BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan - President Donald Trump on Thursday visited Afghanistan for the first time, delivering Thanksgiving greetings to U.S. troops deployed here in America's longest-running war.
Making an unannounced trip, Trump touched down at 8:30 p.m. local time at Bagram airbase, the primary hub for U.S. air operations located outside the Afghan capital of Kabul, after secretly departing Florida in the dark of night.
This is the president's second visit to a combat zone; he visited troops in Iraq the day after Christmas in 2018. Vice President Mike Pence made a surprise trip last week to Al Asad airbase in Iraq, where he served turkey and greeted troops.
"We are winning like we have not won in a long time. We are respected like we have not been respected in a long time," Trump told troops assembled in a hangar. "Our citizens know that we are standing guard, crushing our enemies ... I am here today to just really say, happy Thanksgiving, but also thank you very much."
The president served turkey to troops in a cafeteria and posed for photos with them.
Trump was expected to be on the ground for about 2 1/2 hours, during which he also met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and announced he has restarted peace negotiations with the Taliban and confirmed he would like to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 8,600.
Trump has long wanted to draw down forces in Afghanistan and his visit here comes as the Afghan government, together with a foreign force of around 15,000 U.S. and NATO troops, is locked in an extended stalemate with the Taliban.
The Trump administration appeared to be on the brink of striking a deal to jumpstart the peace process in September, when the president extended and then canceled an invitation for Taliban representatives to Camp David to cement an agreement to reduce U.S. forces.
Trump repeatedly has questioned why the United States has kept troops in Afghanistan after nearly two decades of fighting, billions of dollars in aid, and more than 2,000 U.S. military lives have failed to transform the country.
Nineteen U.S. service members have been killed this year in Afghanistan by hostile forces, an increase from 2018.
Trump campaigned in 2016 on withdrawing the United States from foreign wars, but in 2017, he agreed to authorize an increase in U.S. forces as part of a major strategy overhaul of the war. The president's patience appears to have been wearing thin, however.
Trump complained on Twitter in September that American forces have been acting as "policemen" for Afghanistan. "That was not meant to be the job of our Great Soldiers, the finest on earth," he wrote.
The Afghan army continues to struggle to mount offensive operations and suffers high casualties 18 years after international forces first arrived in the wake of the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani recently announced a step forward in his country's battle against the Afghan branch of the Islamic State after at least several hundred of the hardline militants surrendered to the government.
But the Taliban still poses a formidable threat, retaining an estimated force of 40,000 to 60,000 militants who hold sway across many of Afghanistan's remote areas and represent the only form of governance in certain places.
Gen. Austin "Scott" Miller has already executed a modest reduction in the U.S. force level to about 13,000, but further withdrawals appear to be on hold for now as diplomats seek a breakthrough in hoped-for peace talks.
It remains unclear whether Trump will order more troops home in the absence of a political resolution to the war. The proposed U.S.-Taliban agreement, which was intended as a step toward establishing peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban, has been shelved since the Camp David talks were called off in September.
Miller has said he could conduct the current mission, which includes training and support to Afghan forces and a parallel counterterrorism effort, with as few as 8,600 U.S. troops. There are currently 13,000 American troops in Afghanistan.
The concern about Afghanistan's future is compounded by prolonged uncertainty surrounding the results of presidential elections in September. Ghani, a former World Bank official, is seeking another term; his challengers include Abdullah Abdullah, who has served as chief executive since September, 2014.
Military commanders point to some important improvements in Afghanistan's fighting ability, in its air forces and ability to mount independent offensives, but anticipate the Kabul government would face an existential threat if foreign troops were to withdraw.
For the Pentagon, the fact that the Afghanistan war has stayed largely out of the headlines of late has been beneficial as officials try to better position the Afghan government.
This article was written by Missy Ryan and Philip Rucker, reporters for The Washington Post.