Defense Secretary James Mattis slammed the Taliban as having “no religious foundation” and being “not devout anything” after a Friday attack on an Afghan army base that left 150 soldiers dead.
Afghan Defense Minister Abdullah Habibi and Army Chief of Staff Qadam Shah Shahim resigned from their posts after the attack on Afghan National Army 209 Shaheen Military Corps Headquarters in Balkh province.
The Taliban claimed the attack was perpetrated by a “mujahid who had already infiltrated to the enemy ranks, managed to accomplice a heavy amount of explosive materials in a large dining room in the Corps; later on 9 further mujahideen equipped with heavy and light arms entered the installation tactically and launched attack on the enemy.”
They claimed the attack was retaliation for the killing of Taliban governors in Kunduz and Baghlan.
“The martyrdom offensive of 209th Corps conveys message to all enemy soldiers, police, intelligence apparatus and other relevant stooge organs that this spring operation will be more deadly and painful,” the Taliban message continued. “It is better for mercenaries to avoid sacrificing for American and foreign interests anymore. If they still continue protection of their masters they are then responsible for their actions.”
At a press conference in Afghanistan on Monday, Mattis said the attack on the soldiers “just as they were coming out of a mosque, you know, coming out of a house of worship — it certainly characterizes this fight for exactly what it is.”
“This barbaric enemy and what they do,” he added, “kind of makes it clear to me why it is we stand together.”
Mattis predicted it’s “going to be another tough year for the valiant Afghan security forces and the international troops who have stood and will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with Afghanistan against terrorism and against those who seek to undermine the legitimate United Nations-recognized government of this nation.”
“If the Taliban wished to join the political process and work honestly for a positive future for the Afghan people, who have suffered long and hard, they need only to renounce violence and reject terrorism,” he said. “It’s a pretty low standard to join the political process.”
Gen. John Nicholson, commander of the Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan, said he was “not refuting” reports that Russians are supplying the Taliban with weapons.
“We continue to get reports of this assistance, and, of course, we had the overt legitimacy lent to the Taliban by the Russians. That really occurred starting late last year, beginning through this process they’ve been undertaking,” Nicholson said.
Mattis said the Russians “seem to be choosing to be strategic competitors in a number of areas; the level of granularity and the level of success they’re achieving — I think the jury is out on that.”
“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,” he said. “For example, any weapons being funneled here from a foreign country would be a violation of international law, unless they’re coming through the government of Afghanistan for the Afghan forces. And so that would have to be dealt with as a violation of international law.”
In February testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Nicholson told lawmakers that Russian support for the Taliban was increasing.
The general added that he believes Russia is “concerned that if there’s a coalition and a U.S. presence in Afghanistan that this affects their ability to influence the Central Asian states to the north.”
Pressed on what Russia’s endgame in Afghanistan could be, Nicholson said he thinks the Kremlin’s goal is to “undermine United States and NATO.” Russia ally Iran also believes that successful democracy in Afghanistan “will be a threat to them,” he added.