World News

Visiting Afghanistan, Pence Says U.S. Will ‘See This Through’

Posted December 22, 2017 8:03 p.m. EST

KABUL, Afghanistan — Vice President Mike Pence, making an unannounced trip to Afghanistan, reaffirmed the Trump administration’s support for the country’s beleaguered government and starkly warned neighboring Pakistan to stop harboring militant groups that have long undermined the U.S.-led coalition’s mission here.

Pence’s brief visit Thursday, during which he met with senior Afghan leaders and spoke to U.S. troops, was not made public until just before he left the country because of security concerns.

Speaking to Afghan officials at the presidential palace in Kabul, the capital, Pence said the United States was committed to standing by the government as it fights the Taliban and tries to bring stability, more than 16 years after the war began.

“We’ve been on a long road together, but President Trump made it clear earlier this year that we are with you,” Pence said, adding that “we are here to see this through.”

During the presidential campaign last year, Donald Trump indicated a lack of patience for the Afghan war, America’s longest, and raised doubts that he would continue it if elected.

But he has deepened the nation’s commitment since taking office. The number of airstrikes has nearly tripled under his watch, and thousands more troops are to be added to the U.S. training and advising mission in Afghanistan, whose numbers had stood at about 11,000.

Although in one sense Pence’s trip was a routine visit with service personnel ahead of the holidays, it was also bound to bolster the standing of President Ashraf Ghani amid a political showdown with a powerful northern governor.

This week Ghani fired Atta Muhammed Noor, who had led the northern economic hub of Balkh province for 13 years. Noor has defied him, though, refusing to leave office until his party’s conditions are met, including the right to choose his successor.

Instead of Air Force Two, the vice president flew in an unmarked C-17 transport plane to Bagram Air Base, where he met with the senior civilian and military U.S. leaders in Afghanistan. Bad weather made it uncertain until the last minute whether he would make the trip from the base to Kabul; his party’s helicopters were stuck on the tarmac for 20 minutes before departure, then circled a couple of times over the dark, smoky capital before landing.

Previous visits to Afghanistan by senior Trump officials have faced enormous security challenges. The Taliban fired dozens of rockets at the Kabul airport while Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ plane was parked there. When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited, Ghani and other top Afghan leaders were helicoptered to the Bagram base to meet him so he would not have to venture outside it, which caused a political uproar for the Afghan leaders.

At Bagram, the largest U.S. military base in the country, Pence spoke Thursday to soldiers from a stage decorated with a Christmas tree and an inflated Santa Claus. He thanked them for their service and said the Trump administration had empowered their commanders with more flexibility in their rules of engagement.

“We’ve dramatically increased American airstrikes,” Pence said. “And together with our Afghan partners, we’ve put the Taliban on the defensive. We’ve prevented them from launching a major campaign against a provincial capital for the first time in three years.”

Pence said Trump’s Afghan strategy was part of a broader attempt to bring stability to the region, including increasing pressure on Pakistan, which for years has allowed the leadership of the Afghan Taliban to plan the insurgency from its soil, despite protests from three U.S. administrations.

“For too long Pakistan has provided safe haven to the Taliban and many terrorist organizations, but those days are over,” Pence said. “President Trump has put Pakistan on notice. As the president said, so I say now: Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with the United States, and Pakistan has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists.”

As the Taliban continue to wage war across the country, Afghan forces trained and advised by the U.S.-led NATO coalition are also fighting Islamic State affiliates in at least three of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.

Around dawn Friday, Taliban militants drove a vehicle packed with explosives into a police base in the Maiwand district of Kandahar province, a tactic the insurgents have repeatedly used to deadly effect in the district and elsewhere in southern Afghanistan. Gen. Abdul Raziq, the police chief of Kandahar, said that the explosion killed six police officers and wounded three, but that the militants had been unable to infiltrate the compound.