In his first visit since becoming president, Donald Trump has made a surprise visit to Afghanistan, posing for photos and serving up turkey to US troops for Thanksgiving dinner.
Hundreds of soldiers gathered inside a giant hangar at Bagram Air Base, waving flags and applauding the president as he made his way to a central stage to wish everyone a “Happy Thanksgiving”.
His visit, kept secret for security reasons, was also to announce the US and Taliban have been engaged in ongoing peace talks.
He told the troops: “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.”
Airforce One touched down at Bagram with White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien on Thursday local time, accompanied by a small group of aides and Secret Service agents, and a pool of reporters.
Mr Trump met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and served turkey with green beans and mashed potato to the US troops before sitting down to eat Thanksgiving dinner with them.
“What a great job you do. It’s an honour to be here,” he told them.
HAPPY THANKSGIVING! pic.twitter.com/7SGZnHindW
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 28, 2019
Mr Trump was greeted upon his arrival by US Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
He says he believes Taliban insurgents will agree to a ceasefire in America’s longest war.
His visit on Thursday was his first to Afghanistan since becoming president and came a week after a prisoner swap between Washington and Kabul that has raised hopes for a revival of peace agreement.
“The Taliban wants to make a deal and we are meeting with them,” Mr Trump told reporters after arriving in Afghanistan after the overnight flight from the US, kept secret for security reasons.
“We say it has to be a ceasefire and they didn’t want to do a ceasefire and now they want to do a ceasefire, I believe. It will probably work out that way.”
Taliban leaders have told Reuters the group has again been holding meetings with senior US officials in Doha since last weekend, adding they could soon resume formal peace talks.
General Milley said on Wednesday the chances of a successful outcome from peace talks on ending the 18-year war in Afghanistan were higher than before and could happen in the “near term.”
Mr Trump has long wanted to end US involvement in Afghanistan as well as in other protracted overseas conflicts and to force allies to pay more of the costs he says fall disproportionately on American taxpayers.
About 13,000 US forces as well as thousands of other NATO troops are in Afghanistan, 18 years after an invasion by a US-led coalition following the September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacks on the United States.
A draft accord agreed in September would have seen about 5000 American troops withdrawn in coming months in exchange for guarantees that Afghanistan would not be used as a base for militant attacks on the United States or its allies.
Mr Trump acknowledged US troop levels were “substantially” coming down but did not provide a specific number.
Earlier in November, the Afghan Taliban released Australian professor Timothy Weeks and his American colleague Kevin King, who were held hostage for more than three years, lifting hopes for a peace push that Trump himself declared dead earlier this year.
Mr Weeks, 50, is believed to have arrived at Sydney Airport late on Thursday night after being transferred from a US base in Germany.