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President Donald Trump showed up in Afghanistan on Thursday for a surprise Thanksgiving visit with troops engaged in America’s longest-ever military conflict. Mr. Trump arrived at Bagram Air Field shortly after 8:30 p.m. local time and spent more than two-and-a-half hours on the ground, speaking to troops and meeting with Afghanistan’s president. 

Reporters were under strict instructions to keep the trip a secret to ensure his safety. Mr. Trump’s public schedule said he would be at Mar-a-Lago to host a videoconference call with troops. While in Afghanistan, Mr. Trump said he hopes to bring down the number of troops in Afghanistan from roughly 14,000 to 8,600. 

“The Taliban wants to make a deal, and we’re meeting with them and we’re saying it has to be a cease fire, and they didn’t want to do a cease fire, and now they do want to do a cease fire. I believe it’ll probably work out that way,” Mr. Trump said during his meeting with Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani. 

Last year, just after Christmas, Mr. Trump made his first-ever visit to a combat zone as commander-in-chief when he and first lady Melania touched down in Iraq to pay a surprise visit to U.S. troops based there.   

The president’s visit comes just more than a week after a helicopter crash in the country brought the number of U.S. deaths in Afghanistan this year to 19. There are still about 14,000 American forces in Afghanistan, and this year has already been the deadliest for them since the troop surge of 2014. More than 2,400 Americans have died in the nearly 18-year war. 

His visit to Afghanistan comes as Mr. Trump wages a campaign to win another four years in office when Americans head to the polls in less than a year’s time. His reelection campaign has been overshadowed by impeachment inquiries on Capitol Hill, which have seen a bevy of former and current U.S. officials testify about the president’s efforts to pressure Ukraine into announcing investigations into Mr. Trump’s political rival and former Vice President Joe Biden.

While Mr. Trump received a warm welcome from U.S. troops tucking into their turkey dinners, while his administration has presided over strained relations with Afghanistan’s government. Mr. Trump has made a concerted effort to wind down U.S. involvement in what he calls “endless wars” in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Dan Scavino, an aide to the president, tweeted video of the night arrival.

As CBS News correspondent Charlie D’Agata reported in September, the Taliban have justified their intensified campaign of violence this year as a sort of “hurry up offense” – a power and territory grab aimed at gaining leverage in peace talks with the U.S., which President Trump declared “dead” a couple months ago.

The talks were aimed at striking a political deal with the Taliban that would have allowed for the withdrawal of U.S. forces in the country, and a handover of full security duties to the Afghan forces the Americans have spent billions of dollars training and equipping.

While Mr. Trump is clearly keen to make that withdrawal a reality, Afghan officials say the U.S. presence remains vital not only to their country, but to America.

General Khoshal Sadat, the highest-ranking police official in Afghanistan, told D’Agata in September that the U.S. presence was “critical, but mutually important” if the goal is to hunt down and disable terrorist organizations operating on Afghan soil.

“Al Qaeda originated from here, and we still have remnants of al Qaeda in certain pockets of the country,” Sadat told CBS News. “We also see ISIS, and we have seen ISIS connections to the rest of the world.”

“It will be hard (if U.S. forces leave),” he said. “We will have to make serious decisions on where we want to consolidate our efforts.”

President Ashraf Ghani’s government was deeply critical of the U.S. talks with the Taliban, saying a deal with the terrorist organization that includes a drawdown of U.S. forces would be seen “as a surrender.”

But Mohib told CBS News that the Afghan military has been preparing contingency plans for an eventual U.S. withdrawal.

“It would put a lot of pressure on our country if there was a decision to withdraw troops without giving us time to prepare for it,” he said. “I think we both have invested in this partnership… any precipitous withdrawal would not be beneficial to either country.”



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