By Margaret Talev
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence paid an unannounced visit to Afghanistan, a nation where the Trump administration has stepped up involvement in what’s become America’s longest war.
Pence told the troops that “victory is closer than ever before,” adding that U.S. armed forces will remain in Afghanistan until the threat to the homeland is eliminated. Before the rally at Bagram Airfield, the vice president met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the country’s chief executive Abdullah Abdullah in Kabul.
The vice president, whose role carries with it the ability to cast tie-breaking votes in the Senate, held his departure from Washington until final passage by Congress of a Republican tax bill that represents the Trump administration’s biggest legislative accomplishment. His vote wasn’t needed, but Pence played a prominent role in praising President Donald Trump’s legislative victory at a White House ceremony on Wednesday.
Pence, whose son is a Marine, had planned to be in Egypt and Israel this week but postponed that visit until mid-January after delays to the tax vote. His decision to go forward with the Afghanistan visit allows him to address U.S. service members before the Christmas holiday as well as to meet with Afghan leaders. Pence stays in regular communication with Ghani.
Speaking to reporters, Pence said that Ghani plans to have parliamentary elections next year and a presidential vote in 2019.
As Trump wraps up his first year in office, about 14,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed in Afghanistan as well as 5,200 in Iraq and 2,000 in Syria.
Trump announced his administration’s Afghanistan strategy in August, signing off on a plan letting the Pentagon boost troop levels there by thousands, even as he acknowledged that “my original instinct was to pull out.”
Pence’s war-zone visit follows Trump’s release this week of his administration’s National Security Strategy, and it comes as Trump is seeking to promote his support for the military and take credit for progress in the fight against Islamic State. Trump has yet to visit a war-zone himself; former President Barack Obama visited troops in Iraq in April of his first year in office.
Trump is working to bolster an end-of-year message about his accomplishments in office amid signs that special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, with its reach into the White House, won’t end anytime soon.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is facing a backlash from Muslim and Arab leaders after the U.S. president made a formal declaration that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and instructed the State Department to begin a process that will move the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv. The United Nations General Assembly on Thursday overwhelmingly backed a measure critical of Trump’s move.
Trump as a candidate spoke in opposition to the war in Iraq. He told service members during a Thanksgiving video conference from his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida that they’re making progress in Iraq, Afghanistan and the fight against Islamic State because he is “letting you win” by removing constraints imposed by his predecessors George W. Bush and Obama.
Under Trump, commanders in the field are given more authority to order attacks and call in airstrikes without going through approvals at the Pentagon and the National Security Council. The flexibility is winning praise from the troops but criticism from human rights groups that say there’s more risk of hitting civilians.
In the Thanksgiving message, Trump also promised service members that once they came home they would return to a good economy, job opportunities and hopefully “big, fat, beautiful tax cuts.”
Announcing a new regional strategy in August, Trump vowed to pressure Taliban forces in Afghanistan to the negotiating table. The president disavowed Obama’s setting of deadlines for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, and he prodded neighboring Pakistan to help more, saying it “often gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence and terror.”
From June 1 through through Nov. 24, personnel from the U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force in Afghanistan conducted 2,175 ground operations “in which they enabled or advised” Afghanistan’s own commando forces, the Pentagon disclosed last week in a status report to Congress.
While the push against Islamic State’s last strongholds in Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria, began under Obama, those campaigns were completed under Trump. The president told reporters at the White House on Wednesday that the U.S. will be “finished pretty soon” with its fight against the group.
But Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has said the U.S. must keep forces in Iraq and Syria to make sure Islamic State forces can’t “come right back” as “ISIS 2.0.” Islamic State also has won converts in Afghanistan, adding to challenges to the government and the U.S.-led coalition there from the Taliban and the Haqqani network.