Bush Surprises Afghans With Visit

KABUL, Afghanistan -- U.S. President George W. Bush began his first visit to South Asia on Wednesday with a surprise stopover in Afghanistan, where thousands of American troops are still engaged in hunting down the architects of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Bush's Air Force One flew to Bagram air base, headquarters of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, from where helicopters ferried him and his entourage across the dusty plain over mud brick homes to the capital, Kabul.

He later arrived in India, the world's largest democracy, on the second leg of his trip, with hopes of elevating a new friendship between the two nations into a strategic partnership.

During his visit to Afghanistan, Bush held talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his U.S.-backed government, which took power after the Taliban regime was overthrown for refusing to hand over al-Qaida leaders following the Sept. 11 attacks.

"It's in our nation's interest that Afghanistan develop into a democracy. It is in the interests of the United States of America for there to be examples around the world of what is possible," he said at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

Bush is visiting Afghanistan at a time when the country is still troubled by a stubborn Taliban insurgency that has claimed 1,500 lives since the start of last year, including dozens of U.S. soldiers, and suicide attacks have increased. There is an 18,000-strong U.S.-led force stationed in Afghanistan, along with around 9,000 NATO-led peacekeepers.

But more than four years after U.S. troops toppled the Taliban, al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar remain at large. "It's not a matter of if they are captured and brought to justice, it's when they are brought to justice," Bush told a joint news conference with Karzai after the two leaders met.

American officials have portrayed Afghanistan as a relative success story compared to the U.S. front in Iraq.

Millions of war refugees have returned to the country, and presidential elections installed Karzai in October 2004 and the country's first democratically elected parliament in September.

During a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the official opening of the new U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Bush said Washington was there for the long haul. "My message to the people of Afghanistan is: Take a look at this building -- it's a big, solid, permanent structure, which should represent the commitment of the United States of America."

Bush said Afghans who visited Washington often asked him whether the United States was committed to Afghanistan's future.

"They ask me with their words, they ask with their stares as they look in my eyes: Is the United States firmly committed to the future of Afghanistan? My answer is: absolutely," he said.

The Taliban deputy leader and former defense minister Mullah Abdullah Akhund said on Wednesday that Bush's "secret visit" showed the Taliban had strong control over Afghanistan.

"If the American president's visit had been announced in advance, the Taliban mujahedin would have greeted him with rockets and attacks. But Bush proved his cowardice by coming on a secret visit as a thief," he told Reuters by satellite telephone.

Bush's three-day visit to India, the fifth by a U.S. president, has raised expectations in Asia's third-largest economy, which has slowly shed its socialist baggage and turned to the West to help it become a regional power.

Both countries hope Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will clinch a landmark civilian nuclear cooperation deal, seen as the centerpiece of the visit. The deal, agreed in principle last July when Singh visited Washington, has run into trouble over differences on nuclear-armed India's plan to separate its military and civilian atomic plants to prevent proliferation, a key requirement.

Both sides have tried to play down expectations even as they continue to discuss the number of reactors India will declare as civilian and open up for international inspections.

Bush is also due to visit the technology city of Hyderabad, in the south, on Friday before flying to Pakistan. Indian and U.S. agencies have made unprecedented security arrangements for the visit, which has drawn the ire of leftist and Muslim groups.

Tens of thousands of Muslims and communists took to the streets across India on Wednesday to protest against his visit. About 100,000 Muslim men gathered in a public ground in the heart of the Indian capital, New Delhi, shouting anti-Bush slogans. Protests also took place in Bangalore.