Presidents of Afghanistan, Pakistan Dine with Bush

President Bush brought together two allies in the fight against terrorism over dinner at the White House on Wednesday night. The honored guests were President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan. The two men have recently been fighting their own war of words.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Three allies in the war against terrorism had dinner together at the White House last night. The honored guests of President Bush were President Pervaiz Musharraf of Pakistan and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan. Before dinner the guests shook hands with President Bush but not with each other, which counts as another sign of tension between the two leaders. Mr. Bush praised each as the three leaders posed for pictures in the Rose Garden last night.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: They are strong leaders who have a understanding of the world in which we live. They understand that the forces of moderation are being challenged by extremists and radicals, and we're working closely together to help improve the lives of the people in Afghanistan and the people in Pakistan.

INSKEEP: The trouble of course is the less than warm relationship between the two presidents. NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea is following this story. And, Don, how was dinner?

DON GONYEA:

Well, you know, they didn't allow the press in to join the dinner. We do know that they had spicy sea bass and soup and salad and pumpkin cake. But we can also assume that the conversation was quite serious.

It's an understatement to say that this is a critical region, a critical part of the world. And here's what's on the table - the table as far as the discussions go - Afghanistan is really working to try to control a resurgent Taliban five years after the Taliban government was toppled.

Karzai's government is considered weak. In Pakistan, Musharraf has areas of the country he doesn't control. He signed a peace deal recently with tribal leaders. That's been seen as good news to the Taliban operating out of his country.

Osama bin Laden of course is still at large and is believed to be hiding in that mountainous border region between these two countries. Finding him obviously requires cooperation and coordination.

So simply put, President Bush really sees this as a crucial time.

INSKEEP: Are these two presidents, who weren't even willing to shake hands, ready to work with each other?

GONYEA: Well, the body language seems to tell a lot. And this is a moment when the whole world is watching them and they seem not ready to get along at all. So you can imagine what it's like when they get back to their own countries.

It does seem a bit forced. Each has been in the U.S. for more than a week because of United Nations meetings up in New York, and Musharraf has been on a book tour. Each has done interviews with the press. Each has, at times, blamed the other for not doing enough to deal with extremists in their own countries. There's been lots of finger pointing, and we'll have to see if the president was able to get them to at least keep that in private last night.

INSKEEP: We're talking with NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea. And, Don, I want to ask about one other issue. The president is seen as being on the defensive because of this intelligence report, that's now been declassified partially, saying that the war in Iraq has actually led to increased support for jihadists around the world. What are White House officials saying to defend themselves?

GONYEA: Well, yesterday they were on the offensive again. And here's the basic argument the administration was putting forth. While acknowledging that the Iraq war may be driving up resentment of the U.S. and that it may indeed be creating more supporters of a global jihadist movement, that that doesn't necessarily mean that these new supporters of jihad are ready to go out and take up arms and carry out violence. Here is Press Secretary Tony Snow talking about it yesterday.

Mr. TONY SNOW (White House Press Secretary): What bin Laden tries to do is to use events as a way of storing up hatred so that he can get people who will support him. That does not mean - and I want to make the distinction. People who say, yes, I support bin Laden is a lot different than people who say, I'm strapping on the vest and going to kill Americans. That's a difference.

GONYEA: And, Steve, Snow stresses al-Qaida is much weaker than it was because its leadership and training operations have been disrupted, its finances are being tracked, because the U.S. has been on the offensive.

INSKEEP: Okay, thanks very much. That's NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea.

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