29 November, 2019
By SJA Jafri + Agencies
KABUL/ WASHINGTON/ ISLAMABAD: President Donald Trump made an unannounced visit to US troops in Afghanistan – his first time in the country – for the Thanksgiving holiday.
In a speech to troops, Trump said the US was in talks with the Taliban, which he said “wants to make a deal”.
Trump also said the US was “substantially” reducing troop numbers.
Some 13,000 US troops remain in Afghanistan 18 years after the US intervention to oust the Taliban following the 11 September 2001 attacks.
The visit comes after a prisoner swap with the Taliban aimed at resuming peace negotiations.
Earlier this month, the Taliban freed two Western academics who had been held hostage since 2016 – American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks – in exchange for three imprisoned senior militants.
“We’re meeting with them (Taliban) and we say it has to be a ceasefire and they didn’t want to do a ceasefire and now they want to do a ceasefire,” Trump said at the base near the capital, Kabul. “I believe it will probably work out that way.”
Afghan officials have long demanded a ceasefire but the Taliban, who now control more territory than at any point since they were ousted in 2001, have refused to hold direct talks with the government until a US deal is agreed.
Taliban leaders confirmed that meetings with senior US officials were being held in Doha since last weekend but that formal talks had not yet resumed, Reuters news agency reported.
Trump also reaffirmed his plan to cut troop levels to about 8,600 but did not say how many personnel would leave or when. “We’re going to stay until such time as we have a deal or we have total victory, and they want to make a deal very badly.”
Trump arrived at 20:30 local time (16:00 GMT) on Thursday and left before midnight on a trip that was shrouded in secrecy for security reasons. The White House confirmed that there was an arrangement for the president’s Twitter account to post messages during the trip to prevent suspicions arising about his long silence.
Upon his arrival, Trump was greeted by US Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen Mark Milley who, on Wednesday, said the chances of a successful outcome from peace talks were higher than before and could happen in the “near term”.
The president, who travelled with a number of aides, then served turkey to troops, sat down to eat Thanksgiving dinner with them before posing for photos.
“There is nowhere I’d rather celebrate this Thanksgiving than right here,” Mr Trump said, “with the toughest, strongest, best and bravest warriors on the face of the earth.”
President Ghani thanked the US troops who have made the “ultimate sacrifice” in Afghanistan, saying: “Afghan security forces are taking the lead now.”
Reacting to the meeting on Twitter later, Ghani did not mention Trump’s comments about talks with the Taliban and said: “Both sides underscored that if the Taliban are sincere in their commitment to reaching a peace deal, they must accept a ceasefire.”
There was no immediate reaction from the Taliban, and many have previously raised questions over the group’s willingness to engage in serious negotiations or whether it can be trusted.
Talks with the Taliban collapsed in September soon after President Trump invited senior Taliban leaders and President Ghani to meet at the US presidential retreat of Camp David, near Washington DC.
But a Taliban attack in the Afghan capital two days earlier, which killed a US soldier and 11 others, prompted Trump to pull out, saying the group “probably don’t have the power to negotiate” if they were unable to agree to a ceasefire during talks.
Ghani said this month’s prisoner exchange aimed to “facilitate direct peace negotiations.” However, the Taliban have long refused to negotiate with Ghani’s administration, calling it a puppet of the US.