Afghan defence minister, army chief resign
The United States must confront Russia for providing weapons to the Taliban for use against American-backed forces in Afghanistan, top US military officials said Monday.
At a news conference with Defence Secretary Jim Mat-tis at his side, Gen. John Nicholson, the American commander in Afghanistan, wouldn’t provide specifics about Russia’s role in Af-ghanistan. But said he would “not refute” that Moscow’s involvement includes giving weapons to the Taliban.
Earlier Monday, a senior US military official told report-ers in Kabul that Russia was giving machine guns and other medium-weight weap-ons.
The Taliban are using the weapons in the southern provinces of Helmand, Kan-dahar and Uruzgan, accord-ing to the official, who briefed journalists on intelli-gence information on condi-tion of anonymity.
Russia denies that it pro-vides any such support to the Taliban, which ruled Af-ghanistan until the US-led invasion in 2001.
Russia says contacts are lim-ited to safeguarding security and getting the hard-line re-ligious fundamentalists to reconcile with the govern-ment which Washington has failed for years to advance.
Russia also has promoted easing global sanctions on Taliban leaders who prove cooperative.
Asked about Russia’s activ-ity in Afghanistan, where it fought a bloody war in the 1980s and withdrew in de-feat, Mattis alluded to the increasing US concerns.
“We’ll engage with Russia diplomatically,” Mattis said. “We’ll do so where we can, but we’re going to have to confront Russia where what they’re doing is contrary to international law or denying the sovereignty of other countries.”
“For example,” Mattis told reporters in the Afghan capi-tal, “any weapons being fun-neled here from a foreign country would be a violation of international law.”
Mattis met with President Ashraf Ghani and other sen-ior government officials just hours after the nation’s de-fense minister and Army chief resigned over a massa-cre of more than 140 Afghan troops at a military base last Friday.
The insurgent assault was the biggest ever on a military base in Afghanistan, involv-ing multiple gunmen and suicide bombers in army uniforms who penetrated the compound of the 209th Corps of the Afghan Na-tional Army in northern Balkh province on Friday, killing and wounding scores. The death toll was likely to rise further.
Nicholson also said that in view of the sophisticated planning behind the attack, “it’s quite possible” that the Pakistan-based Haqqani network was responsible..
Nicholson, the top American commander in Kabul, re-cently told Congress that he needs a few thousand more troops to keep Afghan secu-rity forces on track to even-tually handling the Taliban insurgency on their own.
Mattis on Monday offered a grim assessment for Afghan forces fighting the Taliban.
“2017 is going to be another tough year,” he said.
Kabul was the final stop on Mattis’ six-nation, weeklong tour. He is the first member of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet to visit Afghanistan.
As part of the administra-tion’s review of Afghan pol-icy, Trump’s national secu-rity adviser, Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, visited Ka-bul last week to consult with Nicholson and with Afghan officials.
The war began in October 2001. The U.S. has about 9,800 troops in Afghanistan. They ended their combat mission against the Taliban in 2014 but are increasingly involved in backing up Af-ghan forces on the battlefield
The Afghan defence minister and his army chief resigned Monday, days after what is believed to be one of the deadliest-ever Taliban attacks on a military base triggered calls for officials to step down.
“President Ashraf Ghani has accepted the resignation of the defence minister and army chief of staff,” a one-line statement from the presidential palace said.
Angry Afghans had called for the resignations of minister Abdullah Habibi and army chief Qadam Shah Shaheem, among other officials, after the assault 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.
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 minimise 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 alone as high as 130.
The raid underscores the Taliban’s growing strength more than 15 years since they were ousted from power, and as they gear up ahead of the spring fighting season.
Many Afghans slammed the government for its inability to counter the attack, the latest in a series of brazen Taliban assaults, including one on the country’s largest military hospital in Kabul in March that left dozens dead.
Twelve army officers, including two generals, were sacked for negligence over that attack.
Officials put the death toll in that attack at 50, but security sources and survivors told AFP more than 100 were killed in the brazen assault.
Military analysts have slammed the “total intelligence failure” over such assaults, and called for new strategies to counter them.
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