WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump announced he restarted peace talks with the Taliban during a surprise visit to soldiers Thursday at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, his first visit to the country since becoming president.
Trump spent about 2 1/2 hours at the military base, where he served turkey to soldiers in a dining hall, posed for photos, delivered brief remarks and met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, according to press pool reports. The president arrived at Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. base in Afghanistan, around 8:30 p.m. local time.
The trip, Trump’s second visit to a combat zone, comes as he faces threats to his presidency back home. A fast-moving impeachment inquiry yielded testimony about the Trump administration’s efforts to push Ukraine to announce investigations that could have been politically beneficial to Trump in 2020.
Trump announced the restart of peace negotiations with the Taliban during a bilateral meeting with Ghani. The two presidents sat at one end of the room at the military headquarters, where four alternating U.S. and Afghan flags were erected behind the two leaders, according to pool reports.
“The Taliban wants to make a deal – we’ll see if they make a deal. If they do, they do, and if they don’t, they don’t. That’s fine,” Trump told reporters.
The president reiterated his desire to reduce the number of American troops in Afghanistan to 8,600, a figure he cited in announcing a major withdrawal in August. The United States has less than 14,000 troops in Afghanistan; military officials would not confirm the exact number.
The move would reduce troop levels to one of the lowest points in the history of the war. U.S. troops swelled to nearly 100,000 at the highest mark in 2011 and dipped to 8,300 in 2017.
Peace talks were upended in September, when Trump canceled a secret summit with the Taliban, Ghani and other Afghan officials after the militant group killed a U.S. soldier. The meeting was to finalize an agreement that had been in the works for months to reduce U.S. forces in Afghanistan and would have taken place at Camp David two days before the 18th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Trump said “it was not a good thing” that the group killed the soldier, who was from Puerto Rico.
During a speech greeted with cheers and chants of “USA! USA!” Trump told soldiers that his administration had eradicated the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate despite warnings of the terrorist group’s resurgence.
A report released by the Pentagon on October found that the Islamic State is rebuilding itself in Syria, where Trump ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops in October. The decision allowed Turkey’s incursion into the region and left vulnerable Kurdish forces that had worked with the United States to roll back gains made by terrorists.
Before the meeting with Ghani, Trump served turkey to about two dozen troops in a dining hall decorated with red, orange and yellow banners, according to pool reports.
“I’ll be talking to you later, but right now I want to have some turkey,” Trump told soldiers as he joined a table of service members at the hall, where 500 troops ate their Thanksgiving meal. Trump sat down to eat a plate of turkey, mashed potatoes and cornbread, according to pool reports.
White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham, who accompanied Trump on the trip, said the visit had been planned for months. Reporters traveling with the president were not told of the destination until two hours before landing. They were barred from reporting on the trip until the visit was nearly over.
“It’s a dangerous area and he wants to support the troops,” Grisham told reporters. “He and Mrs. Trump recognize that there’s a lot of people far away from their families during the holidays and we thought it’d be a nice surprise.”
Trump had initially flown to his Mar-a-Lago resort, but he flew out of an undisclosed airport in Florida on Wednesday evening and landed at Joint Andrews Base, where he boarded Air Force One, according to pool reports. First lady Melania Trump stayed behind in Florida.
Vice President Mike Pence made a surprise visit to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq last week to serve a Thanksgiving dinner to troops.
Last year, Trump made a surprise visit to troops in Iraq, where he defended his decision to withdraw troops from Syria. The trip last December was Trump’s first encounter with soldiers serving under his command in a combat zone..