WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday said he was unsure if more U.S. troops will head to the war-torn country in coming months but vowed that American forces will be in the region “until we eliminate the terrorist threat to our homeland.”
More than 11,000 U.S. service members are currently deployed to Afghanistan, part of a continuous military presence that began shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. That number had dropped below 9,000 in the final months of Barack Obama’s presidency, down from a peak of more than 100,000 in 2011.
Pence’s remarks were part of a surprise pre-Christmas visit to the region by the vice president. In a speech at Bagram Airfield to troops, he praised their sacrifice and accomplishments, and said the new strategy for the country outlined by President Donald Trump earlier this year will ultimately lead to victory.
“Together with our allies, we came here to Afghanistan to liberate its people and prevent the terrorist from every threatening our homeland again,” he said. “And we are staying in that fight and we will see it through to the end.”
Later, in a meeting with press invited on the trip, Pence said that U.S. forces are “in a better position to support the Afghan army as they take the fight to them” than under Obama’s administration, but could not say if that means more end strength boosts in the near future.
“That will be a decision for the commander in chief in the days ahead,” he said. “But again this is as much about, not just personnel, but it’s also about what military people call the ‘authorities’ that we have been given. Bureaucrats don’t win wars, soldiers do.”
Trump has repeatedly promised to give military leaders more autonomy over war zone decisions, after years of Republican criticism that Obama officials had too micromanaged those kinds of decisions.
Pence told troops that Trump’s new strategy has “unleashed the full range of American military might” in the fight there.
“We’ve lifted the restrictions that limited the effectiveness of our armed forces, so you can, as the President has said, fully and swiftly wage battle against the enemy,” he said. “We’ve given you new authorities to directly target the terrorists and militants no matter where they hide … Under this president, we will never allow bureaucracy to stand in the way of victory.”
Pence also told reporters that administration officials are pleased with progress in Afghanistan this year, even as much of the public focus has been on the fight against the Islamic State group in the Middle East.
The vice president met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani as well as American military officials during his eight hours in country.
Pence told reporters that he promised Afghan leaders that U.S. forces will “stand shoulder to shoulder with the Afghan army in the fight against terrorism” but also added “we expect them to continue to make progress on the kind of political reforms that will be necessary to give the people of Afghanistan confidence in their democracy.”