Bush Makes Surprise Visit to Afghanistan
President Bush made a surprise visit to Afghanistan to show support for the Karzai government and our troops in the nearly-forgotten four year war there.
President Bush made a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Wednesday, flying here secretly to support its fledging government in the face of rising violence from al-Qaida and Taliban militants.
Bush’s entourage flew into the city from Bagram Air Base in a flotilla of heavily armed helicopters. Two door gunners on a press helicopter fired off a short burst of machine gun fire at unknown targets as the aircraft flew low and fast over barren countryside.
Bush arrived safely at the presidential palace where he was greeted by Afghanistan’s leader Hamid Karzai. The two men walked down a red carpet past a military honor guard to begin their meetings. “Welcome the president to Afghanistan,” Karzai said as they paused for photographs.
Eight weeks ago when Bush signed off on the India-Pakistan visit he was presented with the option of also going to Afghanistan, said White House press secretary Scott McClellan. The White House closely guarded the secret, but there was widespread speculation that he would make the stop in Afghanistan. “This is an opportunity to show our support for a good friend and ally and emerging democracy,” McClellan said. “We stand firmly with the people of Afghanistan as they are charting their own future.”
While Bush and Karzai met, their wives, Laura Bush and Zinat Karzai met over lunch with other women. Bush also was to preside over a ceremonial ribbon-cutting for the U.S. Embassy. Before leaving Afghanistan, Bush was to get a pep talk to troops back at Bagram Air Base.
It was Bush’s second visit to a war front. His first was a secret trip to have Thanksgiving Dinner in 2003 with U.S. troops in Iraq. Speaking of secrecy concerns, McClellan said, “There are security precautions that were taken and we are confident in the security precautions that have been taken. One of those was not informing you of the trip until now.”
The picture above is from a refueling stop in Shannon, Ireland. Clearly, given the stilted future perfect tone, much of the rest of the story is speculative based on a pre-brief.
If nothing else, this trip will give a day’s attention in the news cycle to the continuing operation in Afghanistan, which has long fallen off the media radar screen. Indeed, even though I follow foreign and military policy much closer than most, I has been some time since I’ve written about Afghanistan from an operational perspective here.
Update: The actual reports are starting to trickle out.
President Bush, on an unannounced visit to Afghanistan, said Wednesday he remains confident Osama bin Laden ”will be brought to justice” despite a so-far futile five-year hunt.
Bush also suggested that the United States and India, where he was headed yet, have still not reached a deal over U.S. help for India’s civilian nuclear program.
”People all over the world are watching the experience here in Afghanistan,” Bush said as he stood side-by-side with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Update 2: A much fuller report at the NYT from Elisabeth Bumiller
In a news conference with Mr. Karzai, Mr. Bush said he remained confident that Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, would be captured, and that the Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar would be apprehended as well. The two are believed to be hiding across the border in Pakistan. “It’s not a matter of if they’re captured or brought to justice, it’s when they’re brought to justice,” Mr. Bush said.
The president deflected a question about the increasing violence from Al Qaeda and Taliban militants in Afghanistan and also played down the possibility of announcing a nuclear agreement with India on a visit to New Delhi, where he was due to arrive tonight. The deal would give India help with nuclear power for its enormous civilian energy needs while allowing it to keep its nuclear weapons.
“This is a difficult issue,” Mr. Bush said, speaking in the garden of the presidential palace in Kabul, with Mr. Karzai at his side. “It’s a difficult issue for the Indian government. It’s a difficult issue for the American government.”
He added: “Hopefully we can reach an agreement. If not, we’ll continue to work on it until we do.”
In response to a question about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Mr. Bush said that “the most destabilizing thing that can happen, in this region and the world,” is for Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. He said he would work with allies to see that it did not happen.
Mr. Bush’s stopover in Afghanistan, the first by an American president since President Dwight D. Eisenhower visited in 1959, occurred on the way to a three-day trip to India and Pakistan. White House officials, who had been planning the stop for two months, kept it secret for security reasons until they told reporters aboard Air Force One after a refueling stop in Shannon, Ireland, that they were en route to Afghanistan.
“It is in our nation’s interest that Afghanistan develops into a democracy,” Mr. Bush said at the embassy. “It is in the interests of the United States of America for there to be examples around the world of what is possible. It is possible to replace tyrants with a free society in which men and women are respected, in which young girls can go to school and realize their full potential, in which people are able to realize their dreams.”
At the news conference, Mr. Bush did not directly answer a question from an Afghan journalist about how long he expected American troops to remain in Afghanistan. “The United States is here at the request of an Afghan government, elected by the people.” Mr. Bush said.
Mr. Bush did say, echoing the view of the Afghan government, that Pakistani militants were slipping across the border and causing violence in Afghanistan, and that he would raise the issue with the Pakistani president, General Pervez Musharaff, when he meets with him on Saturday. Afghans suspect that the militants have been the source of more than two dozen suicide attacks in Afghanistan in recent months.
“These infiltrations are causing harm to friends, allies, and cause harm to U.S. troops,” Mr. Bush said. “And that will be a topic of conversation. It’s an ongoing topic of conversation.”
Update 3: Some photos via Yahoo and the AP: