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Top Afghan Defense Officials Resign After Attack Kills More Than 100 Troops

At a memorial on the Wazir Akbar Khan hilltop in Kabul on Sunday, activists pay tribute to the victims of Friday's Taliban-claimed attack on an army base.

Afghanistan's defense minister and its army chief of staff stepped down in the wake of a Taliban-claimed attack Friday in which at least 100 Afghan soldiers died. It was one of the deadliest attacks in Afghanistan since 2001.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced the high-level resignations Monday, on the same day that U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis arrived in the country on an unannounced visit, as the Trump administration reviews its Afghanistan policy.

A spokesman for Ghani told Reuters that Minister of Defense Abdullah Habibi and Army Chief of Staff Qadam Shah Shahim resigned because of Friday's attack.

Ghani's office released a statement that did not explicitly link the attack and the resignations, saying only that the president accepted the resignations "in order to promote accountability as a new chapter of ethical behavior in the political system of the country."

The commanders of four army corps were also replaced, according to the presidency's official Twitter account.

According to Reuters, "defence officials said as many as eight army personnel had been arrested — heightening suspicions the attackers had inside help."

The attack at a military base in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif raises more questions about the Afghan military's ability to defend against such attacks, more than 15 years after the U.S. drove the Taliban from power.

As The Two-Way reported, the militants entered the base disguised as Afghan army personnel, then attacked troops leaving Friday prayers at a mosque. The fighting reportedly lasted some six hours. The Taliban claimed responsibility, saying it sent 10 militants to avenge recent killings of senior Taliban leaders.

It remains unclear exactly how many people were killed. News reports citing Defense Ministry officials said 100 soldiers had died or been injured, but other outlets put the figure higher.

The BBC reports that:

"Other officials have told BBC that at least 136 people died — 124 coffins had been sent out to different parts of the country and 12 soldiers had not yet been identified, they said.

"But some sources say the toll was even higher. One eyewitness told the BBC he counted 165 bodies."

Speaking to reporters after meeting Ghani, Mattis highlighted that the victims of the attack were gunned down as they were leaving a mosque, saying it "certainly characterizes this fight for exactly what it is. ... It shows why we stand with the people of this country against such heinous acts."

Mattis said he and Ghani had a "focused discussion as we work to align our efforts," adding that he is in the country for "ongoing dialogue with Afghanistan's leadership" as he prepares to assess and advise President Trump on Afghanistan policy going forward.

Taliban militants have gained territory this past year, as NPR has reported, and the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan recently described the fight against the Taliban as a "stalemate."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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