Trump makes visit to Afghanista­n

Times Standard (Eureka) - - FRONT PAGE - By Jill Colvin

BAGRAM AIR FIELD, AFGHANISTA­N >> Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump paid a sur­prise Thanks­giv­ing visit to Afghanista­n, where he an­nounced the U.S. and Tal­iban have been en­gaged in on­go­ing peace talks and said he be­lieves the Tal­iban want a cease-fire.

In his first trip to the site of Amer­ica’s long­est war, Trump ar­rived at Bagram Air Field shortly af­ter 8:30 p.m. lo­cal time Thurs­day and spent 3½ hours on the ground, serv­ing turkey, thank­ing the troops and sit­ting down with Afghan Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani be­fore leav­ing just af­ter mid­night.

As per tra­di­tion, re­porters were un­der strict in­struc­tions to keep the trip a se­cret to en­sure the pres­i­dent’s safety in the coun­try. About 12,000 U.S. forces re­main in Afghanista­n.

Trav­el­ing with Repub­li­can

Sen. John Bar­rasso of Wy­oming and a small clutch of aides, in­clud­ing his act­ing chief of staff, press sec­re­tary and na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, Trump ap­peared in good spir­its as he was es­corted around the base by heav­ily armed sol­diers, as the smell of burn­ing fuel and garbage wafted through the chilly air. Un­like last year’s post-Christ­mas visit to Iraq, first lady Me­la­nia Trump did not make the trip.

Trump’s first stop was a din­ing hall, where he plated turkey and sat down for a meal. But he said he only tasted the mashed pota­toes be­fore he was pulled away for pho­tos.

“I never got the turkey,” he told the troops. “A gor­geous piece of turkey.”

Dur­ing his visit, Trump said the U.S. and Tal­iban have been en­gaged in peace talks and in­sisted the Tal­iban want to make a deal af­ter heavy U.S. fire in re­cent months.

“We’re meet­ing with them,” he said. “And we’re say­ing it has to be a cease­fire. And they don’t want to do a cease-fire, but now they do want to do a cease-fire, I be­lieve ... and we’ll see what hap­pens.”

The trip came af­ter Trump abruptly broke off peace talks with the Tal­iban in Septem­ber, can­cel­ing a se­cret meet­ing with Tal­iban and Afghan lead­ers at the Camp David pres­i­den­tial re­treat af­ter a par­tic­u­larly deadly spate of vi­o­lence, capped by a bomb­ing in Kabul that killed 12 peo­ple, in­clud­ing an Amer­i­can sol­dier.

That ended a nearly year­long ef­fort by the U.S. to reach a po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment with the Tal­iban, the group that pro­tected al-Qaida ex­trem­ists in Afghanista­n, prompt­ing U.S. mil­i­tary ac­tion af­ter the Sept. 11, 2001, ter­ror­ist at­tacks. U.S. and in­ter­na­tional forces have been on the ground ever since.

It was not im­me­di­ately clear how long or sub­stan­tive the U.S. reen­gage­ment with the Tal­iban has been.

Trump ran his 2016 cam­paign promis­ing to end the na­tion’s “end­less wars” and has been push­ing to with­draw troops from Afghanista­n and in the Mid­dle East de­spite protests from top U.S. of­fi­cials, Trump’s Repub­li­can al­lies in Wash­ing­ton and many U.S. al­lies abroad. For months now, he has de­scribed Amer­i­can forces as “po­lice­men” and ar­gued that other coun­tries’ wars should be theirs to wage.

Tens of thou­sands of Afghan civil­ians and more than 2,400 Amer­i­can ser­vice mem­bers have been killed since the war be­gan 18 years ago.

Just last week, Trump flew to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to over­see the trans­fer of the re­mains of two Army of­fi­cers killed when their heli­copter crashed as they pro­vided se­cu­rity for troops on the ground in Logar prov­ince in eastern Afghanista­n. The Tal­iban still con­trols or holds sway over about half of the coun­try, stag­ing near daily at­tacks tar­get­ing Afghan forces and govern­ment of­fi­cials.

The U.S. and Tal­iban had been close to an agree­ment in Septem­ber that might have en­abled a U.S. troop with­drawal.

Trump said he was pro­ceed­ing with a plan to re­duce U.S. troop lev­els to about 8,600, telling re­porters we’re “bring­ing down the num­ber of troops sub­stan­tially.”

Still, he said, the U.S. will stay in the coun­try “un­til we have a deal or we have to­tal vic­tory.”

Trump also met briefly with Ghani, the Afghan pres­i­dent. Ghani thanked the Amer­i­cans who have made the “ul­ti­mate sac­ri­fice” in Afghanista­n and as­sured the pres­i­dent that Afghan se­cu­rity forces are in­creas­ingly lead­ing the fight.

“In the next three months, it’s go­ing to be all Afghanista­n!” Ghani said.

Ghani also praised Trump for the Oc­to­ber mis­sion that killed Is­lamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi. The Afghan leader also in­di­cated, as Trump him­self has, that the al-Bagh­dadi mis­sion was even more sig­nif­i­cant than the 2011 mis­sion tar­get­ing al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden. The bin Laden mis­sion was or­dered by then-Pres­i­dent Barack Obama.

“Pres­i­dent Trump, peo­ple talked a lot about bin Laden, but what you did to elim­i­nate al-Bagh­dadi, who was an or­ga­nizer and not a talker, is a much great ac­com­plish­ment,” said Ghani, in re­marks to U.S. troops be­fore Trump’s de­par­ture.

The White House took pains to keep the trip a se­cret af­ter Trump’s cover was blown last year when Air Force One was spot­ted en route to Iraq by an am­a­teur Bri­tish flight watcher.

Cell­phones and other trans­mit­ting de­vices were con­fis­cated for the du­ra­tion of the trip from ev­ery­one trav­el­ing aboard Air Force One. And Thanks­giv­ing-themed tweets were teed up to pub­lish ahead of time from Trump’s ac­count to pre­vent sus­pi­cions aris­ing about the pres­i­dent’s si­lence.

A small group of re­porters was told to meet Wed­nes­day night on the top floor of a park­ing garage and was trans­ported in black vans to An­drews Air Force Base. Mean­while, the pres­i­dent was se­cretly fly­ing back from Florida, where re­porters had been told he’d be spend­ing Thanks­giv­ing at his Mar-a-Lago club.

The plane he’d flown to Florida — the mod­i­fied 747 painted in the iconic white and blue of Air Force One — re­mained parked on the tar­mac at West Palm Beach Air­port to avoid re­veal­ing the pres­i­dent’s move­ment.

About 9:45 p.m. Wed­nes­day, the pres­i­dent boarded a nearly iden­ti­cal plane con­cealed in a hangar at An­drews Air Force Base, tak­ing off and land­ing un­der the cover of dark­ness, with cabin lights dimmed and win­dow shut­ters drawn.

White House press sec­re­tary Stephanie Gr­isham said plans for the visit had been in the works 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.”

Shortly af­ter mid­night, Trump and his en­tourage de­parted from Afghanista­n.

The pres­i­dent told the troops he was hon­ored to spend part of his hol­i­day with them.

“There is nowhere I’d rather cel­e­brate this Thanks­giv­ing than right here with the tough­est, strong­est, best and bravest war­riors on the face of the earth,” Trump said.

ALEX BRAN­DON — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Trump smiles while sit­ting with the troops dur­ing a sur­prise Thanks­giv­ing Day visit to the troops at Bagram Air Field, Afghanista­n.

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