KABUL, Afghanistan — Vice President Mike Pence told Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on a secret visit to Afghanistan on Thursday that the United States 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.
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 United States 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. The United States 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 United States expects Afghanistan to continue to make progress on necessary political reforms that will "give the people of Afghanistan confidence in their democracy."
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.