United States Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday arrived in Afghanistan on a surprise visit during which he met with Afghan leaders in Kabul and addressed US troops at the Bagram airfield, becoming the most senior Trump administration official to visit the men and women fighting America’s longest-ever war.
Addressing 15,000 US personnel at Bagram Airfield, Pence warned Pakistan against offering safe havens to terrorists.
He reiterated word for word President Donald Trump’s warning that Pakistan must stop offering cross-border safe havens to Taliban factions and armed militant groups fighting US troops and their Afghan allies.
“Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with the United States, and Pakistan has much to lose by continuing to harbour criminals and terrorists,” Penec said.
“President Trump has put Pakistan on notice,” Pence added.
Taliban on the run
As he thanked the US troops for their service, the vice president told them that they have put the Taliban on the run.
“The American people deserve to know that with the courage of everyone gathered here, we’re making real progress in this fight for freedom in Afghanistan,” Pence told the troops.
“We’ve dramatically increased American air strikes. And together with our Afghan partners, we’ve put the Taliban on the defensive,” he said, also pointing at efforts to target the drug trafficking networks that help fund the Taliban.
“All across this country we’ve won new victories against the terrorists, no matter what they call themselves or where they try to hide.”
Pence’s visit comes four months after Trump unveiled a new strategy for Afghanistan, which he told the troops was “already bearing fruit.”
“We’ve been on a long road together” he said. “We’ve both sacrificed much.” But, he added: “We are here to see this through.”
“And never doubt that your mission ─ your mission here in Afghanistan ─ is vital to the safety and security of the American people,” Pence said.
The superpower’s vexed campaign against Al Qaeda and the Taliban ─ born from the rubble of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, receives ever-less public attention in the United States these days.
With typical certitude, the 45th commander-in-chief promised a nation “weary of war without victory” a more ruthless campaign, and one without Obama-era exit deadlines or niceties.
Pence’s visit was designed to shift the spotlight back on personnel and their mission, however briefly, before Americans turn their focus to turkey lunches, festive cheer and contentious domestic politics.
But the trip comes as Afghan security forces struggle to beat back the Taliban, which has been on the offensive since the withdrawal of US-led NATO combat troops at the end of 2014 and maintains control over swathes of the country.
And the fact that Pence’s visit took place in secrecy and under cover of winter darkness is a stark reminder of the difficult security situation even around Kabul and even after a war effort worth more than half a trillion dollars.
Later asked by reporters whether the US would consider raising its military presence in the country, Pence demurred.
“That will be a decision for the commander in chief in the days ahead, but again this is… not just personnel,” he said.
“You know, I said today that bureaucrats don’t win wars, soldiers do. And one of the things that you have seen in President Trump, as commander in chief, is he has empowered our battlefield commanders to make real-time decisions,” he continued, citing successes against the militant Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.
His visit from Bagram to central Kabul, where he met President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah ─ both of whom the United States is counting on to help rebuild this war-shattered country ─ was in doubt until the last moment, when a White House official said he countermanded a decision that the weather was not clear enough to travel.
Even then, Pence’s helicopter flight took place in near total darkness, moving low and fast and with a heavy phalanx of secret service and special forces.
The White House official said the decision was made “out of respect. To meet with Ghani and Abdullah.” The Trump administration, like Barack Obama’s before, has put enormous hope in Ghani, who is seen by the White House as more competent and less corrupt than his predecessor Hamid Karzai.
But his three-year-old “national unity” government appears to be faltering and parliamentary elections have been repeatedly postponed.
Pence had been expected to visit Egypt and Israel this week, a trip that was delayed amid a crunch vote on tax cuts and deadly protests at Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.