Taliban Massacre of Soldiers Spurs Afghan Minister to Resign

(Bloomberg) -- Afghanistan’s defense minister and the chief of army staff resigned on Monday, three days after more than 140 soldiers were killed in the Taliban’s deadliest assault in 16 years.

As the government and the U.S. struggled to manage the deteriorating security situation, Abdullah Habibi and Qadam Shah Shahim stepped down with “immediate effect” following the attack at an army base in the northern province of Balkh, according to a statement from the Presidential Palace in Kabul. 

Habibi told reporters in the capital they resigned in the “national interest” and Shahim said they weren’t pressured by top officials. “Afghanistan is facing a complicated war and no one has succeeded to defeat terrorism yet,” Habibi said.

More than 150 Afghan soldiers were also wounded in the assault after 10 Taliban fighters, including suicide bombers, dressed up in military uniforms and stormed the base in Dehdaadi district. They began shooting as soldiers were praying and dining in a battle that lasted six hours.

The massacre and resignations will add to the “the turmoil for its army at a very challenging and difficult moment,” said Jawid Kohistani, a Kabul-based political analyst.

Mattis Visit

It also comes as the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump reviews its strategy in Afghanistan, while Taliban forces gain ground and Islamic State establishes its own strongholds. Less than two weeks ago, the U.S. dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb it’s ever used on Islamic State positions in the country.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made an unannounced visit to NATO headquarters in Afghanistan on Monday as part of his tour of the Middle East and Africa. His trip coincided with a suicide car bombing at 1 p.m. local time near a military base used by foreign forces in the eastern city of Khost, Interior Ministry spokesman Najib Danish said by phone. He was was unable to provide further details immediately.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama had planned to remove most U.S. troops from Afghanistan before leaving office, but pulled back from that last year because of Taliban gains and the inability of Afghan forces to fight on their own. About 13,000 U.S. and NATO troops remain in Afghanistan, and the top U.S. commander is pushing for several thousand more.

The Taliban controls or contests over half the country’s populated areas, according to U.S. government estimates, making it harder for America to extract itself from its longest-ever war. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has repeatedly called on the Taliban to join peace talks.

There yet may be a silver lining from the resignation of the “incompetent” leaders, said Atiqullah Amarkheil, an independent military analyst in Kabul. “Their removal is a great step towards reforms in security posts.”