KABUL (Reuters) - President George W. Bush told Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Monday the United States would stand by the war-torn country despite a transition of power at the White House.
Moving from one war zone to another, Bush flew secretly from Baghdad to Kabul, landing under cover of darkness for talks with Karzai and meetings with U.S. troops spearheading the fight against a resurgent Taliban.
“I told the president you can count on the United States. Just like you’ve been able to count on this administration, you will be able to count on the next administration as well,” Bush told a news conference in the Afghan capital alongside Karzai.
On a farewell visit to Baghdad on Sunday, meant to mark greater security in Iraq after years of bloodshed, an Iraqi reporter called Bush a “dog” and threw his shoes at him.
After Air Force One touched down at Bagram air base outside Kabul under heavy security, Bush strode across the tarmac and into a giant tent where hundreds of troops greeted him with raucous cheers as he thanked them for their service.
“I am confident we will succeed in Afghanistan because our cause is just,” he told them.
Bush, who has already ordered a troop increase in Afghanistan, appeared to lend tacit support to President-elect Barack Obama’s pledge to increase troop levels even more after he takes office on January 20.
“I want him to succeed, I want him to do well,” Bush said of Obama. “I’d expect you’ll see more U.S. troops here as quickly as possible in parts of the country that are being challenged by the Taliban.”
Obama has promised to make Afghanistan a higher priority, saying the Bush administration has been too distracted by the unpopular Iraq war to pay Afghanistan the attention it deserves.
But Bush said much progress had been made in Afghanistan since U.S. and Afghan forces toppled the Taliban in 2001 for sheltering al Qaeda leaders behind the September 11 attacks and said dozens of roads, schools and hospitals had been built.
But an Afghan reporter challenged Bush, saying the United States had failed to make good on promises to bring security.
“I respectfully disagree with you,” Bush replied. “I just cited the progress. It’s undeniable. I never said the Taliban was eliminated, I said they were removed from power. They are lethal and they are tough.”
Bush was due to leave Afghanistan after his visit of several hours, but his next destination was not announced.
COOPERATE WITH PAKISTAN
Bush also said it was important for the United States to keep working with Pakistan to pressure militants along its border with Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants in al Qaeda are believed to be hiding out in the remote, lawless region.
“If Pakistan is a place from which people feel comfortable attacking infrastructure, citizens, troops, it’s going to make it difficult to succeed in Afghanistan,” Bush said. “The more we can get Pakistan and Afghanistan to cooperate, the easier it will be to enforce that part of the border regions.”
Bush was making his second trip to Afghanistan since 2001.
Some 65,000 foreign troops are in Afghanistan, including 32,000 from the United States, struggling to combat worsening insurgent violence that has sparked alarm in Western capitals.
“No question that violence is up,” Bush said. “But one reason why the violence is up is we’re now putting troops in places where there hadn’t been troops.”
U.S. Army Gen. David McKiernan, commander of NATO forces and U.S. troops in Afghanistan, has requested four more combat brigades and support units -- a total of more than 20,000 troops.
One of those brigades is scheduled to deploy in January.
Washington’s ability to send more forces to Afghanistan depends largely on being able to pull some of its nearly 150,000 troops out of Iraq, where security has improved sharply, but commanders caution the situation remains fragile.
Some NATO partners have resisted Washington’s push for higher troop levels in Afghanistan causing friction within the alliance.
“The mission is essential. We cannot achieve our objective of removing al Qaeda safe havens by kicking out Talibans and saying ‘OK, now let’s leave,” Bush said.
Asked if Pakistan was doing its part in its border areas, Bush said Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari was determined.
“He said so publicly and he said privately. He looked at me in the eye and said ‘you don’t need to talk to me about extremist violence. After all my wife got killed by extremists’.”
Karzai said the Afghan people would not allow the United States and the international community to abandon them “before we are really on our feet or we are strong enough to defend our country and have a good economy,” and then joked, “and before they have taken from President Bush and his administration billions and billions of more dollars.”
“You better hurry up,” Bush replied.
Additional reporting by Golnar Motevalli; Editing by Bill Tarrant
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