- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 21, 2017

Vice President Mike Pence made a surprise visit Thursday to U.S. troops in Afghanistan, telling them he brought Christmas greetings from President Trump.

Mr. Pence said that before he left Washington, he asked Mr. Trump what message to deliver and he said: “Tell them I love them,” the vice president told troops at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.

“During this special season, I know that President Trump was speaking for all Americans,” he said, adding that it is always difficult to be away from home for the holidays. “I know there will be a place saved at the dinner table for every one of you.”

The surprise visit before Christmas was the first trip to the war-torn country by either Mr. Trump or the vice president, and it coincided with the administration’s new strategy for ending the 16-year war in Afghanistan.

Mr. Pence quietly slipped out of Washington Wednesday after attending a White House event to celebrate Congress’ final passage of a tax cuts package that is the centerpiece of the president’s economic agenda.

The vice president was previously scheduled to be in Israel this week, but had to stay in Washington in case he needed to cast the tie-breaking vote on tax cuts in the Senate.

Under heavy security, Mr. Pence landed at Bagram Air Base, the largest U.S. base in the country, by military aircraft shortly after sunset and then arrived by helicopter in the capital of Kabul to meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

He later returned to the base to address U.S. troops and receive briefings from military leaders, including Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

The trip was focused on the Trump administration’s new strategy, released in August, to “fight to win” in Afghanistan by attacking enemies, routing al Qaeda and preventing terrorist attacks against Americans.

In the speech to U.S. troops, Mr. Pence plugged a recent pay increase for service members and noted that “yesterday we cut your taxes.”

Both lines earned him some of the loudest applause of the night.

Mr. Pence also thanked the troops and civilians also in the room for their service. “You are heroes,” he said. “You are the best of us.”

He reflected on the start of this war 16 years ago — when many in the audience were just children — and reflected on the “forces of Islamic terror” that plotted the Sept. 11 attacks.

“The American people understood what this was. It was an act of war,” he said, adding that the war was started to liberate the Afghan people and stop the terrorist threat. “We are staying in that fight, and we will see it through until the end,” Mr. Pence told the troops.

At least 15,000 U.S. forces are in Afghanistan after Trump decided to send about 3,800 troops to the country this fall to enhance U.S. efforts to advise Afghan forces and conduct counterterrorism missions.

The expected deployment of hundreds more U.S. Army trainers to Afghanistan early next year could increase the total number of American forces there to nearly 16,000, U.S. officials have said.

Top U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, met with Afghan leaders in recent months in hopes of stabilizing the country.

But in a sign of the delicate security situation, the Taliban unleashed a barrage of rockets at the Kabul international airport in late September that targeted Mr. Mattis’ plane during his trip to the country. The U.S. responded with an airstrike.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• S.A. Miller can be reached at smiller@washingtontimes.com.

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