BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan, Mar 1: US President George W Bush made a surprise visit to Afghanistan today to see for the first time the emerging democracy that replaced the Taliban ousted in 2001 after September 11.
Bush was to hold talks with President Hamid Karzai and other officials of the US-backed government that took power after the Taliban regime was overthrown for refusing to hand over leaders of the al Qaeda network responsible for September 11.
Security was tight for what was expected to be a five-hour visit to Kabul and Bagram, the main base for US troops in Afghanistan.
A group of low-flying helicopters carried Bush and his entourage from Bagram across the dusty plain over mud brick homes to Kabul, where he was received by Karzai.
''This is an opportunity to show support for a good friend and ally and an emerging democracy,'' White House spokesman Scott McClellan said after announcing the visit on Air Force One when the plane took off from Shannon in Ireland after refuelling.
''We stand firmly with the people of Afghanistan as they work to chart their own future,'' he said, adding that the visit was also an opportunity for the president to personally thank US troops serving in Afghanistan.
Bush will participate in a working lunch with Karzai and hold a joint news conference. He will also participate in a ceremony to officially open the new US embassy in Kabul.
The US president was due to fly to India later as part of a tour that will also take him to Pakistan, another important ally in Bush's declared war on terrorism.
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 US soldiers.
RELATIVE SUCCESS STORY US
officials have portrayed Afghanistan as a relative success story compared to the US 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.
But more than four years after US troops toppled the Taliban, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar remain at large.
US Lieutenant General Michael Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, provided a stark assessment of the situation while speaking yesterday at a Senate hearing.
He said that insurgents represented a greater threat to the expansion of Afghan government authority than at any point since the Taliban's overthrow in late 2001.
He said the Taliban-dominated insurgency remained ''capable and resilient'' and would be active in the coming spring, having been emboldened by perceived tactical successes.
Maples said suicide attacks had increased almost four-fold over 2004 and insurgents were increasingly using beheadings to terrorise the local population.
''This more active enemy will continue to negatively impact Afghan government and international efforts to create a stable Afghanistan,'' he said.
Bush's visit comes as US forces have been seeking to scale down their commitment in Afghanistan while a separate NATO-led forces involved in peacekeeping take a greater role.
There is an 18,000-strong US-led force stationed in Afghanistan, along with around 9,000 NATO-led peacekeepers.