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 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 cease-fire. 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 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.