On a surprise visit to Afghanistan, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has praised U.S. and Afghan troops for what he said was "real progress" in the 16-year war and declared President Donald Trump's new strategy there is working.
"The results are really beginning to become evident around the country," he said after meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah at the presidential palace in Kabul late on December 21.
Pence said the two Afghan leaders told him "they've begun to see a sea change in the attitudes among the Taliban," and Ghani told him more senior Taliban leaders have been killed this year than in all the prior years of the conflict.
Pence said the Afghan leaders also expressed hope that "eventually the enemy will tire of losing" and be willing to join peace negotiations.
Trump this summer outlined a strategy of increasing U.S. troops on the ground and giving greater authority to U.S. military leaders to carry out the battle against the Taliban, and Pence said that approach is now bearing fruit.
Pence arrived late on December 21 on a military plane at Bagram Airfield before traveling by helicopter to Kabul. He said he told the Afghan leaders that his presence in the country was tangible evidence that the United States is "here to see this through."
"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, our people, once and for all," Pence said.
He later traveled back to Bagram to address some of the estimated 14,000 U.S. service members stationed in the country, who provide training and assistance to Afghan forces in their battles against Taliban insurgents and other extremists.
Pence thanked the troops for their sacrifice and said, "I believe victory is closer than ever before."
Pence also received a briefing from U.S. military leaders, including the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson.
At Bagram, Pence had sharp words for neighboring Pakistan, echoing previous comments by Trump that accused Islamabad of providing safe harbor to terrorists operating in Afghanistan.
"Those days are over," Pence said, adding that Pakistan had much to gain from working with the United States but much to lose by harboring "criminals and terrorists."
"President Trump has put Pakistan on notice," Pence said.
Pakistan's Foreign Ministry reacted by saying that "allies do not put each other on notice" and that the comments were "at variance" with previous conversations.
"On notice should be those factors responsible for exponential increase in drug production, expansion of ungoverned spaces, industrial-scale corruption, breakdown of governance, and letting [Islamic State] gain a foothold in Afghanistan," Foreign Ministry spokesman Muhammad Faisal said in a statement.
"Also focus should be on creating peace and reconciliation mechanisms. Finally, externalizing blame should be put on notice."
Pence's short visit to Afghanistan, originally part of a Middle East trip that was called off, was shrouded in secrecy for security reasons. Reporters traveling with the vice president were asked not to reveal his whereabouts until after Pence had addressed U.S. troops at the Bagram air base.