Bush in surprise Afghan visit

United States President George Bush arrived in Afghanistan on Wednesday for his first visit since US-led forces toppled the Taliban regime in 2001.

Bush made the surprise stopover, landing at the US military base at Bagram, north of Kabul, as he headed to India to begin a maiden trip to South Asia. He flew by heavily armed helicopter to the capital, where he was given a red-carpet welcome by an honour guard before talks with President Hamid Karzai at the presidential palace.

Bush was accompanied by his wife, Laura, who met briefly with First Lady Zeenet Karzai. First Lady Bush made a lightning visit to Afghanistan in March last year.

Officials would not confirm the president’s trip until his arrival because of security concerns.
Taliban-led militants still launch regular attacks in the ravaged country.

Helicopters patrolled above the heavily fortified city and there was massive security on the streets. White House spokesperson Scott McClellan, speaking to reporters on Air Force One, said the president would spend four hours in Afghanistan.

He said that after talks with Karzai and a “working lunch” between US and Afghan delegations, the president would attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony to formally open the US embassy in Kabul. “Following that, the president will return to Bagram and he will make remarks to US and some coalition forces that are there at the base.”

Afghanistan was the birthplace of the US-led “war on terror” and remains a key battleground, with senior leaders from the al-Qaeda network believed to be hiding in the mountains along the Afghan-Pakistan border.

The United States led the military operation that toppled the hard-line Taliban regime in late 2001 after they failed to hand over al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden following the September 11 attacks. The bulk of a US-led coalition force of about 20 000 troops hunting down Taliban and al-Qaeda militants are American.

More than 130 US troops have been killed in hostile action in Afghanistan, seven of them this year alone. The latest was killed on Tuesday, the eve of the president’s visit, in a clash with suspected Taliban militants in the insurgency-hit south.

Washington is due to cut the number of its troops in the coalition by around 3 000 in the coming months as a separate Nato-led force moves into the south, initially expanding to number about 16 000.

US officials have stressed, however, that the reduction would not affect the country’s commitment to counter-insurgency operations.

Washington is also the biggest supplier of the aid on which Afghanistan depends as it tries to battle the Taliban-led insurgency and rebuild after 25 years of war. Having previously committed $6-billion in aid, it pledged an extra $1,1-billion at a meeting in London in January.

In a show of support for the country’s transition to democracy, US Vice-President Dick Cheney attended the inauguration in December of its first popularly elected parliament in more than 30 years.—AFP

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