081215-f-0168m-109abc.gif WASHINGTON– Afghanistan is making progress, and despite challenges, it can rely on America to help it defeat terrorists and grow its fledgling democracy, President George W. Bush told Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the capital city of Kabul today. “There’s been good progress made, but there are a lot of tough challenges” ahead in Afghanistan, said Bush, who made a surprise visit to Afghanistan following his unannounced visit to Baghdad yesterday.

“I told the president that you can count on the United States — just like you’ve been able to count on this administration, you’ll be able to count on the next administration, as well,” Bush said at a news conference with Karzai at his side.

“It’s in our interest that Afghanistan’s democracy flourish,” Bush continued. “It’s in America’s interest that we forever deny safe haven to people who still want to kill our citizens.”

Afghanistan was ruled by the Taliban, a militant group of Islamic fundamentalists, before U.S. and coalition forces liberated the country following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. The Taliban routinely beheaded people who didn’t agree with their philosophy, and they treated women as an underclass.

Today, the Taliban is banished from power in Afghanistan, and the country has undergone “a lot of progress since 2001,” Bush said, noting Afghan girls now are attending school, which was prohibited during the Taliban’s regime.

The Afghan economy has doubled in size since the Taliban’s fall, Bush said, while citizens’ health services are improving, and the country’s security forces are strengthening.

While in power, the Taliban sponsored al-Qaida training camps that Osama bin Laden and his followers used to plan the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

“There was a group of killers that were hiding here and training here and plotting to kill citizens of my country,” Bush pointed out.

Al-Qaida reportedly now is operating out of western Pakistan’s ungoverned regions near the border with Afghanistan, while the resurgent Taliban have launched new offensives against U.S., coalition and Afghan forces.

Senior U.S. commanders in Afghanistan have asked for more troops to combat the resurgent Taliban and to secure upcoming elections. Plans are in motion to boost the U.S. troop strength there from about 30,000 to more than 50,000 in coming months. Bush noted that further decisions will take place after President-elect Barack Obama takes office next month.

“I’ve always relied upon our military commanders to make the recommendations necessary to achieve the objectives we’ve set forth,” Bush said, noting he has announced additional troop deployments. “And then, of course, the Obama administration will be analyzing the situation, and it sounds like that they intend to expedite sending more troops in.”

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’ continued stewardship at the Pentagon under the Obama administration “should send a clear signal to the people of Afghanistan that the transition will be a smooth transition,” Bush said.

Karzai said he and Afghanistan’s citizens appreciate American and coalition help.

“What is important here is that while we are continuing to fight terrorism and to bring institutional strength and stability to Afghanistan, we’re going to improve the economy and improve the governance and services to the republic by the government,” Karzai said. “We also work on enabling Afghanistan to eventually stand on its own feet.

“The Afghan people don’t want to be a burden on the international community forever,” he continued. “And we are grateful already that the international community is helping us in blood, and their taxpayers’ money.”

Bush acknowledged that the task in Afghanistan isn’t complete or easy, noting the country’s size and rugged geography work in the favor of the insurgents. However, al-Qaida’s power has been greatly diminished, he pointed out, while the Taliban remain fugitives shorn of the levers of government.

“I never said the Taliban was eliminated; I said they were removed from power,” Bush said. The Taliban persist, he said, because they hate the idea of a free society in Afghanistan and “want to regain power.”

Meanwhile, there’s no question that the United States and its allies must persist in Afghanistan until the Taliban and al-Qaida are defeated, Bush said.

“I think it’s necessary work,” Bush said. “And it’s in the interest of the United States that we not allow Afghanistan to become a safe haven again for al-Qaida.”

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