WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush got an earful on Thursday about problems and progress in Afghanistan where a war has dragged on for more than six years but been largely eclipsed by Iraq.
In a videoconference, Bush heard from U.S. military and civilian personnel about the challenges ranging from fighting local government and police corruption to persuading farmers to abandon a lucrative poppy drug trade for other crops.
Bush heard tales of all-night tea drinking sessions to coax local residents into cooperating, and of tribesmen crossing mountains to attend government meetings seen as building blocks for the country’s democracy-in-the-making.
“I must say, I‘m a little envious,” Bush said. “If I were slightly younger and not employed here, I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed.”
“It must be exciting for you ... in some ways romantic, in some ways, you know, confronting danger. You’re really making history, and thanks,” Bush said.
He was told of efforts to reduce support for the Taliban in tribal areas as well as hopeful signs that schools were being built, more health care was reaching remote areas and local government officials were being trained in management.
Critics accuse Bush of focusing on Iraq to the detriment of Afghanistan where the Taliban has persisted in fighting after being ousted from power by the U.S.-led war in 2001 following the September 11 attacks.
Bush will try to persuade allies at a NATO summit in early April to do more for Afghanistan. He wants international support to reduce violence, boost the economy and provide social services.
“We’re obviously analyzing ways to help our NATO allies to be able to step up, and step up more,” he said.
Canada has demanded 1,000 more troops from other countries as a condition for remaining in Afghanistan to work near Kandahar where its 2,500-strong force is fighting the Taliban.
“We’re mindful of their request, and we want to help them meet that request,” Bush said.
NATO has a total of 43,000 troops in Afghanistan. The United States has 29,000 troops in the country, about half of which are part of NATO, and is sending another 3,200 Marines.
The Afghan mission is the toughest ground war faced by the 59-year-old alliance and has led to open differences among allies over tactics and troop levels.
Bush sat at the head of a conference table at the White House with Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and others.
A Reuters correspondent was permitted to observe the White House exchange that took place with U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan William Wood and U.S. military and civilian personnel in Kabul.
The videoconference was stopped several times when the sound crackled, diagnosed by technicians as a bad microphone at Kabul’s end, which was immediately swapped out for a new one.
“You’re looking beautiful but you’re not sounding too good,” said Bush, who was in charge of the remote control, increasing and lowering the volume at will.
Bush was told that if local governments can provide for their people, they will respond by breaking away from tribal law and the Taliban.
One of the American participants in Kabul said there was a saying in Ghazni: “Taliban begins where the paved road ends.”
Editing by Matt Spetalnick and Howard Goller