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.
On Wednesday, Pakistani security forces struck a militia training camp near the Afghan border, killing 45 fighters, including a Chechen commander linked to al-Qaeda, the army announced. Terrorism will be at top of the agenda when Bush and Musharraf meet this weekend.
[On Thursday, two bombs exploded near the U.S. Consulate in Pakistan's largest city, Karachi, killing three people and wounding 34, the Associated Press reported, citing police.]
Bush landed in New Delhi on Wednesday night but attended no events. In his first trip to the country, the world's largest democracy, the president will juggle talks over India's nuclear program with new overtures to tighten relations on issues from fighting terrorism to increasing trade.
Despite greatly improved relations between Washington and New Delhi in the past few years, Bush is a controversial figure in India. His visit has sparked loud opposition from Muslims as well as leftist political parties allied with the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Hours before Bush's arrival, tens of thousands of protesters, most of them Muslims, gathered in a dusty fairground in the capital to proclaim him an unwelcome guest, waving black-and-white flags and chanting "Bush is a killer" as hundreds of police in riot gear looked on.
"I believe that Bush has harmed peace all over the world," said Arif Mahmood, 32, a Muslim cleric at the protest. "There are good people in America and we have nothing against those people. But we hate all the people who support this government and its policies. Eighty percent of American policy is about bullying the rest of the world."
A new survey of attitudes toward the United States in the Indian newsmagazine Outlook found that 46 percent of Indians "love the country," 14 percent hate it and 55 percent believe that "India can trust the United States in times of need." On the other hand, 72 percent answered yes to the question "Is America a bully?"
For India's powerful socialist and communist parties, the visit has become a lightning rod for criticism that Singh's government, led by the Congress party, has acceded too readily to American pressure on issues such as Iran.
"We do want India to have relations with countries, but it has to be on an equal footing," Brinda Karat, a member of Parliament from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said in an interview. "The Bush visit, and the context of the Bush visit, shows that what is being demanded of India is not as an equal partner."
Still, there is no denying the warming trend between the two countries following decades of Cold War estrangement, when India was a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, and more recent tensions stemming from India's nuclear tests in 1998.
The improvement reflects the Bush administration's eagerness to cultivate India as a partner in efforts to fight terrorism and promote democracy, and as a strategic counterweight to China. It also reflects India's growing economic importance.
Harish Khare, a columnist for the English-language Hindu newspaper, wrote Wednesday that Bush's visit had evoked "all the dormant emotions Indians feel towards the U.S.: outright hostility, unspoken suspicion, and a grudging admiration for the American model."
Much of the anxiety surrounding Bush's visit centers on the nuclear deal, which would lift the U.S. ban on the sale of civilian nuclear technology to India if it separates military and civilian nuclear facilities and opens up the civilian ones to international inspections.
Singh's government has embraced the plan as crucial to the country's energy future. But opposition politicians and some nuclear strategists have criticized it as a threat to India's nuclear deterrent, prompting Singh to declare in an address to Parliament on Monday that the government would not agree to any arrangement that compromises its weapons program.
His critics have not been persuaded. Karat said the deal has "very clear repercussions on the rights India would have to maintain its own nuclear program," and she accused the Bush administration of "shifting the goal posts" during negotiations.
Karat and other leftist politicians also have used the Bush visit to press for the removal of U.S. Ambassador David C. Mulford, who recently caused a stir in India by publicly suggesting that if the government did not support U.S. efforts to curb Iran's nuclear program, Congress would not approve the civilian nuclear deal with India.