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During surprise trip to Afghanistan, Trump says he’s restarted talks with Taliban

President Trump spent part of this Thanksgiving in Afghanistan, making a surprise visit to Bagram Airfield north of Kabul, where he shared a traditional holiday dinner with U.S. troops and met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Trump also said he restarted peace talks with the Taliban, which he had previously cut off in early September. John Yang joins Amna Nawaz to discuss that unexpected news.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    President Trump spent part of this Thanksgiving in Afghanistan at Bagram Airfield north of Kabul.

    Mr. Trump met with several hundred American troops, served a traditional Thanksgiving dinner to many, and met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. President Trump also said he had restarted peace talks with the Taliban, talks which he cut off in early September.

    For more on this, I'm joined by our own John Yang here in the studio.

    Good to see you, John.

    Let's talk about what the president said. Restarting the peace talks? Where do they stand?

  • John Yang:

    Well, it's interesting, Amna.

    Administration officials tell "PBS NewsHour" that this trip was never intended to be about talking about the peace talks. As Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, told reporters on Air Force One on the way over, this was simply meant to be a show of support for the troops, a holiday greeting, a traditional thing for presidents to do.

    But, as so often is the case, President Trump had different ideas when he sat down with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We have been wanting to make a deal, and so have the Taliban. And we pulled back. We were getting close. And we pulled back. We didn't want to do it because of what they did. It wasn't a good — it was not a good thing they did with killing the soldier.

    Don't know if they knew he was a soldier, but he was a soldier, an American soldier.

    They want to make a deal. So we will see what happens. If they make it, fine. If they don't make it, that's fine. We're going to be able to do everything we're doing, and actually more. And, at the same time, we're bring down the number of groups substantially. And we will be down at a number that's very — it's a good number.

    And we're going to stay until such time as we have a deal or we have total victory.

  • John Yang:

    Now, these talks have been going on, we're being told, for about three weeks now. They're at what they call an informal level. And they're not starting at scratch.

    They're starting essentially with the proposed agreement that was offered to President Trump in September, when he stopped the talks. You will remember, he went on Twitter, blew up talks that were scheduled for Camp David.

    Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy, and his counterparts are reviewing that proposal. And that's what — the process that's going on now. He's been in the region for three weeks in Pakistan and Qatar and holding these talks with Taliban officials.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So the talks are continuing, in other words.

  • John Yang:

    Exactly.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let's mention something else that he said that caught a lot of people's attention. It was about the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan.

    He said — President Trump, that is — that he would like to bring that number down to 8,600. It was a very specific number. We should say the pretense for the peace talks was to try to get that number down to zero. So, where did that 8,600 number come from?

  • John Yang:

    Zero, of course, is the number he promised in the 2016 campaign.

    That number 8,600, the troops levels now are about 13,000; 8,600 is the number that General Scott Miller, the U.S. commander of troops in Afghanistan, says that he can carry out a mission of supporting Afghan troops, training Afghan troops, and carrying out counterterrorism efforts with that level of about 8,600.

    It's interesting. And when he was talking to reporters, the president said — was asked about what level he wanted. And he said, well, I don't think I want to tell you that level. I don't want to tell you what we're planning, what do I want to do.

    A reporter asked him, is it 8,600? He said, yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    OK, so confirmed, and moving on then.

    I do want to ask you about something else he mentioned, which is, this is something of a tradition, right, for U.S. presidents to visit U.S. troops deployed around the world on Thanksgiving.

    Is it particularly significant for President Trump right now in his presidency?

  • John Yang:

    It's only his second trip to a war zone. He was in Iraq last Christmas and now in Afghanistan this Thanksgiving.

    It is, remember, the beginning of a campaign season. He campaigned on being full out of Afghanistan by the — by next year, by the election. Promises made, promises kept is something we're likely to hear a lot about over the next year.

    And, also, it's a — it was a chance for him to be on the world stage as commander in chief, seen with the troops going into a week when the House Judiciary Committee is holding its first impeachment hearing.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    John Yang with the latest for us.

    Happy Thanksgiving, John.

  • John Yang:

    Happy Thanksgiving.

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