Vice President Mike Pence made an unannounced trip to Afghanistan to meet its leaders and underscore U.S. commitment to the country four months after President Donald Trump agreed to an open-ended war against insurgents here.
Pence arrived on a military plane at Bagram Airfield under the cover of darkness on Thursday night after leaving Washington on Wednesday night. He then flew by helicopter to Kabul, where he met President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah at the presidential palace.
Pence told the leaders he hoped his presence there was tangible evidence that the United States was ‘here to see this through.’
In a reversal of his campaign call for a swift withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, Trump in August pledged a stepped-up military campaign against Taliban insurgents and signaled the United States would send more troops to fight in what is the longest war in its history.
At the end of August, there were some 11,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and more have since arrived.
Here to stay: Mike Pence landed first at Bagram Air Field outside Kabul where he spoke to troops after meeting the country’s leaders
VIP travel: Mike Pence arrived on a C-17 Globemaster from the 437th Airlift Wing for his unannounced trip to Afghanistan
Speaking engagement: Mike Pence first addressed troops then posed for selfies at a Christmas tree
‘Victory is closer than ever’: Pence said U.S. efforts towards victory over the Taliban and other radical elements in Afghanistan were working
Sacrifice: Pence praised the armed forces for their efforts since 2001, which have seen some 2,400 U.S. service personnel killed
Power on display: Mike pence walked on to a stage at Bagram Air Field in front of an Army Black Hawk. Half of the 3rd Infantry Division’s Combat Aviation Brigade is currently deployed to Afghanistan as Task Force Falcon
Force projection: Military assets were gathered in the hangar at Bagram in front of an audience of service men and women for Pence’s speech. They included two MRAPs – mine resistant patrol vehicles used by the infantry
Flying the flag: U.S. Air Force personnel were in front of an F-16 in the hangar in Bagram as Mike Pence chatted
Air power: Pence spoke in front of an F-16 which are used in close air support roles for combat operations
Line-up with the top brass: Mike Pence met senior officers who serve under General Nick Nicholson (left of Pence), commander of U.S forces in Afghanistan
Glimpse of capabilities: Another aircraft in the hangar was the latest intelligence-gathering and surveillance plane, an MC-12. It is designed for surveillance and reconnaissance missions and can fly at low altitudes much more quietly than a jet. Pence shook hands with senior officers in front of it and a Cougar 6×6 patrl vehicle
Mission: Pence used his speech to the troops at Bagram to say that the U.S. was not leaving until Afghanistan posed no threat to the homeland
Selfie time: Pence got an enthusiastic response from service personnel after he spoke
Thumbs up: An upbeat Mike Pence posed for pictures with servicemen and women at the hangar
Meeting the troops: Pence spoke to one group of soldiers in the hangar at Bagram
Thank you for your service: Pence shook hands with one member of the 82nd Airborne Division. 1,200 soldiers from the 82nd were deployed to Afghanistan in September
Ghani expressed gratitude to the U.S. government and said Afghanistan’s partnership with the United States was cemented in sacrifice.
Pence had originally planned to travel to Israel and Egypt this week, but he postponed that trip to remain in Washington while Congress passed legislation to overhaul U.S. tax law.
The short visit to Afghanistan was shrouded in secrecy for security reasons. Reporters traveling with the vice president were asked not to reveal his whereabouts until after the delegation arrived back at the air base from Kabul and Pence had addressed U.S. troops.
Pence, who coordinated the process that resulted in Trump’s new Afghanistan policy, has been one of the main interlocutors between the White House and the Afghan leadership since Trump entered office in January.
He repeated his promise of U.S. commitment to the region during remarks to troops at Bagram.
‘Under President Donald Trump, the armed forces of the United States will remain engaged in Afghanistan until we eliminate the terrorist threat to our homeland … once and for all,’ Pence said.
The vice president noted the sacrifice of American soldiers here since the 2001 invasion and told the troops, ‘I believe victory is closer than ever before.’
Pence said after his meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that U.S. armed forces will remain engaged in the country until they eliminate the terrorist threat to the U.S. homeland.
He also wished the soldiers a ‘Merry Christmas.’
Talking tough on Pakistan: Pence used his visit to Bagram to say that the U.S. was taking a tough line on Afghanistan’s key neighbor
Posing: One Air Force servicewoman was delighted to meet the vice-president
Approval: Mike Pence gave a thumbs up as he greeted troops and civilians, among them soldiers frm the 82nd Airborne Regiment, the 3rd Infantry Division, and Rangers
Meet the boss: Mike Pence spoke with General Nick Nicholson, commander of US forces in Afghanistan
Key ally: Mike Pence met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the Presidential Palace in Kabul for talks
Talks: Mike Pence met Ashraf Ghani to give a message that U.S. troops are in the country to stay, a reverse of Trump’s campaign promise of swift withdrawal
Inspection: Pence was greeted by an honor guard of Afghan troops at the country’s presidential palace
Pence said that Trump has ‘put Pakistan on notice’ and that the country has much to lose if it continues to harbor terrorists.
Too often Pakistan has provided ‘safe haven’ to the Taliban and other terrorist groups, Pence said adding: ‘Those days are over.’
The vice president said Pakistan ‘has much to gain from partnering with the United States.’ But he says, ‘Pakistan has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals.’
Pence said: ‘Peace only comes through strength.’ He urged the soldiers to be strong and courageous.
Trump’s views of the 16-year-long Afghan conflict have shifted since he came to power.
As a presidential candidate he called for a swift withdrawal of U.S. forces, which were bogged down through the presidencies of Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama after a U.S.-led coalition overthrew the Islamist Taliban government for harboring al Qaeda militants who plotted the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
But Trump, while acknowledging the decision went against his instincts, argued in August that a hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum for Islamic State and al Qaeda to fill.
He declined to set a timeline for withdrawal or outline benchmarks for the new strategy’s success.
Echoing Trump’s comments when he unveiled the new strategy, Pence had sharp words for neighboring Pakistan, which he said had provided safe haven to the Taliban and other groups for too long.
‘Those days are over,’ Pence said. Pakistan had much to gain from partnering with the United States, and much to lose by harboring ‘criminals and terrorists,’ he said at Bagram.
U.S. troops are involved in training Afghan security forces and carrying out counter-terrorism operations, hoping to reverse gains by the Taliban and prod it to negotiate for peace.
Some 2,400 U.S. forces have died in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion.