US defence secretary Jim Mattis, making an unannounced visit to Afghanistan on Monday, described the Taliban as a “barbaric enemy” days after an attack by the group on an army camp killed more than 140 people.
Mattis flew into Kabul hours after his Afghan counterpart Abdullah Habibi and Afghan Army chief Qadam Shah Shaheem resigned over the deadly attack that triggered anger and left the embattled army in disarray. He met high-ranking officials including US forces commander Gen John Nicholson.
“What they (Taliban) do, makes it clear to me why we stand together to defeat them,” he told a news conference he addressed along with Nicholson. “We continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Afghans for the future of this country,” he added.
Mattis also said the Taliban will have to renounce violence and reject terrorism to join the political process. He added that a majority of Afghans reject the Taliban and do not want to see them returning to power.
He referred to the use of the Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb to target the Islamic State in Nangarhar about a fortnight ago and said the attack was meant to “send a very clear message to ISIS. If they come to Afghanistan they will be destroyed.”
“We are going to keep going until ISIS-Khorasan is defeated in 2017. There is no space for ISIS-K in Afghanistan,” he said.
Mattis, making his first visit to Afghanistan as Pentagon chief, also met President Ashraf Ghani. 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 the defence minister and army chief.
Shortly after Mattis landed, militants carried out a suicide attack on a joint US-Afghan military base in southeastern Khost province. There was no news on casualties after the bomber detonated at an Afghan-guarded checkpoint close to Camp Chapman, provincial police chief Faizullah Ghairat told AFP.
The resignations, along with reshuffle of corps commanders, followed fury over Friday’s Taliban assault on the army base in Mazar-e-Sharif. Gunmen in soldiers’ uniforms and armed with suicide vests entered the base in army trucks and opened fire at unarmed troops in a mosque and a dining hall in one of the deadliest-ever Taliban attacks on an Afghan military target.
The attack, 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.
Up to ten army personnel have been arrested and are being questioned as suspects, a military spokesman attached to the base told AFP, amid fears it could have been an insider attack.