Bush, on Way To India, Stops In Afghanistan

Bush is Greeted by Karzai
President Bush walks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Jim Young -- Reuters)
By Jim VandeHei and John Lancaster
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 2, 2006

NEW DELHI, March 1 -- President Bush made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan on Wednesday to rally U.S. troops and boost the country's embattled president, Hamid Karzai, at a time when Afghanistan is facing a sharp rise in deadly violence that poses the most serious threat yet to the U.S.-backed government.

Bush made his first trip to Afghanistan -- and the first by a U.S. president since Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1959 -- under heavy guard, detouring en route to a high-profile visit to India. On the ground for only four hours, he met with troops at Bagram air base, participated in a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new U.S. Embassy in Kabul and ate lunch with Karzai and other Afghan officials.

In brief public comments, Bush focused largely on the democratic progress made since a U.S.-led invasion toppled Islamic Taliban rule in late 2001 -- not on the recent surge in suicide bombings and other violence.

"I hope the people of Afghanistan understand that as democracy takes hold, you are inspiring others, and that inspiration will cause others to demand their freedom," Bush told reporters at the presidential palace in Kabul. The country held its first democratic elections for parliament in September. "As the world becomes free, the world will become more peaceful," he said.

Still, the elaborate security precautions for the presidential visit served as a vivid reminder that nearly five years after Bush declared that he wanted Osama bin Laden, the initiator of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, "dead or alive," the al-Qaeda leader remains at large.

"I am confident he will be brought to justice," Bush said. He said there are U.S. and Afghan forces "on the hunt, not only for bin Laden but also those who plot and plan with him." Intelligence officials believe bin Laden is hiding in the treacherous mountain border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan, a U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism that will be rewarded with a Bush visit on Saturday.

The director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, told Congress on Tuesday that the insurgency in Afghanistan is growing and will intensify this spring, presenting the biggest threat to the Karzai government. The United States has about 19,000 troops in Afghanistan and has said it plans to reduce troop levels by about 3,000 later this year.

In a speech to U.S. troops before leaving Afghanistan, Bush said, "I can assure you this government of yours will not blink, will not yield."

White House officials said the visit to Afghanistan had been planned for weeks but was not publicly announced because of the serious security concerns in region, which is home to many al-Qaeda fighters and anti-American militants.

Bush landed at Bagram and flew to Kabul, protected by heavily armed helicopters. At one point, gunners on the helicopter carrying reporters directed short bursts of machine-gun fire at undisclosed targets. Later, Bush was twice forced to pause during his news conference because of the loud noise of military aircraft overhead.

In the short news conference with Karzai, Bush hit on many of the complicated issues he will confront during his four-day tour of a region that is at the center of debates over nuclear proliferation, terrorism and democracy. Bush, aware that India and Pakistan have different relationships with regional power Iran, warned that the "most destabilizing thing that can happen is for Iran to have nuclear weapons."

Bush suggested the United States had still not finalized a deal with India to separate its civilian and military nuclear programs, a major goal for the trip. And he promised to press Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, on Afghan concerns about "cross-border infiltrations." Afghan officials believe many of the recent violent attacks have been planned and launched by armed groups based in Pakistan.

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