KABUL — Vice President Pence arrived in Afghanistan on Thursday for an unannounced visit with U.S. troops, many of whom were just children when the war began here more than 16 years ago, and to meet with top Afghan leaders to discuss President Trump's strategy for the conflict.
Pence's journey was shrouded in secrecy, and only a few members of his own staff knew about the preparations. He slipped out of Washington on Wednesday afternoon so that he could arrive at Bagram Airfield near Kabul long after the sun had set Thursday. He traveled in a nondescript C-17 instead of a traditionally labeled Air Force Two.
In the dark of night, he traveled via helicopter to the Presidential Palace in Kabul — a trip that almost didn't happen because visibility was low. Four helicopters took off without knowing whether they would be able to land. After they circled over Kabul, there was a brief break in the weather, allowing Pence to swoop in.
He met with President Ashraf Ghani and the country's chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, both of whom he regularly communicates with on behalf of Trump.
"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 said in the opening minutes of a meeting with Ghani and his staff.
After meeting for about 45 minutes, Pence returned to the airfield and spoke to about 500 troops for 20 minutes. He opened his remarks by passing along greetings from Trump, who has yet to visit a combat zone as president.
Pence said that Trump had this simple message: "Tell them I love them."
The vice president thanked the troops for serving their country and being away from their families at Christmas, calling them heroes and the "world's greatest force for good." Pence's voice was raspy from a cold and his eyes showed the exhaustion of long overseas travel following late-night congressional votes.
Although the crowd cheered when Pence mentioned that service members just received a pay raise and promised that their taxes would go down under the tax cut plan passed this week, it was otherwise rather subdued. After working a full day, the troops had to stand and wait for Pence for several hours. Several troops stood with their arms crossed or their hands folded behind their backs and listened, but did not applaud.
Pence also recapped the president's new strategy for Afghanistan, which includes increasing the number of troops. Later in the evening, Pence wouldn't say if the president plans to send even more troops to the region.
"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, to our people, once and for all," Pence said in his speech to troops.
In Washington on Thursday afternoon, Trump made visited patients at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Pence was supposed to travel to Egypt and Israel this week, but aides said he canceled his plans at the last minute so he could stay in Washington in case his vote was needed to break a tie in the Senate on the tax overhaul package.
That decision, which was announced Monday afternoon, came amid uproar over the Trump administration's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and after several leaders in the region canceled their meetings with Pence. He is now expected to travel to the Middle East during the week of Jan. 14, according to senior White House officials.
His wife, Karen Pence, a regular travel partner whom he calls his own "commander in chief," did not accompany him on the trip to Afghanistan.
Reporters who traveled with Pence operated under the terms of an embargo that did not allow publication until about an hour before he departed early Friday.
Throughout the visit, Pence said the United States is committed to supporting the Afghan government to defeat the Taliban and terrorist groups in the region.
That commitment marked a shift for Trump, who had repeatedly questioned why the United States was still involved in Afghanistan and why it was spending so much money there. During the presidential campaign, Trump called the war a "terrible mistake" but acknowledged that pulling out of the country at this point would lead to its collapse.
In August, Trump announced that the United States would continue its involvement in Afghanistan, saying that his first instinct was to pull out but that he changed his mind because "decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office." In a policy speech, Trump said that the United States "must seek an honorable and enduring outcome" and would do so by focusing on "killing terrorists" in Afghanistan instead of "nation-building," and by pressuring Pakistan to crack down on terrorist organizations.
"For too long Pakistan has provided safe haven for the Taliban and other terrorist organizations, but those days are over.," Pence said in his speech to the troops, who loudly cheered. "Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with the United States. Pakistan has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals."
Trump declined to say how many more troops he expected to send to Afghanistan, although congressional officials have said they were told it would be about 4,000 more than the 8,500 U.S. service members who were already in the region at the time.
As the Afghanistan war has dragged on, it has faded from the attention of many Americans, and polls have shown that a majority of Americans just want the conflict to be over. Afghanistan was rarely discussed in presidential debates or campaign rallies, as Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton focused more attention on Syria, Iraq and North Korea.
Within two months of taking office in 2009, then-president Barack Obama made a surprise visit to Baghdad, and he went to Afghanistan a total of four times during his presidency. His predecessor, George W. Bush, made two trips to Afghanistan and four to Iraq. While Trump has made a number of international trips, he has yet to visit Afghanistan or Iraq.
Pence comes from a military family, although he never served himself. His father, Edward J. Pence, earned a Bronze Star in Korea, while his older brother, Gregory, enlisted in the Marines in college and served in Lebanon. Pence's son is a Marine aviator based in the United States.
After speaking with the troops, Pence spent more than 40 minutes shaking their hands, posing for selfies and personally thanking them for their service. He took questions from reporters and posed for formal photos — but his favorite photo of the evening, he said, was taken soon after returning to base from the palace, when he asked to have his photo taken with the flight crew who made the long-shot trip through the darkness possible.
"I said, 'I want to meet them,' " Pence said. "It was not an easy flight to take, but we felt it was very important — very important — to go to the palace. It was an opportunity to stand on the steps of the palace, shoulder to shoulder with President Ghani, and say, 'We're here.' It's a real testament to these aviators that we were able to get in."
Pence left Afghanistan early Friday morning after just over seven hours on the ground.