Bush Makes Surprise Stop in Afghanistan

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President Bush makes an unannounced visit to Kabul on his way to India and Pakistan. He discussed security issues with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and told a news conference he still believes Osama bin Laden will be brought to justice.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. President Bush has arrived in India for a two-day visit. On the way there, he made an unscheduled stop in Kabul, marking his first visit to Afghanistan. He met with Hamid Karzai at the presidential palace, and later, the two leaders spoke to reporters. President Bush repeated his belief that Osama bin Laden and Taliban chief Mullah Omar will eventually be brought to justice. He also spoke about the growth of democracy in Afghanistan.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I hope the people of Afghanistan understand is, a democracy, democracy takes hold, you're inspiring others, and that inspiration will cause others to demand their freedom. And as the world becomes more free, the world will become more peaceful.

MONTAGNE: Security was extremely tight for the president's brief stop-over. The airspace over the Afghan capital was closed. NPR's White House correspondent Don Gonyea is covering the president's trip to South Asia, and there are indications the president would be, or there were indications the president would be stopping in Afghanistan--hints--but that it would be at the end of this tour to South Asia.

DON GONYEA, reporting:

Right. Call it informed speculation, that he would, as you said, make his first ever visit to Afghanistan. The reason being, he'd be in the neighborhood, with his stop scheduled for Saturday in Islamabad, Pakistan. Prior to that, three days in New Dehli, India. So, it really did seem logical that he might go to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan on his way home from Islamabad at end of the whole trip.

Of course, the White House was saying nothing about any of this, although, they would not categorically say that there would be no additions to the president's itinerary on this trip. We now know that they've been planning this trip to Kabul, to Afghanistan, for about eight weeks. For obvious security reasons, it was kept completely secret until just hours before Air Force One touched down in Afghanistan today.

MONTAGNE: And Don, as we just heard, the president had considerable praise for democracy in Afghanistan.

GONYEA: He did, and he talked about how important a friend Hamid Karzai is, the Afghan president, and how important Afghanistan is, strategically, to the U.S. He also talked, as he often does in the U.S. when he's travelling the country, about democratic progress. Democracy that is taking hold here. And he used the example of young girls in the country being able to go to school, and to study and to learn, when in the years of the Taliban rule, pre-September 11th, that sort of thing was banned. So, he used that example here as well.

MONTAGNE: And besides his meeting with Karzai, what else was on the president's agenda there in Afghanistan?

GONYEA: There are some 19,000 U.S. troops still trying to put down al-Quaida and Taliban unsurgents that continue to maintain a presence, so the president spoke to some of them, kind of a pep talk at Bagram Air Base. Also, he participated in the ribbon-cutting for the opening of a brand new U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

MONTAGNE: Well, the president spoke about that insurgency at a time when there's been an upsurge in attacks in Afghanistan. They've gotten more vicious. Suicide bombings have started to occur, hadn't really been before. So, what would, you know, give us a little context, there. How severe has that been?

GONYEA: Well, it does remain a very real, a very serious problem that is often overshadowed by what's going on not that far away in Iraq, and in Baghdad. But, there are still al-Qaida operating out of Afghanistan. A Taliban insurgency is also still very active, causing problems for U.S. troops. That insurgency has claimed well over a thousand lives since the start of 2005. There are also problems with the drug trade, so the president's answer to all of this is that the U.S. is committed to Afghanistan, and that the U.S. is committed to helping this new democracy flourish.

MONTAGNE: Don, thanks very much. NPR's White House correspondent Don Gonyea covering the president's trip to India and Pakistan, and his unannounced visit to Afghanistan.

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