President Donald Trump has paid a surprise Thanksgiving visit to Afghanistan, where he announced the US and Taliban have been engaged in ongoing peace talks.
In his first trip to the site of America’s longest war, President Trump arrived at Bagram Air Field shortly after 8:30pm local time and spent more than two-and-a-half hours on the ground, serving turkey, thanking the troops and sitting down with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
As per tradition, reporters were under strict instructions to keep the trip a secret to ensure his safety in the country. About 12,000 US forces remain in Afghanistan.
Travelling with a small clutch of aides, including his acting chief of staff, press secretary and national security adviser, but not the first lady, President Trump appeared in good spirits as he was escorted around the base by heavily armed soldiers.
His first stop was a dining hall where he plated turkey and sat down for a meal.
During his visit, President Trump said the US and Taliban have been engaged in peace talks and insisted the Taliban want to make a deal after heavy US 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 ceasefire, but now they do want to do a ceasefire, I believe… and we’ll see what happens.”
The trip comes after President Trump abruptly broke off peace talks with the Taliban in September, cancelling 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 year-long effort by the US to reach a political settlement with the Taliban, the group that protected al-Qaeda extremists in Afghanistan, prompting US military action after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
US and international forces have been on the ground ever since.
President 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 US officials, Republican allies in Washington and many US allies abroad.
For months 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, President Trump flew to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to oversee the transfer of 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 US and Taliban had been close to an agreement in September that might have enabled a US troop withdrawal.
President Trump said he was proceeding with a plan to reduce US troop levels to about 8,600, telling reporters “we are bringing down the number of troops substantially”.
But he said the US will stay in the country “until we have a deal or we have total victory”.
The White House took pains to keep the trip a secret after President Trump’s cover was blown last year when Air Force One was spotted en route to Iraq by an amateur British flight watcher.
Mobile phones and other transmitting devices were confiscated for the duration of the trip from everyone travelling on board Air Force One. And Thanksgiving-themed tweets were teed up to publish ahead of time from President Trump’s account to prevent suspicions arising about his silence.