Bush faces tough questions in Afghanistan


(Gold9472: If you want to hear some tough questions asked of Mr. Bush, listen to Michael Wolsey's show this week.)

By Mark Silva
Published March 1, 2006, 6:27 AM CST

NEW DELHI -- Four years after the United States and American allies toppled the terrorist-supporting Taliban regime of Afghanistan, President Bush arrived for his first visit to that country Wednesday to face questions about the still-elusive Osama bin Laden.

"I am confident he will be brought to justice,'' the president said of the fugitive Al Qaeda leader during a news conference outside the Afghan presidential palace.

"What's happening is that we've got U.S. forces on the hunt for not only bin Laden but anybody who plots and plans with bin Laden,'' said Bush, making a surprise stop at Bagram Air Force Base en route to New Delhi. "It's not a matter of if they are captured and brought to justice, but when they're captured and brought to justice.''

It's a particularly sensitive question on the president's three-day trip to India and Pakistan. Bin Laden and his chief lieutenants have long been suspected of hiding in a renegade region along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border that has remained resistant to Pakistani President and Army Gen. Pervez Musharraf's campaign to track down terrorists. Bush will meet with Musharraf on Saturday in Islamabad.

Musharraf, who quickly allied with the U.S. in the aftermath of the terrorist assaults of Sept. 11, 2001, boasts of having captured 700 terrorists in cooperation with the U.S. Yet bin Laden, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, remains the most notorious and elusive of a besieged Al Qaeda leadership.

"We've got Pakistan forces on the hunt," Bush said. "Part of my message to President Musharraf is that it's important we bring these people to justice.''

Bush spent his five hours in Afghanistan meeting with President Hamid Karzai and other governmental leaders at the presidential palace, holding a news conference and addressing American troops at Bagram Air Force Base. It was Bush's first visit to the country -- Vice President Dick Cheney and First Lady Laura Bush had made their own separate visits before the president's.

The White House did not announce the visit until Air Force One was en route, a recognition of the security problems inherent in a presidential visit to what remains a war zone.

For Bush, the emergence of a democratic government after the ouster of the Taliban in Afghanistan is a showcase for what has become the central theme of his presidency: Spreading democracy and defeating tyranny worldwide. Yet unrest in Afghanistan, where the U.S. still spends nearly $1 billion a month for continued fighting, remains a challenge for both the U.S. and Karzai's government.

"People all over the world are watching the experience here in Afghanistan,'' said Bush, standing alongside Karzai outside the presidential palace, where the leaders fielded a few questions from American and Afghan reporters. "As democracy takes hold, you're inspiring others, and that inspiration will cause others to demand their freedom. And as the world becomes more free, the world will become more peaceful.''

Bush, who had vowed to capture bin Laden dead or alive after the terrorist assaults on New York and the Pentagon, faced questions about the failure to capture the Al Qaeda leader from both American and Afghan reporters at the press conference.

It's not the only contentious question that Bush faces during this three-day visit. He was heading for New Delhi on Wednesday without an agreement that would fulfill his administration's promise of supporting the civilian nuclear power industry in India.

India has promised to separate its civilian nuclear power generators from its military nuclear weaponry program. But the question is how many nuclear reactors remain within the control of a nation that has never signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and has tested atomic weapons twice – and as recently as 1998 – and how many civilian reactors India yields to the oversight of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The question of division of Indian nuclear power has prevented Bush and Indian Prime Minister Mammohan Singh from finalizing a plan that Bush can offer for approval of the U.S. Congress – where Bush faces further opposition.

Bush has been careful in recent days to downplay expectations for a nuclear power agreement.

"Our relationship with India is broader than discussions about energy,'' Bush said. "Ours is a strategic relationship."

"This is a difficult issue,'' Bush said. "We'll continue to dialog and work it. Hopefully we can reach an agreement. If not, we'll continue to work on it until we do.''