KABUL, (Reuters) – U.S. President George W. Bush began his first visit to South Asia on Wednesday with a surprise stop over 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 was due later to fly to India, the world’s largest democracy where anti-Bush protests by Muslims and communists were flaring, with hopes of elevating a new friendship between the two nations into a strategic partnership.
During his visit to Afghanistan, Bush held talks with President Hamid Karzai and his U.S.-backed government that took power after the Taliban regime was overthrown for refusing to hand over leaders of the al Qaeda network following the Sept. 11 attacks.
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 Qaeda 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.
He said Afghans who visited Washington often asked him whether the U.S. was committed 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’,” Bush said.
The Taliban deputy leader and former defence minister Mullah Abdullah Akhund said on Wednesday that Bush’s “secret visit” showed the Taliban had a strong control over Afghanistan.
“If the American president’s visit had been announced in advance, the Taliban mujahideen 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.
“The Taliban mujahideen want to tell the American president… that they will continue attacking your Afghan puppets and American forces, will continue sending bodies of American soldiers to America and this jihad will go on.”
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 them 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.
“Go back, Bush”, “Bush is a killer”, “Bully Bush, buzz off”, “Bush, stop the ambush”, they shouted as hundreds of policemen in riot gear kept watch.
In the eastern city of Kolkata, a leftist stronghold, about 25,000 communist supporters converged on the city centre to take part in an anti-Bush public meeting.