Tillerson says US here to stay in Afghanistan on surprise visit, but commitment not unlimited

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Monday discussed with Afghan leaders the US strategy for ending America's longest war, in a brief, unreported visit that underscored the challenge of quelling the country's insurgency.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks at the US embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Oct 22, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks at the US embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Oct 22, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

KABUL (AFP) - US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson paid a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Monday (Oct 23) to discuss Washington's new strategy with President Ashraf Ghani, the US embassy said.

Mr Tillerson reiterated the US commitment to working with the Kabul government and regional partners "to achieve peace in Afghanistan and deny safe havens to terrorists who threaten that goal", said a statement posted on Twitter.

The meeting took place at Bagram Airfield, north of Kabul, America’s largest base in Afghanistan, as the resurgent Taleban steps up attacks on Afghan troops and police in response to the US strategy announced in August.

“Clearly, we have to continue to fight against the Taleban, against others, in order for them to understand they will never win a military victory,” Mr Tillerson told reporters after the meeting that was also attended by Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.

 The closed-door talks covered Mr Ghani’s reform programme, his anti-corruption strategy and preparations for parliamentary elections due to take place next year. 

US President Donald Trump “has declared that we are here to stay until we can secure a process of reconciliation and peace”, Mr Tillerson said, adding: “It’s not an unlimited commitment.”

It was Mr Tillerson’s first trip to the country as Secretary of State, and came several weeks after US Defence Secretary James Mattis paid an unannounced visit.

Mr Tillerson’s unannounced visit follows one of the bloodiest weeks in Afghanistan in recent memory, with more than 200 people killed in multiple attacks on security installations and mosques across the country. 

A spokesman for the militants told AFP last week the attacks were “a clear message... the enemy who thought they had scared us with the new Trump strategy have now been given a lesson”. 

The Taleban have been rampant since the withdrawal of Nato combat forces at the end of 2014.  Trump has cleared the way for the deployment of thousands more US troops in an open-ended commitment and there has been a surge in US air strikes, but the insurgency has only intensified. 

Militants fired several rockets into Kabul on Monday morning, but there were no casualties. During General Mattis’ visit last month, Taleban militants fired multiple rockets towards the city’s international airport in an attack that killed one person and wounded 11 others. 

Mr Tillerson is due to fly to Pakistan on Tuesday, where he will pressure Islamabad to take action on the support Taleban and other “terrorist organisations” receive in the country. 

Islamabad needed to “take a clear-eyed view of the situation that they are confronted with in terms of the number of terrorist organisations that find safe haven inside” the country, he told reporters, according to a pool report. “We want to work closely (with) Pakistan to create a more stable and secure Pakistan as well,” Mr Tillerson said.