ISLAMABAD - Afghanistan’s defense minister and military chief have both resigned following Friday’s deadliest ever attack on a major army base that killed at least 140 soldiers and wounded many more.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the raid on the Afghan National Army’s 209th Shaheen Corps in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
Afghan President President Ashraf Ghani’s office, in a brief announcement Monday, said, “Defense Minister Abdullah Habibi and Army Chief of Staff Qadam Shah Shahim stepped down with immediate effect” and the president has accepted their resignations.
Habibi later told a joint news conference with Shahim at the defense ministry that they resigned on their own and were not forced to do so.
“Following sacrifices our men are rendering (in this fight), I am also morally bound to resign in the national interest and set an example for my successors so they will also show moral courage and do the same for resolving issues facing them in the future,country,” Habibi later told a joint news conference with Shahim at the defense ministry
Afghan officials and witnesses said that a group of ten heavily armed suicide bombers attacked and carried out the massacre just when hundreds of soldiers and officers were about to finish afternoon prayers in a mosque located deep inside the highly fortified facility.
Authorities have so far declined to confirm the number of casualties.
The government observed day of national mourning on Sunday in honor of the deceased soldiers.
Unnamed security officials and politicians in the capital city of relatively peaceful Balkh province claim the death toll could be as high as at least 180 and said special forces were also among them.
A presidential spokesman told reporters on Sunday an investigation was underway.
"Afghan president has ordered a full and technical investigation with regards to the attack on the military base. In order that the result of the investigation must be acceptable to the president and the people of Afghanistan,” Shah Hussain Murtazawi told a news conference in Kabul.
The insurgent attack has led to a flood of criticism of President Ashraf Ghani’s administration, with many accusing it of nepotism and appointing incompetent officers to key security posts who have failed to rid army ranks of soldiers suspected of links to the Taliban.
A Taliban spokesman claimed that four of its fighters who participated in Friday’s raid had served at the military base.
On Sunday, U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster spoke to his Afghan counterpart, Haneef Atmar, and condemned the terrorist attack.
“On behalf of the President Trump administration, and the American people, Gen. McMaster reaffirmed U.S. support for the people and security forces of Afghanistan,” Haneef’s office said. It added that Atmar told McMaster his government is determined to clear ranks of Afghan forces of "enemy influence and infiltrations".
The U.S. military has repeatedly shown concern over thousands of“ghost soldiers” in the Afghan army, meaning personnel who do not exist but their salaries are being drawn.
A month ago, militants attacked the country's largest army hospital in Kabul and killed more than 50 people, including doctors and soldiers. However, militants who have pledged allegiance to Syria-based Islamic State terrorist group claimed responsibility for that attack.