Reporter's notebook: A secret flight to Afghanistan with the vice president

After 16 years of war, the vice president of the United States still has to sneak onto the largest US military base i...

Posted: Dec. 22, 2017 2:54 PM
Updated: Dec. 23, 2017 11:32 PM

After 16 years of war, the vice president of the United States still has to sneak onto the largest US military base in Afghanistan.

It was 7:16 p.m. local time when Vice President Mike Pence landed here on Thursday. But the unmistakable blue and white Boeing 757 streaked with the words "UNITED STATES OF AMERICA" that typically announces Pence's arrival was nowhere to be found.

Instead, a windowless, dark gray C-17 military transport plane inconspicuously taxied down the runway before coming to a stop and allowing its precious cargo to step off and become the highest-ranking Trump administration official to visit an active US combat zone. For the next six hours, the dozen journalists traveling with Pence -- including this reporter -- were required to keep his visit secret, until he was prepared to fly back to Washington.

Forty hours earlier, the dozen of us who were scheduled to travel with Pence to Israel and Egypt -- before that trip was postponed -- walked into the vice presidential offices in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House. The vice president's communications director, Jarrod Agen, closed the doors and told reporters that everything he was about to say was strictly off the record, confidential information.

Pence was making a secret visit to Afghanistan the next day, his first as vice president, Agen told us, and we were invited to come along. We could tell only one higher-up at each of our news organizations, and if news of Pence's visit leaked, the trip would be canceled altogether because of the security risk.

Before then, President Donald Trump, a dozen White House staffers and other key government officials were the only ones looped in on a need-to-know basis once the vice president's staff began planning the trip in the fall.

The secrecy of Pence's visit and the reporting restrictions are a testament to how unstable the security situation remains after 16 years of war in Afghanistan.

And then, Pence slipped out of the White House and headed for Joint Base Andrews. We were already waiting aboard when he arrived to make his rounds to say hello. Our phones had been confiscated and we would be off the grid for the next 22 hours. Excuses to our friends, families and colleagues for our sudden absences had already been made.

When the plane landed to refuel at the US air base in Ramstein, Germany, Pence stayed inside the retrofitted Airstream trailer locked in the middle of the plane's cargo bay -- just another C-17 rolling through Ramstein.

Meanwhile, at Bagram Airfield, most of the several thousand Americans who work on the base still had no idea the vice president was coming to visit them. Those who had been informed a few hours before Pence's arrival -- like the several hundred troops he rallied in a hangar -- -were under strict orders from the base commander not to share news of the vice president's presence on the base until he had left.

Unlike most of his meetings with foreign heads of state, Pence would not meet with President Ashraf Ghani during daylight hours. The vice president had arrived at Bagram after nightfall, and darkness was also the only way to take a VIP like Pence on a 25-minute helicopter ride into the heart of Kabul.

Pence was insistent on meeting Ghani at the presidential palace, calling it "very important" to show that level of respect, despite an upsurge of violence in Kabul in recent months.-The latest attack had taken place just days earlier-and rocket fire had unsuccessfully targeted-Secretary of Defense James Mattis' plane in September hours after he had landed at Kabul's international airport.

Bagram Airfield personnel outfitted reporters, staff, Secret Service agents and the vice president with bulletproof vests and Kevlar helmets, and we filed into four heavily armed Chinook helicopters with machine gunners peering out the four corners of each long-bodied aircraft.

As the whirr of the helicopters grew louder, deafening even, soldiers equipped with night vision goggles motioned to reporters to shut their laptops. The helicopter cabin would remain pitch black for the rest of the flight, except for a flare our Chinook fired off as we circled through mountains near Kabul. It was unclear if the flare was in response to a specific threat or merely precautionary.

Finally, at 1:45 a.m. local time on Friday (4:15 p.m. Eastern time on Thursday), after six hours in Afghanistan meeting with Afghan officials, getting briefed by US commanders, rallying the troops and answering questions from reporters, the embargo lifted -- and the secretive trip became public.

Pence's stealthy trip to Afghanistan was just the latest such trip by US presidents and vice presidents.

President George W. Bush arrived in Iraq for the first time in 2003 after covertly boarding Air Force One for what was billed even to military personnel on the ground as a maintenance flight. President Barack Obama made his final trip to Bagram Airfield as president in 2014 under the usual secrecy and cover of darkness, though he arrived on Air Force One bearing the presidential seal.

Pence's stealthy-trip wasn't the only reminder of the instability that still roils-Afghanistan.--The ongoing insecurity, recent gains by the Taliban, the emergence of ISIS and the preponderance of other terrorist groups are also-what led Trump to recommit to Afghanistan in August, indefinitely expanding the US's military footprint and committing to remain until victory is achieved.

Pence hammered home that message Thursday, touting the gains US forces have made in recent months.-But he also made clear the war is not yet over -- and so did his visit.

Journalists with Pence were required to keep his visit secret until his trip back

The secrecy shows how unstable security remains after 16 years of war

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