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Bush Makes Surprise Stop in Afghanistan


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

President Bush's trip to South Asia began today with a stop that wasn't on the public schedule: Afghanistan. It was the president's first visit to the country, where a U.S. led military coalition toppled the Taliban government. The stop provided Mr. Bush a chance to express support in person for Afghanistan's political leadership.

NPR's Don Gonyea is traveling with the president.

DON GONYEA reporting:

Air Force One was on its way to New Delhi when the president's press secretary told the small group of reporters on board that first they were landing at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. While unscheduled, the news was not exactly unexpected. The White House says the plan had been in the works for eight weeks, but that security required secrecy.

After a helicopter flight to the presidential palace in Kabul, Mr. Bush received a red carpet greeting from Afghan President Hamid Karzai

President HAMID KARZAI (Afghanistan): Such a wonderful moment for us in Afghanistan today, to have our great friend, our great supporter.

GONYEA: President Bush responded by praising the transformation of a country once ruled by an oppressive Taliban government.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: It's our country's pleasure and honor to be involved with the future of this country. We like stories of young girls going to school for the first time so they can realize their potential. We appreciate free press. We are enthralled when we see an entrepreneurial class grow up where people are able to work and realize their dreams.

GONYEA: But President Bush's presence in Afghanistan is also a reminder that Osama Bin Laden, whose al-Qaida organization once used the country as a training ground, is still at large. During a joint news conference with Karzai, the first question was about Bin Laden, who Mr. Bush once confidently pledged would be caught dead or alive.

President BUSH: I am confident he will be brought to justice. What's, uh, what's happening is, is that we got U.S. forces on the hunt for not only Bin Laden, but anybody who plots and plans with Bin Laden. There're Afghan forces on the hunt for not only Bin Laden, but those who plot and plan with him. We've got Pakistan forces on the hunt.

GONYEA: At the end of the news conference, an Afghan journalist pointed out that deadly attacks by al-Qaida, and the Taliban resistance are on the rise in the country. He asked Mr. Bush about America's long-term security commitments to Afghanistan.

President BUSH: Our commitment is firm. Our desire is to see this country flourish and set a great example not only in the neighborhood but around the world.

GONYEA: Afterwards, the president attended a rally at the air base for some of the 19,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan. He also joined a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new U.S. Embassy in Kabul before resuming his original itinerary: three days in India, including talks on U.S. nuclear cooperation with India. Then it's one day in Pakistan before Mr. Bush heads back to Washington.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, in New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.