ISLAMABAD,(Reuters) – Getting U.S. President George W. Bush into not one but two battlegrounds in the war on terrorism — Pakistan and Afghanistan — stretched his security detail but Bush was adamant about going despite the risks.
In doing so, he offered a boost to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, both struggling to contain Islamist militants trying to destabilise their governments.
The trouble for Musharraf and Karzai is that many of their countrymen see them as lackeys of Bush, a U.S. president whose own job approval ratings at home have fallen below 40 percent due largely to the Iraq war and a bungled response to Hurricane Katrina.
By making the trip, Bush may well have been within several hundred miles of Osama bin Laden, the elusive al Qaeda leader who Bush wanted “dead or alive”.
Many intelligence analysts believe bin Laden is hiding in the remote mountains along the Pakistan border with Afghanistan.
Some in the Bush entourage wondered whether Bush would alter his schedule after a suicide car bombing in Karachi killed a U.S. diplomat a day before he was due to arrive in Pakistan.
The Texan, whose presidency has been dominated by fighting Islamist militancy, quickly scotched any doubts.
“Terrorists and killers are not going to prevent me from going to Pakistan,” he told reporters in New Delhi.
As a security precaution, Air Force One brought Bush to Pakistan’s military’s Chaklala Air Base outside Islamabad under cover of darkness, window shades ordered closed.
There were scores of U.S. security personnel waiting on the runway, with barbed wire and parked buses strategically placed to stop any would-be attacker breaking through.
As a further precaution, tactics were used to make it unclear to the press pool with Bush whether he travelled from the air base to the heavily fortified U.S. embassy by motorcade or by helicopter where he stayed on Friday night.
Aides said Bush insisted on going in order to demonstrate U.S. solidarity with Musharraf, who has survived several assassination attempts since becoming one of the United States’ key allies since the Sept. 11 al Qaeda attacks.
Bush’s visit to Afghanistan carried risks as well.
He said he had wanted to go there ever since the Taliban was toppled from power in late 2001, and finally got his chance, but it was no surprise that the White House kept the trip secret until just a few hours before Bush was due to land.
After flying over the barren mountains of Afghanistan, Air Force One dropped quickly, banked hard and landed at high speed at Bagram Air Base.
Helicopters flying remarkably low to the dusty ground to avoid chances of any militant getting lucky with a rocket-propelled grenade then took Bush and his entourage from Bagram to Kabul.
On board one of the choppers, reporters were jarred when door gunners sprayed machinegun fire out at the barren countryside. Who they were firing at was unclear.
It might have been a test fire. But it was a clear sign Bush had entered hostile territory.