BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson made a secret two-hour visit to the main American air base in Afghanistan on Monday, arriving in a military transport plane to meet top Afghan officials inside a massive bunker.
Nearly 20,000 military personnel, contractors and others live and work at the base, Bagram Airfield north of Kabul. Many were on high alert as the secretary arrived, fearing the kind of rocket or mortar attack that has become common.
That top American officials must sneak into this country after 16 years of war, thousands of lives lost and hundreds of billions of dollars spent was testimony to the stalemate confronting the United States because of a stubborn and effective Taliban foe that is increasingly ascendant.
Mr. Tillerson would not even risk the short trip to Kabul to visit the heavily fortified United States Embassy or Afghan presidential palace, as his predecessors have done. The change reflects the increasingly uncertain security situation in Kabul and the fact that the United States’ presence is now surrounded by vast Taliban-controlled areas.
President Barack Obama paid a secret visit to the air base in May 2014. Afghanistan’s president at the time, Hamid Karzai, declined an invitation from American officials to meet Mr. Obama at the base, saying that doing so would be a breach of protocol, though the two leaders spoke by telephone.
Mr. Tillerson’s visit was his first to Afghanistan as secretary of state, and like nearly every other top American official to visit over the previous two decades, he said the country’s predicament was not nearly as dire as his own security precautions suggested.
“But I think if you consider the current situation in Afghanistan, and we were talking about this a few minutes ago, and you look a few years in the past to what the circumstances were, Afghanistan has come quite a distance already in terms of creating a much more vibrant population, a much more vibrant government, education system, a larger economy,” he said in a small windowless conference room during a hurried eight-minute news conference. “So there are opportunities to strengthen the foundations of a prosperous Afghanistan society.”
Mr. Tillerson saw none of that hoped-for blooming. When the huge maw of the C-17 aircraft that he flew into Bagram opened, he was greeted by Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of United States operations in Afghanistan, along with a sizable contingent of soldiers and security guards. They piled into a motorcade and drove the few minutes to the base’s bunkerlike headquarters, passing hangers constructed by Russia, another of the foreign forces to be humbled in Afghanistan. Huge concrete blast walls lined much of the route. Helicopters patrolled the perimeter, and two security blimps equipped with long-range cameras hovered.
At the headquarters building, a former prison, Mr. Tillerson and General Nicholson met in another windowless room with Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani; its chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah; and its national security adviser, Hanif Atmar, as an armored truck and Humvee guarded outside.
After the men sat down, Mr. Tillerson said: “We had a pretty smooth flight.” Mr. Ghani replied, “We arranged the weather for you.”
Mr. Tillerson brought with him a six-person press contingent that was taken aside late the night before and sworn to secrecy about the trip until his plane returned to Doha, Qatar, where the trip had originated.
After eight months of internal discussions, President Trump in August announced his policy for Afghanistan, an effort to prevent an obvious loss in the country. Commanders will be allowed to request troops as needed, and the administration emphasized that it would increasingly rely on regional partners like India to improve stability.
Mr. Trump also promised to pressure Pakistan, which United States officials have long accused of playing a double game in Afghanistan — publicly supporting the United States mission here while secretly bankrolling and giving shelter to the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
But the massive air base here demonstrates why the administration cannot get too tough with Pakistan, since nearly all of the supplies for this fortress city are transported by air or land through Pakistani territory. Soldiers can order supplies and gifts from Amazon, which delivers daily to the base.
Mr. Tillerson will visit Islamabad on Tuesday for his first talks with Pakistani leaders since he delivered a speech last week in which he called for improved ties with India, Pakistan’s rival. In the speech, Pakistan got only a brief, none-too-complimentary mention.
On Monday, Mr. Tillerson said that the United States was increasingly concerned about the stability of Pakistan, which has a large nuclear arsenal.
“Pakistan needs to, I think, take a cleareyed view of the situation that they’re confronted with in terms of the number of terrorist organizations that find safe haven inside of Pakistan,” he said.
Mr. Tillerson said the United States would remain in Afghanistan until peace was restored. Or perhaps until things get much worse.
“The president has made it clear that we’re here to stay until we can secure a process of reconciliation and peace,” he said. “It’s not an unlimited commitment. He’s also made it clear it’s not a blank-check commitment. It’s a conditions-based commitment.”
Tillerson in Kabul? Two photos lead to many questions, by Mujib Mashal, New York Times, Oct 23, 2017
KABUL, Afghanistan — It was Kabul and it wasn’t Kabul. There was a clock and there wasn’t a clock. Soon after a two-hour secret visit to Afghanistan by Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson on Monday was publicly disclosed, the American Embassy and the office of President Ashraf Ghani made statements about their productive meeting in Kabul.
The problem is that the meeting was not in Kabul, but in a windowless room in Bagram, the heavily fortified American military base a 90-minute drive away. The misinformation, apparently meant to obscure the true venue, was betrayed by discrepancies in similar photographs released by the Americans and the Afghans…