U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter made a surprise visit to Afghanistan today, as part of a round-the-world farewell tour.
"The interests we are pursuing here are clear and enduring," said Carter at Bagram Air Force Base, as reported by the Associated Press. "To have a stable security partner that is eager and willing to work with the United States is an asset for the future for us."
This is Carter's last planned trip to Afghanistan; President-elect Donald Trump has nominated retired Marine Gen. James Mattis to succeed Carter in heading the Defense Department.
NPR's David Welna is traveling with the defense secretary. He reports from Kabul that Carter has come to thank the troops for their service, and to say goodbye:
"A force here that's been close to 10,000 American fighters most of this year is to be drawn down to 8,400 troops by the end of the month – that leaves nearly 3,000 more troops in Afghanistan than President Obama had earlier planned to have, after having promised years ago to end U.S. involvement in a war that's lasted longer than any other in American history."
The war in Afghanistan, a response to the Sept. 11 attacks, is now in its 16th year. More than 2,200 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001, according to the Pentagon.
The question that hangs over this visit is what Trump will do once he takes office. American involvement in Afghanistan was rarely mentioned during the presidential campaign, and Trump has made conflicting statements on the war.
The secretary met with the commander of U.S. and NATO forces, Gen. John Nicholson, as well as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Nicholson said it's important for the United States to remain involved in Afghanistan.
"Our policy of having an enduring counterterrorism effort alongside of our Afghan partners is, in my view, very sound and something we need to continue," Nicholson said, according to Reuters, which reports that Afghan forces have suffered more than 5,500 casualties so far in 2016.
Carter has already visited Japan and India on this trip; still to come are visits to Bahrain, Israel, Italy, and the United Kingdom.