U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Monday, meeting with the nation’s leaders leaders as the Trump administration pursues a new strategy pledging an open-ended troop commitment after more than 15 years of war.
Tillerson met at Bagram Air Base with President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah before returning to Doha after less than three hours. He called on Pakistan to clamp down on terrorists taking safe haven in the country and left the door open to the prospect of the Taliban joining the government.
“There’s a place for them in the government if they are ready to come, renouncing terrorism, renouncing violence and being committed to a stable prosperous Afghanistan,” Tillerson told a small group of reporters traveling with him. The State Department earlier posted a picture of Tillerson sitting alongside Ghani.
The trip comes two months after President Donald Trump announced an open-ended commitment to Afghanistan that will put as many as 4,000 more U.S. troops into the nation’s longest-lasting conflict. While Tillerson called the U.S. approach to the country “conditions-based,” officials say American forces will remain there as long as it takes to deny terrorists a haven and bring about a political settlement with the Taliban. Trump has criticized his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, for announcing timetables for withdrawal.
No Kabul Stop
In a stark indication of the country’s deteriorated security situation, Tillerson went only to Bagram, the U.S. base about 30 miles (48 kilometers) north of Kabul, and had Afghan leaders come to him. His visit was cloaked in secrecy, as is customary for top U.S. officials: He flew to Afghanistan in the pre-dawn hours from Doha, Qatar, where he was on a trip to forge a broader alliance against Iran and pursue a resolution to Qatar’s conflict with a coalition led by Saudi Arabia that has left the emirate economically isolated.
Tillerson’s schedule for Monday originally had him meeting embassy staff in Doha, and his whereabouts were unknown until he returned to Qatar. He’s scheduled to fly to Islamabad on Oct. 24 to keep up the pressure on Pakistan, before heading to India and Switzerland.
On Oct. 3, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who met with top leaders in Kabul last month, said the U.S. and allies are “holding the line” against the Taliban in Afghanistan as forecasts of a significant offensive by the militants “remain unfulfilled.” In the days since, however, Taliban fighters killed more than 40 Afghan soldiers in a bombing in Kandahar province, according to news reports, while attacks against police killed dozens more.
Behind Blast Walls
An August report from the U.S. inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction said a group affiliated with Islamic State has laid down roots in the country, part of a broad deterioration that has seen a record number of Afghan civilians killed. The inspector general depicted U.S. personnel as hunkered down behind blast walls.
In their meeting at Bagram, Tillerson and Ghani “reaffirmed the U.S.-Afghan commitment to achieving peace, stability and long-term prosperity in Afghanistan,” the U.S. Embassy said in a statement posted to Twitter. The embassy had erroneously reported that Tillerson visited Kabul.
Tillerson made clear, as he and Trump have done previously, that the U.S. will pressure Pakistan to stop sheltering the Taliban and other groups fomenting violence in Afghanistan.
“In our conversations with Pakistani leadership, we are as concerned about the future stability of Pakistan, as we are in many respects here in Afghanistan,” he said at Bagram. “Pakistan needs to, I think, take a clear-eyed view of the situation that they are confronted with in terms of the number of terrorist organizations that find safe haven inside of