the wake of the attack, while the commanders of the attacked corps and three other units had been replaced.
The Taliban insurgency has had growing momentum behind it in its near 16-year campaign since the U.S. invasion. According to a recent U.S. government estimate, the Afghan government had uncontested control of just 57 percent of the country in November, down from 72 percent the previous year. Among the losses has been the symbolically and strategically important town of Sangin in the southern province of Helmand.
But the Taliban continues to have its own issues, said Farrell, including "widespread disillusionment within the (movement) with an armed campaign that pits Muslim against fellow Muslim and, in particular, with the failure to translate such tactical victories into sustainable strategic gains."
"Underlying this is the near-universal view within the Taliban that their leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, is a weak and ineffective figure," he said.
Future U.S. direction in Afghanistan under review
Mattis began his visit, which the Defense department says is aimed at reaffirming military alliances and discussing counterterrorism efforts, at the headquarters of Operation Resolute Support, the NATO-led mission to train, advise and assist Afghan security forces.
Ghani's office tweeted Monday that the pair had met ahead of Mattis's "expected decision on more U.S. troops for Afghanistan." More than 8,000 U.S. troops are currently stationed in Afghanistan, along with 5,000 others from allied countries.
Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of Operation Resolute Support, recently told Congress that he needed several thousand more international troops in order to "break the stalemate" against the Taliban. Citing unnamed U.S. officials, Reuters reported that Nicholson's request was currently under consideration, as officials conducted an interagency review of the U.S.'s future direction in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan has not figured as a top priority so far for the Trump administration, which is yet to outline its strategy for the conflict or appoint an ambassador to the country.
But National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster visited Kabul earlier this month, saying that officials would present President Donald Trump with options for future U.S. direction in the conflict.
Earlier this month, the U.S. took the unprecedented step of dropping the largest ever conventional bomb – known as the "mother of all bombs" – on an Islamic State group target in Afghanistan. The move sparked criticism in the country, with Mirwais Yasini, an MP from Nangarhar province, questioning U.S. priorities in striking ISIS in Afghanistan when "the biggest threat to the security and stability of this country is the Taliban insurgents."
"You drop your biggest bomb on Daesh (ISIS), but what about the Taliban who kill dozens of our people every day?" he said.