Rex Tillerson Pays Secret Visit to U.S. Air Base in Afghanistan

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.

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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.

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“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.”

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