US defence secretary James Mattis has made a surprise visit to Afghanistan’s war-shattered capital, days after a suicide bomber killed 21 people and wounded 90 others in the city.
Accompanied to Kabul by General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Mr Mattis met senior government officials, including President Ashraf Ghani and his leadership partner in an often fractious unity government, chief executive Abdullah Abdullah.
Security featured prominently in their discussions, as did government attempts to put the brakes on runaway government corruption, said a presidential statement following the meetings.
Mr Mattis also assured the Afghan leadership that the US is committed to stay the course in Afghanistan until the country is secure and stable, the statement said.
The visit to Afghanistan, which lasted a little more than six hours, came amid brutal assaults against the country’s minority Shiites and a fresh round of insider attacks this week that claimed the life of one American service member and eight local police.
The US has been supporting Afghan forces in an aggressive campaign against Islamic State group insurgents in eastern Nangarhar province, but the IS affiliate has repeatedly been able to carry out horrific and brazen attacks in the heavily fortified capital.
The victims have most often been Afghanistan’s minority Shiite Muslims. The radical Sunni IS reviles Shiites as apostates.
On Wednesday, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a wrestling centre, killing 21 people and wounding 90. Two of the dead were journalists who died when a second bomber blew himself up as first responders and journalists rushed to the scene.
On Friday, Afghanistan’s IS affiliate issued a statement claiming the attack. The statement was accompanied by a picture of a young man with a masked face, who was identified as suicide bomber Saber al-Khorasani.
The second explosion was a vehicle filled with explosives, according to the statement, which could not be independently verified. The discrepancy between the IS account and the Afghan government’s initial report of two suicide bombers was not immediately clear.
Mr Mattis’s visit to Kabul comes as Washington seems to be ramping up efforts for a negotiated end to Afghanistan’s protracted war and Washington’s longest military engagement.
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo announced this week the appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad as Washington’s new point man for Afghan reconciliation. Mr Khalilzad, a controversial figure in the region, is a former envoy to Afghanistan.
Mr Mattis arrived in Afghanistan fresh from meetings in Pakistan where Mr Pompeo said the US wanted to “reset” its relationship with Pakistan, and newly elected prime minister Imran Khan expressed optimism, promising to work with Washington for peace.
But Mr Khan has repeatedly said Pakistan is no longer interested in partnering with the US in war.
“This is my promise — that Pakistan will never again fight someone else’s war,” he said on Thursday in a speech to mark Pakistan’s Defence Day.