Defense Secretary Jim Mattis sought Monday to shore up an Afghan government reeling from its worst defeat by a resurgent Taliban now possibly supplied with weapons by Russia.
Mattis arrived in Kabul shortly after President Ashraf Ghani sacked the defense minister and the army chief following the Taliban assault Friday on a northern base that killed at least 140 Afghan National Defense Security Forces troops.
Before Mattis arrived unannounced, the Taliban claimed responsibility for setting off a car bomb at the entrance of Camp Chapman in Khost province. The same base was the target of a 2009 suicide attack by a Jordanian double agent that killed nine, including seven American CIA officers and contractors.
At a news conference with Mattis, Army Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan and the NATO Resolute Support mission, did not dispute regional reports that Russia, which has acknowledged contacts with the Taliban, is sending weapons and supplies to the insurgents, The Washington Post reported.
"We continue to get reports of this assistance," Nicholson said. "We support anyone who wants to help us advance the reconciliation process, but anyone who arms belligerents who perpetuate attacks like the one we saw two days ago in Mazar-e Sharif is not the best way forward to a peaceful reconciliation."
Mattis said, "Any weapons being funneled here from a foreign country would be a violation of international law unless they were coming to the government of Afghanistan."
The attack Friday on the Afghan army's 209th Corps base outside Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Balkh province killed at least 140, and the death toll is expected with scores of others wounded. It was the worst attack on a military base in Afghanistan since the U.S. entered the country in 2001.
Local reports said that as few as 10 Afghan fighters managed to gain access to the base and fell upon Afghan troops at a mosque and a dining facility with small arms and grenades in a battle that lasted five hours.
Mattis said the attack is evidence that the Afghan government faces a "barbaric enemy. What they do, makes it clear to me why we stand together to defeat them."
However, Mattis said he is still hopeful of a political settlement with the Taliban that could lead to peace. "If the Taliban want 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. "That's a pretty low standard."
Without a political agreement, Mattis predicted that 2017 will 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."
In response to the attack on the army base, Ghani's office announced Defense Minister Abdullah Habibi and Army Chief of Staff Qadam Shah Shahim had "stepped down with immediate effect." Despite his resignation, Habibi reportedly attended a meeting with Mattis.
Ghani's office also announced that four army corps commanders had been replaced, and Afghan defense officials said as many as eight army personnel had been arrested on suspicion of aiding in the attack, Reuters reported.
Mattis' surprise visit to Afghanistan came at the end of a week-long Mideast tour of six nations. He is due back in Washington on Wednesday to brief senators at a White House meeting on Afghanistan, the campaign against ISIS and the North Korean threat.