KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Vice President Mike Pence told Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on a secret visit to Afghanistan on Thursday that the U.S. is "here to see this through" as they discussed a newly announced U.S. strategy to break the stalemate in America's longest war and consulted on upcoming parliamentary elections.
Pence's surprise pre-Christmas visit was the first to the war-torn country by either Trump or the vice president, and it came as the Trump administration charts a pathway for ending the 16-year war in Afghanistan.
"We're here to see this through," Pence told Ghani and Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah at the presidential palace in Kabul, arriving after a helicopter ride through smoky, dark skies surrounding Afghanistan's capital.
Later, at a rally-style event at Bagram Air Base, Pence told hundreds of U.S. troops: "I believe victory is closer than ever before."
"It's because of all of you that we're safe. It's because of you that we're free. It's because of you that freedom has a future in Afghanistan and America and all across the wider world," Pence said, his voice raspy from a cold.
Pence also received briefings from military leaders, including Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
The White House restricted cellphone and internet communications for a small group of journalists traveling with the vice president, citing security concerns in Afghanistan. Pence spent just under eight hours on the ground before they were allowed to report on his whereabouts and activities.
Pence's trip was focused on a strategy Trump announced in August to "fight to win" in Afghanistan by attacking enemies, routing al-Qaida and preventing terrorist attacks against Americans. The president has urged the U.S. to shift away from a "time-based" approach to the protracted conflict by linking U.S. assistance to results and cooperation from the Afghan government, Pakistan and other partners.
The White House has described the new Afghanistan plan as a "regional" strategy that aims to cultivate cooperation among other South Asian nations, including the overturning of Pakistan's harboring of elements of the Taliban.
At least 15,000 U.S. forces are in Afghanistan after Trump sent about 3,800 troops to the country this fall to enhance U.S. efforts to advise Afghan forces and conduct counterterrorism missions. The expected deployment of hundreds more U.S. Army trainers to Afghanistan early next year could increase the total number of American forces there to nearly 16,000, U.S. officials have said.
Top U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, met recently with Afghan leaders in hopes of stabilizing the country. But in a sign of the delicate security situation, the Taliban unleashed a barrage of rockets at the Kabul airport in late September that targeted Mattis' plane during his trip. The U.S. responded with an airstrike.
The Trump administration has sought to foster strong relations with Ghani as he attempts to curb corruption and prepare for long-delayed parliamentary elections next year. Ghani has expressed hope of bringing 80 percent of the country back under government control. Pence said he told Ghani that the U.S. expects Afghanistan to continue to make progress on necessary political reforms that will "give the people of Afghanistan confidence in their democracy."
Pence met with Ghani in Germany in February and he has spoken frequently since with the Afghan president. Pence met with Abdullah at the White House in November.
The U.S. and allied forces have been fighting a resurgent Taliban, which controls nearly half the nation, as well as an Islamic State group affiliate in Afghanistan, which continues to struggle with unrest following the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. Pence said Ghani told him that more senior Taliban leaders were eliminated in 2017 than in all prior years of the war combined.
The influx of U.S. trainers is emblematic of the military's renewed focus on building up Afghan forces so they can fight the insurgents and take control of their country's security. That approach aims to reverse setbacks experienced by Afghan forces in recent years, as the Obama administration steadily reduced U.S. troop levels from a peak of roughly 100,000 in mid-2010.
U.S. leaders have also pressed NATO allies to increase their troop commitments in Afghanistan to help train and advise the Afghan forces and bolster the U.S.-led counterterrorism fight.
In recent weeks, American aircraft have targeted drug producing facilities in Afghanistan in a new effort to cut off Taliban funding. U.S. officials have estimated that the insurgents generate an estimated $200 million a year from poppy cultivation and opium production.
Another part of the effort includes preventing militants in Pakistan from crossing the mountainous border with Afghanistan to wage attacks and then return to safe havens in Pakistan, where they have had a long-standing relationship with the country's intelligence agency.
The trip to Afghanistan represented the vice president's most high-profile — and secretive — foreign visit.
He presided over the Senate's early Wednesday vote on a bill to cut taxes, then joined Trump for a Cabinet meeting and a White House event with Republican lawmakers to celebrate final passage of the legislation. He slipped out of Washington later Wednesday and flew to Bagram aboard a C-17 military transport aircraft.
The surprise visit followed an abrupt announcement from the White House that Pence would postpone until mid-January a planned visit to the Middle East, including stops in Egypt and Israel. The vice president had been scheduled to depart for the Middle East on Tuesday night.