Trump visits U.S. troops in Afghanistan on Thanksgiving
President Trump made an unannounced Thanksgiving visit to Afghanistan on Thursday, a rare trip by him to a war zone, and announced “progress” in peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban.
The engagement seemed designed to underscore his stated commitment to withdrawing U.S. troops from America’s longest war.
Amid secrecy, Trump arrived at Bagram Airfield shortly after 8:30 p.m. Thursday and spent more than 2 ½ hours on the ground.
Dressed in his customary blue suit and red tie, he stood in a cafeteria serving line and dished out turkey and fixings to camouflage-clad troops. He also sat down with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, whose government has been largely excluded from U.S. talks with the Taliban.
Between 12,000 and 14,000 U.S. forces remain in Afghanistan, and Trump said he wanted to reduce the number to 8,600.
The surprise visit came amid controversy over Trump’s decision to grant clemency to a Navy SEAL convicted of a war crime, bypassing military leadership. Defense Secretary Mark Esper fired the secretary of the Navy, Richard V. Spencer, who objected to Trump’s decision.
Traveling with a small group of aides and a handful of pool reporters, Trump was escorted around the base outside Kabul by trucks full of heavily armed soldiers as the smell of burning fuel and garbage filled the air.
The resumption in peace talks comes after Trump broke off negotiations this year. In September, Trump was arranging a secret — and, eventually, much-criticized — proposed meeting with the Taliban at the Camp David presidential retreat. Several U.S. officials opposed such a meeting at Camp David, and it contributed to the departure of former national security advisor John Bolton.
Amid the controversy, a car bomb killed an American soldier near Kabul. Though it was not the most deadly of Taliban attacks, Trump abruptly canceled the Camp David meeting and said he was calling off talks.
Until that moment, while the administration insisted it was making progress in talks with the Taliban, Afghan government officials, diplomats and members of various civil society groups warned that Washington appeared to be making too many concessions to the group that has long fought for a return to power and already controls large parts of the country. The Taliban consistently refused to declare a cease-fire in those negotiations.
On Thursday, without offering an explanation for what might have changed, Trump said that the Taliban and U.S. officials were again having fruitful talks.
“The Taliban wants to make a deal — we’ll see if they make a deal,” he said. “If they do, they do, and if they don’t they don’t. That’s fine.”
He contended that the Taliban “wants to make a deal” and is keen on establishing a cease-fire.
“I believe it’ll probably work out that way,” Trump said.
Trump made his only other trip to a war zone last year when he visited Iraq around Christmastime. He was accompanied then by First Lady Melania Trump, but she was not present in Afghanistan.
As is usually the case when a senior U.S. official travels to a zone of conflict, Trump’s trip was cloaked in secrecy. He traveled in an unmarked airplane from his Mar-a-Lago resort, where he was vacationing, to Washington. Cellphones were confiscated from all travelers, including his senior aides.
In Washington, he boarded Air Force One for the flight to Afghanistan. Cabin lights off and shades drawn, the plane landed under cover of darkness at Bagram. Meanwhile, Trump’s staff was sending out tweets in his name so that no one would miss him.
For at least a year, U.S. officials have sought a political settlement with the Taliban, which sheltered the Al Qaeda extremists who carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. The U.S. launched a war on the Taliban after those attacks, but it has dragged on for nearly two decades, claiming the lives of tens of thousands of Afghans — mostly civilians — and about 2,500 American service members.
Trump is pushing for a political deal so that he can finally withdraw all American forces in keeping with his campaign promises to extricate the United States from wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East. He ordered U.S. troops out of Syria last month, a devastating blow to the Kurds, U.S. allies who were then overrun by troops from neighboring Turkey.
Still, Trump said, the U.S. will stay in Afghanistan “until we have a deal or we have total victory.”
White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said the visit had been planned for weeks.
“It’s a dangerous area, and he wants to support the troops,” Grisham told reporters before Trump landed. “He and Mrs. Trump recognize that there’s a lot of people who are away from their families during the holidays, and we thought it’d be a nice surprise.”
She added that the purpose of the trip was “truly about Thanksgiving and supporting the troops” and “nothing about the peace process” with the Taliban.