President Bush has completed a brief surprise visit to Afghanistan where he predicted a tough battle against the Taliban. Mr. Bush said stabilizing the country will "take time" and must also involve Pakistan.
President Bush arrived on what is expected to be his final trip to the Afghan war zone, emphasizing the foreign policy themes that have defined much of his presidency.
Bush rebuffs criticism about lack of progress in Afghanistan
Mr. Bush said bringing democracy to Afghanistan, improving civil society and building medical clinics and schools are the keys to defeating the kind of extremism represented by the Taliban. He said the interest is "to build a flourishing democracy as an alternative to a hateful ideology."
During a news conference with President Hamid Karzai, an Afghan reporter said after seven years of war, security is worsening and the United States has failed in its promise to liberate the Afghan people.
Mr. Bush said he disagreed.
"The Taliban was brutalizing the people of Afghanistan. And they're not in power," the president noted. " And I just cited the progress that is undeniable. Now, is there more work to be done? You bet. I never said Taliban was eliminated, I said they were removed from power."
Country's future involves peace talks with Taliban
This year has been particularly deadly for international forces and Afghan civilians, as Taliban fighters expanded territory and destabilized areas, nearly surrounding the capital city.
There is now broad support among Afghan political leaders - including Mr. Karzai - for holding peace talks with Taliban factions that agree to recognize the country's constitution. U.S. and NATO commanders have recommended reaching out to so-called "reconcilable" insurgents. Major Taliban commanders, including Mullah Omar, have rejected the offers.
Bush: peace must involve Pakistan
Mr. Bush said the United States remains committed to defeating the Taliban and he expects President-elect Barack Obama to deploy more U.S. forces next year to support the effort.
But the president also acknowledged that bringing peace to Afghanistan must also involve Pakistan.
"There needs to be a comprehensive strategy in helping the Pakistan government deal with those who bring great harm on their citizens and bring harm on the citizens of Afghanistan," he said. "So we need to have a collaborative strategy -work together on in constructive way. We are making progress along those lines."
Political leaders in both Afghanistan and Pakistan say some U.S. military offensives are undermining public support for the war. In Pakistan, officials have denounced suspected American drone missile attacks against militant targets. In Afghanistan, airstrikes against Taliban fighters have in some cases killed scores of civilians, including women and children.
Karzai support for international troops still strong
But Hamid Karzai said Afghan public support for the international troops remains strong. And, in one of the more lighthearted moments of their news conference, Mr. Karzai said his impoverished country is appreciative of billions of dollars in foreign aid.
"Afghanistan will not allow the international community to leave it before we are fully on our feet," Karzai said. "Before we are strong enough to defend our country, before we are powerful enough to have a good economy and before we have taken from President Bush and the next administration, billions and billions of more dollars. No way that we can let you go."
"You better hurry up in my case," President Bush joked.
The Afghan president's government has been dogged by allegations of rampant corruption from U.S. officials and opposition politicians.
Mr. Karzai said Afghans do not want to be a burden on the international community forever and are grateful for the blood and money other nations have been willing to sacrifice for Afghanistan.