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 wants a ceasefire.
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 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 U.S. forces remain in Afghanistan.
His first stop was a dining hall where he plated turkey and sat down for a meal.
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 ceasefire, but now they do want to do a ceasefire, I believe... and we’ll see what happens.”
The trip comes 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.
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.”
Trump also met briefly with Ghani, the Afghan president. Ghani thanked the Americans who have made the “ultimate sacrifice” in Afghanistan
"Afghan security forces are taking the lead now," Ghani said.
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.
His regular modified 747 painted in the iconic white and blue of Air Force One remained parked on the tarmac at West Palm Beach Airport. About 9:45 p.m. Wednesday, the president boarded a nearly identical plane concealed in a hangar at Andrews Air Base, taking off and landing under the cover of darkness, with cabin lights dimmed and window shutters drawn.