Pence makes unannounced visit to Afghanistan, says US will 'see this through'

KABUL, Dec 22 (Reuters) - Vice President Mike Pence made an unannounced trip to Afghanistan to meet its leaders and underscore U.S. commitment to the country four months after President Donald Trump agreed to an open-ended war against insurgents here.

Pence arrived on a military plane at Bagram Airfield under the cover of darkness on Thursday night after leaving Washington on Wednesday night. He then flew by helicopter to Kabul, where he met President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah at the presidential palace.

Pence told the leaders he hoped his presence there was tangible evidence that the United States was "here to see this through."

RELATED: The past 16 years at war with Afghanistan

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The past 16 years at war in Afghanistan
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The past 16 years at war in Afghanistan
The United States and Britain on October 7, 2001 launched a first wave of air strikes against Afghanistan and President George W. Bush said the action heralded a "sustained, comprehensive and relentless" campaign against terrorism. Eyewitnesses said they saw flashes and heard explosions over the Afghan capital of Kabul in the first phase of what the United States has said will be a protracted and wide-ranging war against terrorism and the states that support it. The attack had been prepared since the September 11 suicide attacks on the United States that killed around 5,600 people. A U.S. Air force B-52 bomber drops a load of M117 750-pound bombs over a bombing range in the United States in this undated file photo.B-52s, B-1 and B-2 stealth bombers are some of the aircraft that were reportedly used in the attacks on Afghanistan. REUTERS/USAF-Handout KM/HB
Two Northern Alliance soldiers watch as the dust and smoke rises after explosions in Taliban positions on Kalakata hill, near the village of Ai-Khanum in northern Afghanistan, November 1, 2001. The Pentagon said on Wednesday B-52s dropped heavy loads of bombs, a tactic known as carpet bombing, on Taliban troops north of Kabul as a result of improved tergeting intelligence, partly from U.S. special forces on the ground. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko VF/CRB
U.S. Marine PV2 Eileen M. Schnetzko stands on guard at Bagram airport, March 2, 2002. U.S. troops are based at Bagram, north of Kabul. There are some 4,000 U.S. troops based in Afghanistan as part of the international war against terrorism. REUTERS/Mario Laporta REUTERS ML
A U.S. special forces soldier (L) watches while Afghan militia wait in line to turn in their weapons at a military base in Kunduz, Afghanistan October 22, 2003. A long-awaited U.N.-sponsored project to disarm, demobilise and reintegrate 100,000 soldiers across Afghanistan was under way in the north, a key step to bringing eventual peace to this war-torn country. The "New Beginnings Programme," which lets soldiers exchange their weapons for jobs, began in the northern province of Kunduz this week. REUTERS/Richard Vogel/Pool RV KAJ/FA
A Chinook helicopter hovers over U.S. troops in the village of Jegdelic, about 90 km (56 miles) southwest of Kabul, Afghanistan, in this picture taken on December 24, 2004. A U.S. military helicopter carrying up to 20 American troops crashed during an anti-guerrilla mission in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday, U.S. officials said. The fate of those on board was not immediately known. Picture taken December 24, 2004. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood Am/mk BEST QUALITY AVAILABLE
An Afghan boy looks at U.S. soldiers as they patrol a village near the town of Makkor, southwest of Kabul April 20, 2007. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic (AFGHANISTAN)
A U.S. soldier works with a shovel as a vehicle is stuck in mud, some 70km south of Ghazni, southeastern Afghanistan April 23, 2007. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic (AFGHANISTAN)
British and a U.S. soldiers control the crowd during medical assistance in Kabul February 26, 2008. U.S. and British troops provided medical assistance worth of $50,000 to the Afghan locals in Kabul on Tuesday. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood (AFGHANISTAN)
Sgt. William Olas Bee, a U.S. Marine from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, has a close call after Taliban fighters opened fire near Garmsir in Helmand Province of Afghanistan, May 18, 2008. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic (AFGHANISTAN)
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (L) and U.S. Army General David McKiernan, the top U.S. and NATO Commander in Afghanistan (R) listen to Afghan governors and local officials during their visit to Forward Operating Base Airborne in the mountains of Wardak Province, Afghanistan, May 8, 2009. Gates on May 11, 2009 replaced the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Army General David McKiernan, less than a year after he took over the war effort there. Gates said he asked for McKiernan's resignation and recommended Army Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, a former commander of special operations forces, to take over command of 45,000 U.S. troops and about 32,000 other troops from non-U.S. NATO countries. REUTERS/Jason Reed (AFGHANISTAN MILITARY POLITICS)
U.S. soldiers of the 2-12 Infantry, 4th Brigade prepare to tow a broken-down improvised explosive device (IED) detecting Huskie vehicle during a patrol in the Pesh Valley in Afghanistan's Kunar Province July 30, 2009. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne (AFGHANISTAN CONFLICT)
U.S. soldiers kneel during a memorial ceremony for Captain Daniel Whitten and Private First Class Zachary Lovejoy from Charlie Company, 4th Brigade combat team,1-508, 82nd Parachute Infantry Regiment at the Remote Sweeney FOB in Zabul province, southern Afghanistan, February 8, 2010. CPT Whitten from Grimes, Iowa, and PFC Lovejoy from Albuquerque, New Mexico, were killed by an IED on February 2. when on patrol in southern Afghanistan. REUTERS/Baz Ratner (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT MILITARY)
Canadian soldiers play table football under flashlights at a military outpost near the village of Bazaar e Panjwaii, in the Panjwaii district of Kandahar province August 8, 2010. REUTERS/Bob Strong (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: CONFLICT MILITARY)
U.S. Army medic Staff Sergeant Rahkeem Francis with Charlie Company, 6-101 Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, treats an Afghan boy with a broken leg onboard a medevac helicopter near the town of Marjah in Helmand Province, August 19, 2010. REUTERS/Bob Strong (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: CONFLICT MILITARY POLITICS)
U.S. Army soldiers from the 2nd Platoon, B battery 2-8 field artillery, fire a howitzer artillery piece at Seprwan Ghar forward fire base in Panjwai district, Kandahar province southern Afghanistan, June 12, 2011. REUTERS/Baz Ratner (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: CONFLICT MILITARY IMAGES OF THE DAY POLITICS)
An Afghan shepherd walks with a flock of sheep past a U.S. Marines armored vehicle of the Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines outside the Camp Gorgak in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan July 5, 2011. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY ANIMALS IMAGES OF THE DAY)
First Sergeant Mac Miller from Comanche Troop 3rd Squadron 4th Cavalry lift weights as he exercises in Forward Operating Base Connolly in Nangarhar province, eastern Afghanistan, March 3, 2012. Picture taken March 3, 2012. REUTERS/Erik De Castro (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: MILITARY CONFLICT)
A U.S. Army soldier and a member of the Afghan Uniform Police arm wrestle prior to a joint patrol near Command Outpost AJK (short for Azim-Jan-Kariz, a near-by village) in Maiwand District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, January 28, 2013. REUTERS/Andrew Burton (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST MILITARY SOCIETY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
A U.S. service member takes a "selfie" as U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with troops after delivering remarks at Bagram Air Base in Kabul, May 25, 2014. Obama, on a visit to Afghanistan, said on Sunday his administration would likely announce soon how many troops the United States will keep in the country, as it winds down its presence after nearly 13 years of war. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY)
Afghan children gesture at U.S. soldiers from Grim Company of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment as they stand guard near an Afghan police checkpoint during a mission near Forward Operating Base Fenty in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan December 19, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS MILITARY CONFLICT)
U.S. soldiers attend to a wounded soldier at the site of a blast in Kabul, Afghanistan June 30, 2015. At least 17 people were wounded in a suicide bomb attack on NATO troops as their truck convoy passed down the main road running between Kabul's airport and the U.S. embassy, police and health ministry officials said. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A U.S. soldier keeps watch at the site of an explosion in Kabul, Afghanistan January 4, 2016. A large explosion struck close to Kabul airport on Monday, causing at least 10 casualties near to the area where a suicide bomber blew himself up earlier in the day in the latest in a series of attacks in the Afghan capital over the past week. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani
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In a reversal of his campaign call for a swift withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, Trump in August pledged a stepped-up military campaign against Taliban insurgents and signaled the United States would send more troops to fight in what is the longest war in its history.

At the end of August, there were some 11,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and more have since arrived.

Ghani expressed gratitude to the U.S. government and said Afghanistan's partnership with the United States was cemented in sacrifice.

Pence had originally planned to travel to Israel and Egypt this week, but he postponed that trip to remain in Washington while Congress passed legislation to overhaul U.S. tax law.

The short visit to Afghanistan was shrouded in secrecy for security reasons. Reporters traveling with the vice president were asked not to reveal his whereabouts until after the delegation arrived back at the air base from Kabul and Pence had addressed U.S. troops.

Pence, who coordinated the process that resulted in Trump's new Afghanistan policy, has been one of the main interlocutors between the White House and the Afghan leadership since Trump entered office in January.

He repeated his promise of U.S. commitment to the region during remarks to troops at Bagram.

"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 ... once and for all," Pence said.

Trump's views of the 16-year-long Afghan conflict have shifted since he came to power.

As a presidential candidate he called for a swift withdrawal of U.S. forces, which were bogged down through the presidencies of Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama after a U.S.-led coalition overthrew the Islamist Taliban government for harboring al Qaeda militants who plotted the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.

But Trump, while acknowledging the decision went against his instincts, argued in August that a hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum for Islamic State and al Qaeda to fill.

He declined to set a timeline for withdrawal or outline benchmarks for the new strategy's success.

Echoing Trump's comments when he unveiled the new strategy, Pence had sharp words for neighboring Pakistan, which he said had provided safe haven to the Taliban and other groups for too long.

"Those days are over," Pence said. Pakistan had much to gain from partnering with the United States, and much to lose by harboring "criminals and terrorists," he said at Bagram.

U.S. troops are involved in training Afghan security forces and carrying out counter-terrorism operations, hoping to reverse gains by the Taliban and prod it to negotiate for peace.

Some 2,400 U.S. forces have died in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion. (Reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Alistair Bell)

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