Trump visits troops in Afghanistan, says Taliban talks back on
BAGRAM, Nov 29 — President Donald Trump said yesterday the US had resumed talks with Taliban insurgents as he made a surprise trip to Afghanistan to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday with troops.
On a brief visit to Bagram Airfield outside the capital Kabul, Trump served turkey dinner to soldiers, posed for photographs and delivered a speech after meeting Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
“The Taliban wants to make a deal and we’re meeting with them and we’re saying it has to be a cease fire,” he told reporters.
About 13,000 US troops remain in Afghanistan, 18 years after the United States invaded after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Trump said he planned to reduce the number to 8,600 without giving further details.
“There’s nowhere I’d rather celebrate this Thanksgiving than right here with the toughest, strongest, best and bravest warriors on the face of the earth,” the president, on his first trip to the war-torn country, told the troops.
“I’ve just come from serving Thanksgiving dinner to some of you… and we had a good time.”
Trump joked that he started eating mashed potato but was called away before he even tasted his traditional turkey fare.
“I should’ve started with that instead of the mashed potatoes,” he said.
“But I hope everyone enjoyed the fantastic meal, it certainly did look good and hopefully everyone can get some well-deserved rest this holiday.”
America’s longest war
The United States earlier this year reached a deal with Taliban insurgents to pull US troops from the country and wind down America’s longest war in return for security guarantees.
But Trump made a shock move in September, describing the year-long talks as “dead” and withdrawing an invitation to the insurgents to meet near Washington due to the killing of a US soldier.
The Taliban refuses to negotiate formally with the Afghan government, though diplomatic efforts have continued to foster dialogue and an eventual peace deal.
“For a period of time we’ve been working to make a deal,” Trump said. “We’ve made tremendous progress over the last six months… and at the same time we’ve been drawing down our troops.
“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.”
Ghani thanked Trump for pushing for “the type of peace that will ensure the gains of the past year and ensure your security and our security.”
Afghanistan remains roiled by violence, and US presidents are still only able to make brief, unannounced visits to Bagram — the biggest US base in the country — due to the security threat.
The Taliban last week handed over two hostages — an American and an Australian — after three years in captivity in an exchange for three high-ranking insurgent prisoners, in a move seen as a boost to peace talks.
Friction with US military leaders
In Washington, Trump’s relations with the US military leadership have soured over his repeated interference in high-profile discipline cases.
On November 15, Trump — the commander-in-chief — reversed the demotion of Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher who was accused of war crimes but only found guilty of a lesser offense.
Trump said that Gallagher had been “treated very badly” by the Navy, and ordered that he would not be expelled from the elite SEAL force.
Gallagher’s case led to the sacking this week of Navy secretary Richard Spencer, who had tried to make a backroom deal with the White House, without his superiors’ knowledge, over the SEAL’s future.
Gallagher had been championed by Fox News and Trump’s conservative base.
But the case also drew sharp criticism from the top brass concerned that the president was undermining military judicial process.
Gallagher was accused in the stabbing death of a wounded Islamic State prisoner in Iraq in 2017, attempted murder of other civilians and obstruction of justice.
In July, he was acquitted of all charges except for posing with a slain fighter’s body.
The president this month also dismissed a murder conviction against a soldier serving a 19-year term for ordering soldiers in 2012 to fire on three unarmed Afghan men on a motorcycle, two of whom died.
And he granted clemency to an ex-member of the US Army Green Berets charged with premeditated murder in the death of an alleged Taliban bomb-maker in 2010.
Before taking the secret 13-hour flight, Trump had been expected to spend Thanksgiving at his Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida and to make video calls to US troops deployed abroad. — AFP