By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 7, 2007
President Bush warned Afghan President Hamid Karzai yesterday to be more suspicious of neighboring Iran, calling the Islamic republic a "destabilizing force" that should be isolated until it drops any nuclear aspirations and proves it can be a positive influence.
Capping a two-day visit at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Bush took issue with Karzai's view that Iran "has been a helper" in Afghanistan, a rare point of divergence in a meeting intended to show solidarity in the battle with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The Bush administration has accused Iran of arming the Taliban, reports Karzai largely brushed aside before arriving.
"They're not a force for good, as far as we can see," Bush said of Iran, with Karzai at his side. "They're a destabilizing influence wherever they are. Now, the president will have to talk to you about Afghanistan. But I would be very cautious about whether or not the Iranian influence there in Afghanistan is a positive force. And therefore, it's going to be up to them to prove to us and prove to the government that they are."
The contrasting assessments of Iran came as the two leaders tried to calibrate their approaches to Afghanistan's other critical neighbor, Pakistan. Karzai and his government have been highly critical of Pakistan for harboring Taliban and al-Qaeda guerrillas in rugged, largely ungoverned tribal territory along the border. Bush has been more understanding of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's dicey political position, calling him a valuable ally in the struggle with terrorists but lately pressing him to do more.
Bush ducked a question about whether he would send U.S. forces into Pakistan without Musharraf's permission to take out top al-Qaeda leadership if necessary, saying that "we're in constant communications with the Pakistan government" and that "it's in their interest that foreign fighters be brought to justice." He added: "I'm confident, with real actionable intelligence, we will get the job done."
Bush's comments came days after Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), a leading Democratic presidential candidate, caused a stir by saying he would be willing to order U.S. troops into Pakistan unilaterally if Musharraf failed to take out terrorists. Obama also criticized Bush's strategy in Afghanistan, vowing to send two more U.S. brigades, roughly 7,000 troops, to fight Taliban guerrillas. Nearly 26,000 U.S. troops are now in Afghanistan.
Democrats used Karzai's visit to lambaste Bush's record. "Despite reassuring words from the White House, it is undeniable the president has dropped the ball on the real front in the war on terror -- Afghanistan," said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). "Osama bin Laden remains at large, attacks are on the rise, poppy crops, which are used to finance Taliban operations, are at record levels, and al-Qaeda is regrouping on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border."
While Reid said U.S. troops should be redeployed from Iraq to Afghanistan, Vice President Cheney chastised Democrats for their "retreat strategy" and warned that the experience in Afghanistan before Sept. 11, 2001, showed the folly of pulling out of Iraq. The United States "walked away from Afghanistan" after the Soviet war in the 1980s, he said, leading to civil war, the rise of the Taliban and the creation of a haven for al-Qaeda. "All of that, of course, led directly to the attacks here in the United States," Cheney told the Marine Corps League in Albuquerque.
Karzai's visit comes at a difficult moment as he faces the renewed Taliban threat and a hostage crisis involving 21 South Korean missionaries. A senior U.S. official said Bush wanted to shore up Karzai by bringing him to this mountain retreat just days before the Afghan president hosts a summit with Musharraf in Kabul on Thursday. "It was pretty much of a gut check to see how Karzai's doing, and it seems like he's doing well," the official said.
Bush and Karzai heaped praise on one another. "There's still a fight going on, but I'm proud to report to the American people that the Afghan army is in the fight," Bush said. "Still work to be done. Don't get me wrong. But progress is being made, Mr. President, and we're proud of you, proud of the work you're doing."
Although he has acknowledged worsening security, Karzai said his government is not vulnerable to the Taliban. "They are not posing any threat to the institutions of Afghanistan or to the buildup of institutions of Afghanistan," he said. "It's a force that's defeated. It's a force that is frustrated. It's a force that is acting in cowardice by killing children going to school."
But he did not repeat his warm words for Iran in Bush's company. "We have had very, very good, very, very close relations," Karzai told CNN's "Late Edition" on Sunday when asked about U.S. reports of Iranian arms shipments to the Taliban. Asked if Iran has helped or hurt more, Karzai said, "Well, so far, Iran has been a helper and a solution."
Bush, by contrast, said Iran "is in defiance of international accord" and "seems to be willing to thumb its nose at the international community," referring to its uranium enrichment program. "After all," Bush said, "this is a government that has proclaimed its desire to build a nuclear weapon."
Iran actually has not proclaimed a desire to build a nuclear weapon, maintaining that its enrichment program is aimed only at peaceful civilian power. Asked about Bush's statement, spokesman Gordon Johndroe noted that Iran kept elements of its program secret for years and now is resisting international inspections: "Unfortunately, their intentions seem clear."