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After Visiting Afghanistan And Iraq, Tillerson Goes To Pakistan And India

Oct 24, 2017
Originally published on October 24, 2017 5:35 am
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U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson showed up unannounced in two countries yesterday, Afghanistan and then Iraq. In the past, Tillerson has been criticized for excluding the press on these trips. This time, though, he brought several reporters along, including NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: We knew we were headed to Baghdad, a short trip in and out from a U.S. military base in Qatar. But the night before, we were told to be ready to leave the hotel at 5:00 a.m. to go somewhere else first. It was a sunrise flight to Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan on a massive C-17 cargo plane.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPLANE AMBIENCE)

UNIDENTIFIED PILOT: Everyone stay seated until the aircraft has completely stopped.

KELEMEN: Secretary Tillerson's staff was so worried about security threats that we couldn't report on the trip until we were back safely in Qatar. And he never left the air base where we arrived.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPLANE AMBIENCE)

US SEC OF STATE REX TILLERSON: General, how are you? Very nice to see you.

KELEMEN: Secretary Tillerson traveled with a very small team but met the charges d'affaires on the ground and the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. He got a quick update before heading into talks with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who came to the sprawling U.S. base with several other top Afghan officials.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHUFFLING PAPERS)

TILLERSON: We had a pretty smooth flight in. Not too bad.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, we arranged the weather. (Laughter).

TILLERSON: (Laughter).

KELEMEN: Just a little chit chat before the cameras, and then it was all behind closed doors. Tillerson later told us what message he brought from President Trump.

TILLERSON: Well, the president's made it clear that, you know, we're here to stay until we can secure a process of reconciliation and peace. It's not an unlimited commitment. He's also made it clear it's not a blank-check commitment.

KELEMEN: The same is true in Iraq, where President Trump has claimed credit for victories against ISIS. How the U.S. moves forward, though, gets tricky as tensions rise among the U.S. allies in Iraq, the Kurds and the Iraqi forces now moving back into areas that had been held by ISIS. Tillerson's pitch there was a call for unity. As he returned to Qatar 20 hours into the day that started with that sunrise flight to Afghanistan, Secretary Tillerson posed for pictures with the crew. I asked him whether he would do this again, visiting two war zones in a day.

TILLERSON: Why not? We were trying to think of a third one to go to (laughter).

KELEMEN: You were? Did you feel like you accomplished a lot?

TILLERSON: Yeah. Yeah, and it was well worth the effort it took, and I know it's tough on everybody, but it was important to go.

KELEMEN: He brought along six journalists this time, more than previous trips, but about half the press pool that covered former secretaries of state. Today it's Pakistan and India, where the war in Afghanistan will again top the agenda. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Doha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.