Afghan President Hamid Karzai today hailed the "heroism and care for humanity" of U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan and vowed that his country would continue working with the United States to win the war on terrorism.
In a speech before a joint meeting of Congress in the House chamber, Karzai also said Afghanistan is struggling to deal with private militias, the narcotics trade and widespread poverty, and he called for continued U.S. help and investment.
Later, after conferring with Karzai in the White House, President Bush called him "a strong ally in the war on terror" and announced what he said were five new initiatives to help Afghans "achieve the peace, stability and prosperity they deserve."
Standing with Karzai in the White House Rose Garden, Bush told reporters the United States would launch a training program for newly elected Afghan politicians, help print millions of new school textbooks, expand the participation of Afghans in exchange programs, pursue a bilateral trade and investment agreement and provide $5 million to fund business opportunities for Afghan women.
Since the ouster in November 2001 of the radical Taliban government that had harbored Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network, Bush said, "Afghanistan is no longer a terrorist factory sending thousands of killers into the world."
He added: "The road ahead for Afghanistan is still long and difficult, yet the Afghan people can know that their country will never be abandoned to terrorists and killers. The world and the United States stands with them as partners in their quest for peace and prosperity and stability and democracy."
Karzai, 46, who heads Afghanistan's transitional government while preparing for elections in September, said he had "thanked America for the help that it gave us to liberate ourselves and rebuild ourselves and prosper."
Elected president by a loya jirga, or grand tribal council, in June 2002, Karzai is seeking a broader mandate in the country's first elections since the removal of the Taliban government with U.S. military help. The elections, originally scheduled for this month, were postponed after the United Nations warned of inadequate security and logistical problems.
So far, fewer than 4 million people have been registered to vote out of an electorate estimated at 10 million. Afghanistan's population now is estimated at nearly 29 million.
Karzai told members of Congress in the joint meeting, however, that he had received an encouraging report about the registration just this morning. He said that in sharp contrast to the Taliban's discrimination against women, at least half those registering to vote in the central part of the country now are women and that the average for the registration nationally is about 35 percent female.
He said he expects 6 million to 7 million voters to be registered in time for the election, about half of them women.
Wearing a gray woolen astrakhan hat and a green cape, Karzai effusively thanked the United States for its support in ousting the Taliban and rebuilding the country.
"You have supported us with your resources, with your leadership in the world community and, most importantly, with the precious lives of your soldiers," he told Congress.
Among Afghanistan's recent achievements, he said, have been a program to rebuild schools, resulting in more than 5 million boys and girls attending school today, and the training of an Afghan national army by U.S. troops.
"Wherever we have deployed them, the Afghan people have welcomed them," he said of the national army's soldiers.
"The confidence of our citizens in the future of our country is clearly signified by the return of 3 million refugees in the past two years," Karzai said.
But major problems remain, he said, including the threat of private militias and "the evil of narcotics," specifically the cultivation of opium poppies, a huge cash crop used to manufacture heroin.
"We are determined to cleanse Afghanistan of this menace," Karzai said.
In addition, he noted, Afghanistan still has the second highest infant mortality rate in the world, only 6 percent of the population has reliable access to electricity, farmers routinely struggle with water shortages and the country's vast mineral resources are undeveloped.
"To succeed, we ask for your continued investment," Karzai said. "Afghanistan is open for business, and American companies are most welcome."
Pledging his support for continued efforts to hunt down bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders, Karzai told the story of a stray American bomb that landed a few yards from him as he was making his way inside Afghanistan during the war against the Taliban in the fall of 2001. The bomb killed more than 20 of his fighters and four U.S. soldiers accompanying them, he said.
"And in the middle of all that confusion and pain, an old man walked up to me," Karzai said. "He came up to me and said, 'Mr. Karzai, go to the Americans. Tell them that in a war like this, things like that happen. Tell them not to lose heart. Tell them that we shall continue to fight, and we must win.'"
Karzai also told the members of Congress that he had stopped last week in Fort Drum, N.Y., home of the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division, to honor two American soldiers who were badly wounded in Kandahar, Afghanistan, a few months ago when an attacker threw a grenade into their vehicle.
"They took the grenade," Karzai said. "Instead of throwing it into the street, where there were people around them, civilians, these heroic men stuck the grenade under their seat. The grenade exploded. Fortunately they survived, but they were badly injured."
The Afghan president added: "To us, this is also the example of heroism and care for humanity, and we are proud of these two American soldiers."
The members of Congress rose to their feet and cheered, giving Karzai a lengthy standing ovation.
"Ladies and gentlemen, together we have a long road ahead, but we will move forward to make the world a better place," Karzai concluded. "And for us in Afghanistan, we remember you for every help that you have given us. And we will have that in our books written in golden letters."
The United States has stepped up the hunt for bin Laden in recent months, increasing its strength in Afghanistan to 20,000 troops.
Karzai said Monday that he hoped NATO would send more troops to his country to help bolster security in advance of the September elections.
In an interview on C-Span, the Afghan foreign minister, Abdullah, said his personal belief is that bin Laden and his cohorts -- notably his deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, a 52-year-old Egyptian doctor, and his former protector, Taliban leader Mohammad Omar -- are alive and hiding "outside Afghanistan" in the mountainous border area of neighboring Pakistan.