President Trump Makes Surprise Visit to Afghanistan

November 29, 2019by Josh Wingrove
US Soldiers react with cheers and applause as US President Donald Trump arrives in Bagram Air Field during a surprise Thanksgiving day visit, on November 28, 2019 in Afghanistan. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — President Donald Trump made a surprise Thanksgiving visit to Afghanistan to meet with both the country’s president and U.S. troops — saying that peace talks with the Taliban have resumed amid a push for a cease-fire and to reduce U.S. deployment in the region.

The president landed at Bagram Airfield around 8:30 p.m. local time Thursday and greeted U.S. soldiers over a turkey dinner before meeting with Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani at the airfield’s Air Force headquarters.

Trump summoned reporters for part of their meeting and said talks with the Taliban are ongoing. The U.S. wants the Taliban to agree to a cease-fire and will continue to reduce its troop commitment to the region, Trump said.

“The Taliban wants to make a deal and we’re meeting with them and we’re saying it has to be a cease-fire, and they didn’t want to do a cease-fire and now they want to do a cease-fire — I believe it’ll probably work out that way,” Trump said, sitting alongside Ghani.

Trump confirmed he’d like to reduce troop levels to about 8,600 in Afghanistan from 12,000 now, but would like to go lower without impacting operational duties. “We can go much further than that, but we’ll have it all covered,” Trump said.

Trump and Ghani said it was an honor to meet. Trump spent about 45 minutes in the building where they met, with media in the room for only a portion of it. In brief remarks to reporters during the bilateral session, Ghani noted that U.S. combat casualties have fallen under Trump’s presidency; Trump took office after the NATO mission in Afghanistan shifted to a training and advisory role.

Ghani thanked Trump for his leadership and called for a deal that won’t give too much power to the Taliban, saying Trump should not put “limits on the type of peace that will ensure the gains of the past year, and will ensure your security and our freedom.”

Trump and Ghani then attended a rally-style event at a nearby hangar for U.S. troops, and Trump entered to the same song, “Proud to Be an American,” he uses at campaign rallies. He then invited Ghani to speak to the U.S. troops, and the Afghan leader delivered an impassioned defense of the U.S. mission.

“Please thank your families for agreeing to miss you on this special occasion at home and for being here defending United States security and our freedom. Together, we will succeed,” Ghani told the soldiers. “We will never permit the repetition of 9/11 again. God bless you, God bless the president.”

At the rally, Trump reiterated that they’re working for a peace deal in Afghanistan. “Rest assured that my administration will always be committed to annihilating terrorists wherever they appear,” he told troops there, adding that he looked forward to the day “when we can bring each and every one of you home and safe to your family, and that day is coming and coming very soon.”

Trump’s remarks hit many of the same themes as his campaign events, including discussing highs in the stock market, the recent death of a top Islamic State leader and the role that a U.S. military dog, Conan, played in that mission. He recalled serving turkey earlier to troops, and missing out on his own meal.

“I had a bit of mashed potatoes and I never got to my turkey,” Trump told soldiers at the rally, saying he instead went to take photos with servicemen and women. “I should have started with that, and not the mashed potatoes. I made a mistake.”

Trump’s visit, his second to a combat zone as commander in chief, came as he regularly complains about the cost and duration of U.S. operations abroad, and in the Middle East in particular.

Afghanistan is America’s longest-running war. He’s said he wants to bring troops home even from regions where U.S. efforts are aimed at quelling terrorist activity. “We’re not fighting, we’re policing in Afghanistan,” Trump said in October. On Thursday, he argued that technological advances would allow the U.S. to do more in Afghanistan with fewer soldiers.

Trump’s interaction with the troops comes days after U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper ousted Richard Spencer as secretary of the Navy in a dispute over the handling of a case involving a Navy SEAL that Trump became involved in.

Spencer wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post on Wednesday in which he was sharply critical of Trump for intervening in the case of Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher. Trump, Spencer wrote, has “very little understanding” of how the military operates.

During the Ghani bilateral meeting, General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed that talks with the Taliban are ongoing. “Hopefully those will be successful, and hopefully will then lead to an Afghan-to-Afghan dialogue in the not too distant future,” Milley said.

Trump didn’t indicate how close they are to any kind of peace deal. Earlier this fall, Trump abruptly scrapped a secret peace summit with Afghan and Taliban leaders at Camp David a day before it was scheduled to start, and, in doing so, was blamed for scuttling a potential pact.

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham downplayed the trip’s significance in any peace talks. “It’s truly about Thanksgiving and supporting the troops,” she said.

Trump was greeted at Bagram, the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan, by Milley. He then headed straight to a dining hall, known as a DFAC, where he mingled with U.S. troops under Thanksgiving-themed decorations, streamers and paper lanterns, as TVs played the New York Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and other U.S. programming.

Trump, Milley, Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien and Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming then served a Thanksgiving meal to troops who lined up. The meal included turkey, ham, Cornish hens, macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes. The president served the turkey, the holiday’s traditional centerpiece.

“We’ve spent $2.5 trillion since I’ve been here, that’s a lot of money that we’ve rebuilt our military. It was depleted as you know,” Trump told troops seated for dinner. “I want to thank you very much and I’ll be talking to you later but right now I want to have some turkey, OK? I’m going to join you for a little lunch.”

Trump arrived at the mess hall later than scheduled, and many of the soldiers gathered had already eaten. Some took seconds from the president and his staff. Trump then toured the room speaking with soldiers, who loudly cheered his arrival. “Thank you all very much, what a great job you do, it’s an honor to be here — it’s a long flight,” he said after arriving, to laughter from soldiers. “But we love it.”

Trump left the dining hall to then attend his bilateral meeting, which was followed by the rally. In all, Trump was on the ground at the airbase for over three hours.

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Ryan Beene contributed to this report

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© 2019 Bloomberg News

Visit Bloomberg News at www.bloomberg.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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