CAMP DAVID, Md. – President Bush said Monday that with the right intelligence U.S. and Pakistan governments can take out Al Qaeda leaders, and wouldn't say whether he would consult first with Pakistan before ordering U.S. forces to act on their own.
"With real actionable intelligence, we will get the job done," Bush said.
He was asked whether he would wait on permission from Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf before committing the U.S. military to move on "actionable intelligence" on the whereabouts of terrorist leaders in Pakistan. He did not answer directly.
Bush was at the presidential retreat at Camp David for two days of meetings with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The two held talks on a rash of crises confronting Afghanistan: civilian killings, a booming drug trade and the brazen resurgence of the Taliban.
Karzai said that he and Musharraf would discuss how to tackle the problem of lawlessness and extremist hideouts along Pakistan's border area with his country.
Afghanistan has a distrustful relationship with neighboring Pakistan, yet top tribal leaders from both countries are expected to meet this week to try to lessen tensions. Musharraf and Karzai are likely to attend, with Karzai sure to bring up his concern about the flow of foreign fighters into his country from Pakistan.
Bush and Karzai put a positive spin on Afghanistan's progress since the 2001 defeat of the repressive Taliban, but they stressed that serious problems remain.
"There is still work to be done, don't get me wrong," Bush said. "But progress is being made, Mr. President, and we're proud of you."
Karzai acknowledged a resurgent Taliban but said it is not a threat to his government. Karzai is Afghanistan's first democratically elected president.
"We have a long journey ahead of us but what we have traveled so far has given us greater hope for a better future, for a better life," Karzai said at a joint news conference here with Bush.
Bush and Karzai differed noticeably in their views about Iran's influence in Afghanistan.
Karzai had said in advance of his visit to Camp David that Iran is a partner in the fight against terrorism and narcotics. "So far, Iran has been a helper," he said over the weekend.
Bush didn't agree. "I would be very cautious about whether or not the Iranian influence there in Afghanistan is a positive force," he said.
U.S. officials contend that Tehran is fomenting violence in Afghanistan by sending in weaponry such as sophisticated roadside bombs. More broadly, Bush said Iran thumbs its nose at the international community and denies its citizens the rights they deserve.
The issue of a theoretical U.S. military incursion into Pakistan is a sensitive one. Bush has said before that he would order the U.S. to act inside the Muslim-majority country if there were firm intelligence on the whereabouts of Usama bin Laden or other terrorist leaders.
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 political sore spot for Bush.
But Musharraf has objected to any unilateral action by Washington.
Over the weekend, Defense Secretary Robert Gates was equally careful in describing how U.S. officials would handle such a situation.
"I think we would not act without telling Musharraf what we were planning to do," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Bush said the leaders spent "more than a fair amount of time" talking about the fact that Afghanistan now accounts for 95 percent of the world's poppy production used to make heroin.
Profits from the drug trade are aiding the Taliban. Aggressive counter-drug proposals by some U.S. officials — including tying development aid to benchmarks such as mandatory poppy field destruction — have met fierce resistance.
"He knows full well that the United States is watching, measuring and trying to help," the president said of Karzai.
For his part, Karzai said his government in Kabul is "committed to fighting it because this evil is first hurting us."
The war in Afghanistan has largely faded from public view, with a more wrenching debate at home centered on Iraq.
Yet Afghanistan's fragility remains of paramount concern to the United States.
The deteriorating security there has been underscored by the ongoing captivity of 21 South Korean volunteers kidnapped in Afghanistan. The crisis has put considerable pressure on Karzai.
The Taliban took 23 people hostage and have killed two of them. It is seeking the release of prisoners, but the Afghan government has refused. The United States also adamantly opposes any concessions to such demands.
Bush and Karzai agreed during their meeting that "there should be no quid pro quo" that could embolden the Taliban, said Gordon Johndroe, a Bush spokesman.
On another matter, Karzai said Bush heard and shared his concerns about the mounting number of Afghan casualties as the war there rages on. Militants often wear civilian dress and seek shelter in villagers' homes, making it hard to differentiate the enemy from the innocent.
"I was very happy with that conversation," Karzai said.
Bush said that U.S. forces "do everything we can to protect the innocent."
Karzai arrived Sunday afternoon, and joined the first family for some all-American fare ahead of the Monday meetings.
Karzai defended freeing a 14-old Pakistani boy who was arrested just before he was to carry out a suicide bomb attack against an Afghan governor. Karzai declared the teen an innocent boy who was used by terrorists.
"It was the right decision to pardon him," Karzai said.
"The message should be clear to the rest of the world about the evil that we're fighting," he added.