WASHINGTON - Afghan President Hamid Karzai urged President Bush yesterday to press the hunt for fugitive al-Qaida terrorists in Afghanistan and "do more" to improve Afghans' daily lives, as U.S. attention shifts to Iraq.
Karzai asked the president to stay focused on helping the Central Asian nation of 27 million people recover from the 16-month campaign to track down terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, an estimated 1,000 al-Qaida henchmen and remnants of the ousted radical Islamic Taliban government.
Karzai was making his first White House visit in 13 months as the Bush administration focused on preparations for war against Iraq, including promises to help rebuild that nation after any U.S.-led offensive to disarm Baghdad and oust President Saddam Hussein.
With 9,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, "the war against terrorism is going on," Karzai emphasized. "We have defeated them, but some elements are still there, and we should go on strong and tough to get them all and free the world from that menace."
At least 47 U.S. soldiers have died since U.S. military operations began in Afghanistan in October 2001 to oust the Taliban and root out bin Laden's al-Qaida network.
Karzai thanked Bush and the American people for $580 million in assistance to his war-torn country and $3.3 billion more in pledges over the next four years. But he added, "I'm also here to ask you to do more for us in making the life of the Afghan people better, more stable, more peaceful."
Bush emphasized Karzai's reports of progress, including the return of 2 million Afghan refugees, the education of 3 million Afghan children, progress on a $180 million intercity ring road and U.S.-backed training for a new Afghan national army of 1,725 troops.
"I want the American people to know that we're proud of the progress which is being made," Bush told Karzai in the Oval Office, adding that he, too, has a "desire for the human life to improve there."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the two leaders did not discuss the whereabouts of bin Laden or specific increases in U.S. assistance.
Fleischer conceded that pockets of Taliban and al-Qaida remain in Afghanistan, although large areas have been freed.
"There are going to be setbacks," Fleischer said. "But given the history of Afghanistan, everybody should take great pride in the steps Afghanistan has made forward."
Karzai met officials at the White House, the State Department and on Capitol Hill in his bid to remind them of the plight of Afghanistan as Americans' attention turns to Iraq.
"Don't forget us if Iraq happens," said Karzai. "If you reduce the attention because of Iraq ... and if you leave the whole thing to us to fight again, it will be repeating the mistake the United States made during the Soviet occupation."
Karzai was referring to the U.S. abandonment of Afghanistan after Soviet forces ended their occupation in 1989. That development helped the Taliban rise to power and provide haven for terrorists bent on attacking the United States.
Afghanistan remains in the grip of poverty, instability and bloodshed as Kabul awaits delivery of promised international assistance. Afghan officials estimate recovery will cost $25 billion. Nations that attended an Afghan donors' conference in Tokyo a year ago have delivered $1.8 billion of the $4.5 billion pledged. The United States has promised $3.3 billion over the next four years.
Karzai's power barely extends beyond the capital, Kabul, which is patrolled by 4,900 troops in an international security force.
Karzai "continues to face challenges from some local and regional leaders, criminals, and remnant al-Qaida and Taliban elements," Lowell E. Jacoby, the Navy vice admiral directing the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 12. "Assassination of President Karzai would fundamentally undermine Afghan stability."