CAMP DAVID, Md. – Beleaguered by a hostage crisis and insurgent violence, Afghan President Hamid Karzai is seeking fresh backing from a reliable ally: President Bush.
Karzai, Afghanistan's first democratically elected president, is awash in crises at home — civilian killings, a booming drug trade and the brazen resurgence of the Taliban.
His two-day visit to Bush's mountain retreat, which culminates Monday, is a time for the leaders to figure out how to improve Afghanistan's security. Karzai wants support and reassurance from Bush, who in turn wants Karzai's government to exert and extend its power.
The deteriorating security and sporadic rule of law in Afghanistan set a tone for the summit — a point underscored by the ongoing captivity of 21 South Korean volunteers.
They were abducted by the Taliban on July 19 and are now believed to be in central Afghanistan. The captors took 23 people hostage and have shot and killed two of them.
The Taliban is seeking the release of prisoners; the Afghan government has refused, and the U.S. also adamantly opposes conceding to such demands. The crisis has put considerable pressure on Karzai and raised more doubts about his ability to usher in some stability.
Karzai arrived on a misty Sunday afternoon in the Catoctin Mountains. He was greeted by Bush and first lady Laura Bush, who led him through a cordon of Marines and Navy sailors.
Karzai chatted briefly with a few of Bush's top aides, then he climbed in the front in Bush's local ride — Golf Cart One — while the first lady got in back. President Bush drove them away after wheeling the golf cart into a playful spin for the gathered media.
For dinner, Karzai joined the first family for some all-American fare: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, cheese and garlic biscuits and pineapple upside down cake.
Bush speaks of Karzai with admiration, calling him a personal friend.
The two have met regularly, including sessions at the White House in each of the last five years. This is the first time Bush has welcomed Karzai to his getaway at Camp David, where an invitation alone signals the president's commitment to a foreign leader.
Yet Afghanistan's fragility remains of paramount concern to the United States.
"Karzai wants to shore up his ties in Washington," said Teresita Schaffer, a South Asia expert for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "And I think the U.S. government very much wants to get a stronger sense of how we can develop a common political strategy."
Afghanistan still is dominated by poverty and lawlessness. Stability has been hindered by the lack of government order, particularly in the southern part of the country.
U.S. officials say there has been plenty of progress, too. They point to such measures as declining infant mortality rates and the opening of schools, roads and power grids.
Ahead of his arrival, Karzai offered a reminder of the trouble that remains nearly six years after U.S. and coalition forces entered his country. In the hunt for Usama bin Laden, the United States and its allies have essentially gotten nowhere lately, Karzai said.
"We are not closer, we are not further away from it," Karzai said in an interview with CNN's "Late Edition," which aired Sunday. "We are where we were a few years ago."
Karzai ruled out that bin Laden was in Afghanistan, but otherwise said he didn't know where the leader of the Al Qaeda terror network was likely to be hiding.
Bin Laden, the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, is believed to be living in the tribal border region of Pakistan. His ability to avoid capture remains a major source of frustration for U.S.-led forces and a political sore spot for Bush.
The war in Afghanistan has largely faded from public view, with the wrenching debate centered instead on the conflict in Iraq. The United States has about 25,000 troops in Afghanistan and is pumping $10.1 billion this year into Afghan security and development.
"The security situation in Afghanistan over the past two years has definitely deteriorated," Karzai acknowledged in the interview. "There is no doubt about that."
Bush and Karzai are also likely to discuss Afghanistan's distrustful relationship with neighboring Pakistan. Karzai said the flow of foreign fighters from Pakistan into his country is a concern he will address soon with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.
He also said he is investigating reports that Iran is fueling violence in Afghanistan by sending in weaponry such as sophisticated roadside bombs. Yet he praised Iran as a partner in peace and against narcotics. "So far, Iran has been a helper," he said.
As U.S. and NATO forces target Taliban insurgents, civilian deaths associated with the attacks have eroded Karzai's authority. He has repeatedly asked military commanders for more caution and vented frustration at foreign troops. Bush is sure to hear about it.
On another front, Afghanistan now accounts for 95 percent of the world's poppy production used to make heroin, and profits from the drug trade are aiding the Taliban. But aggressive counterdrug proposals by some U.S. officials — including tying development aid to benchmarks such as forcible poppy field destruction — have met fierce resistance