Vice President Mike Pence made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan on Thursday to visit with United States military troops stationed there, revealing his trip only after five and a half hours on the ground in the country.
Pence slipped out of Washington, DC after participating in the tax reform bill passage celebration at the White House on Wednesday. Traveling with the Vice President are Dina Powell, Jarrod Aged, and Nick Ayers as well as journalists, U.S. Secret Service, and military crew. Members of the Pence family are not along for the trip.
After a brief stop in Ramstein, Germany, the aircraft continued on to Bagram Airfield. In a hanger at the airfield, Pence met with General John Nicholson, head of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, Ambassador John Bass, Major General Quintas and other military leaders.
From the airfield Pence traveled on to the presidential palace in Kabul through dark night skies to meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and chief executive Abdullah Abdullah. There, Pence and Ghani sat in a room at the palace and spoke for about two minutes, their aides flanking the two leaders.
“It’s very good to see you again,” Pence said to Ghani, who likewise welcomed Pence and praised their partnership. President Ghani spoke for about two minutes before Pence. Pence then told Ghani he was honored to bring greetings from President Donald Trump and to “express our gratitude for the ongoing partnership, for security and prosperity here in Afghanistan.”
Pence thanked Ghani for “strong expressions of support for President Trump’s South Asian Strategy.”
Vice President Pence then said to President Ghani:
We’ve been on a long road together but President Trump made it clear earlier this year that we are with you, we are joined in resolve. We have both sacrificed much in this fight. But I hope my presence here is tangible evidence that the leadership of President Trump, our administration and the armed forces that we are here to see this through.
Pence thanked Ghani for Afghanistan’s support for the American soldiers and requested that the President, “please extend to your forces the admiration and gratitude of the American people for all they have sacrificed. We believe that we are now on a path to achieve a lasting victory for freedom and security in Afghanistan … We’ve been on a long road together.”
Inside the presidential palace in Kabul, @VP Pence meets with @Ashraf ghani. CEO Abdullah Abdullah also in meeting. US Amb John Bass, Gen Nicholson, VP Chief of staff Nick Ayers pic.twitter.com/0FgdmlUSa1
— margaret brennan (@margbrennan) December 21, 2017
After the meeting, Pence returned to Bagram airfield to address around 500 U.S. military troops. Pence spoke from a stage decorated with a Christmas tree and inflated Santa Claus with a sleigh. A massive American flag was displayed behind the Vice President who was surrounded by military troops. Around ten armored military vehicles were also stood in the room.
It was just before midnight local time when Pence began addressing the troops. He told the hundreds of troops gathered that, just before he left, he was in the Oval Office with the President who told Pence to relay a message to the military men and women in Afghanistan: “Tell them I love them.”
The Vice President acknowledged that it must be difficult for the troops being away from family during the holidays. He thanked troops and civilians serving there for their service: “each one of you have stood up and stepped forward to defend our nation, our people, and our very way of life … You’re patriots. You are heroes. You did not, as that Old Book says, love your lives so much as to shrink from this calling to serve and defend our nation.”
“It’s because of all of you that we’re safe. It’s because of you that we’re free. It’s because of you that freedom has a future in Afghanistan and America and all across the wider world,” said Pence. “Let me assure you, President Donald Trump is the best friend the Armed Forces of the United States will ever have,” he added to some of the loudest applause of the night.
He revisited President Trump signing a large increase in military spending, investment in national defense and a pay increase for members of the military and the crowd responded with applause.
It was Pence’s statement, “And in case you didn’t hear about it from back home, yesterday we cut your taxes,” that also drew some of the loudest applause from the hundreds assembled.
“Never doubt that your mission – your mission here in Afghanistan is vital to the safety and security of the American people,” the Vice President assured. He recalled the “forces of radical Islamic terror” that “plotted and perpetrated the deadliest attack on Americans’ homeland in the history of our nation” from “the safe haven of Afghanistan” to perpetrate the September 11, 2001, attack on the United States that killed 2,977 people. He called the terror attack an “act of war.” He said that, with American allies, the U.S. went to Afghanistan “to liberate its people and prevent the terrorist from every threatening our homeland again. And we are staying in that fight and we will see it through to the end.” The crowd met his comments again with applause.
Pence continued, “as President Trump has said, “It’s thanks to you, and those who stood on this ground before you,” that, in his words, “the horrors on the scale of September 11th have not been repeated on our shores.”
He told the troops that they have inspired the world “with your courage and your unconquerable spirit. You’ve crushed the enemy in the field and continue to do so. You’ve driven them into hiding and struck fear into their hearts. You’ve given the Afghan people the hope of freedom; the freedom to determine their own destiny and chart their own future.”
The Vice President then spoke of the great human cost of this effort, the more than 3,500 members of allied forces, including 2,308 Americans, that have lost their lives over the past 16 years.
He spoke of President Trump’s strategy to “achieve victory in Afghanistan” and assured the group, “you are the instruments of that strategy. You’re the instruments of American power, who are implementing that strategy on the ground.”
“We’ve given you new authorities to directly target the terrorists and militants no matter where they hide,” said Pence. “And this Commander-in-Chief has empowered our battlefield commanders with the freedom and flexibility you need to win. Bureaucrats don’t win battles – soldiers do. And under this President, we will never allow bureaucracy to stand in the way of victory.” The audience again applauded the Vice President.
Pence said that this new strategy is already bearing fruit with a dramatic increase in American airstrikes and with Afghan partners, putting the Taliban on the defensive. He continued, “We’ve prevented them from launching a major campaign against a provincial capital for the first time in three years. We’ve targeted the Taliban’s funding as never before through renewed attacks on its drug trafficking networks.”
He added that ISIS is “on the run.”
“For too long Pakistan has provided safe haven to the Taliban and many terrorist organizations, but those days are over,” the Vice President said to loud applause from the crowd. “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.”
Pence called the Afghan people, “a proud and noble people who have suffered long – in the 1980s, during their long war with the former Soviet Union; in the 1990s, under the brutal rule of the Taliban; and in recent years, from the terrorists and militants who continue to threaten their homes and their families, and who have claimed the lives of more than 35,000 brave Afghan soldiers, security forces, along with countless civilians.”
He told the hundreds gathered to let the Afghan people know, “The United States of America stands with them,” a line met with more applause.
The Vice President then spoke of his meeting with President Ghani and Dr. Abdullah:
We discussed the progress that we’ve made in this country and America’s commitment to the Afghan government and the commitment of the Afghanis to their own freedom in this land. I said to them what I say to you now: Under President Donald Trump, the Armed Forces of the United States will remain engaged in Afghanistan until we eliminate the terrorist threat to our homeland, our people once and for all.
He spoke of his father who served in the Marines and son who still serves in the Marines, then praised the troops there for inspiring him with their courage, selflessness, love of country and patriotism.
Pence brought this message on behalf the President: “In the days ahead, mind your mission, take care of one another, respect the unified chain of command, and never doubt that every day, every operation, and every decision that you make matters to the United States of America more than you may ever know.”
“I believe with all my heart that Afghanistan will be free and America will be safe, and we’ll win this fight,” he said.
Vice Pres. Mike Pence to U.S. service members in Afghanistan: "From the first family, from my family, from families all across America: Merry Christmas." https://t.co/qzjbOb0CUr pic.twitter.com/ozk1MHuv0J
— ABC News (@ABC) December 21, 2017
The Vice President closed his remarks telling the troops that it was months ago that Trump told Pence to get to the troops in Afghanistan before a “special holiday for the American people” to let those troops know that the President is thinking of them and “millions of the American people have you on our hearts.” He wished the group a merry Christmas from “the First Family and my family, from families all across America.”
“May God bless all who wear the uniform of the United States here in Afghanistan and across the wider world. May God bless the good people of Afghanistan and may God continue to bless the United States of America,” Pence said.
The Vice President then spent more than 40 minutes visiting, posing for selfies, and shaking hands with the troops, staying until the hanger was empty.
Afterward, Pence took questions from the press before taking off again, headed back to the United States. He confirmed to members of the media that he would be traveling to Egypt and Israel in January and possibly other Arab countries. An earlier trip was canceled amidst the pending passage of the Republican tax cut bill in the House and Senate.
Pence also told the press of his meeting with the Afghan President:
President Ghani informed me that in 2017 we have eliminated more senior leaders of the Taliban than were eliminated in all the prior years combined.
After six years of a precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan, our enemies in the Taliban and Al Qaeda and the Haqqani Network were just planning to wait us out.
[Ghani and Abdullah] have begun to see a sea change in the attitudes among the Taliban and many across the country, they are now beginning to question their future, and our hope is as we take the fight to the enemy. That eventually the enemy will tire of losing and will be willing to come forward.
Asked about the potential of more troop deployments to Afghanistan, Pence answered:
I think it’s important for the American people to know that the decision the president made this August was as much about tactics and strategies on the ground as about military personnel. You know, we have authorized additional military personnel on the ground, but the president’s decision was to put, essentially, American military personnel in a better position to support the Afghan army as they take the fight to them. Now, our objective here is to not fight the war against terrorists for the people of Afghanistan. It’s to support them more effectively with air power, with the extraordinary expertise of the most powerful military in the world, to come along beside them in that respect… It’s also to send a message to those who would threaten the people of the United States from Afghanistan and those who would threaten the peace and security of the people of Afghanistan. We’re here to stay. We’re here to stay until they’re defeated, until freedom wins.
After about 20 minutes answering questions from the press at the end of approximately seven and a half hours total on the ground in Afghanistan, Vice President Pence boarded a plane to leave the country.
Follow Michelle Moons on Twitter @MichelleDiana.