NEW YORK – President Bush said Wednesday that Afghanistan is becoming a safer, more stable country, thanks to the efforts of President Hamid Karzai.
"Mr. President, you have strong friends here," Bush told Karzai after they met for about an hour at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel here. "I expect progress and you expect progress and I appreciate the report you have given me today."
The two leaders made no direct mention of Afghanistan's soaring drug trade, the unsuccessful search for Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden or the resurgence of the Taliban. Karzai said the liberation of Afghanistan is often overlooked these days.
"I don't know if you feel it in the United States but we feel it immensely in Afghanistan," Karzai said. "Afghanistan has indeed made progress," he said, citing improvements in basic services such as roads and education.
Afghan opium poppy cultivation has hit a record high this year, fueled by Taliban militants and corrupt officials in Karzai's government, a U.N. report found last month. The country produces nearly all the world's opium, and Taliban insurgents are profiting.
Also, Afghanistan remains in a fight for basic security, a constant threat to its growth as a new democracy. Karzai is pledging to work hard on peace talks with the Taliban to draw the insurgents and their supporters "back to the fold," as he put it this week.
The United States has more than 20,000 troops in Afghanistan. Aides say it is natural for Bush to meet Karzai to review progress, but no single issue prompted their sit-down.
Bush, in New York for the annual gathering of the U.N. General Assembly, made only brief mention of the war in Afghanistan during his speech to world leaders Tuesday. He said the people of Afghanistan — and Iraq and Lebanon — were in a deadly fight for survival.
"Every civilized nation has a responsibility to stand with them," Bush said.
Bush also was to pivot to his domestic agenda Wednesday before wrapping up three days in New York.
He planned to tout new national test scores as evidence that the No Child Left Behind Act, his signature education law, is working and deserving of renewal by Congress.
Those new national test results, released Tuesday, show elementary and middle schoolers posted solid gains in math. The students made more modest improvements in reading, however.
Bush scheduled a meeting with Joel Klein, chancellor of New York City's school system, which has won the nation's top prize for urban districts. The district garnered the honor chiefly for reducing achievements gaps among poor and minority kids, a key educational goal for Bush.
The president intends to miss no chance to talk up the No Child Left Behind law, which is up for renewal in Congress. Many lawmakers say it is too narrow and punitive.
Before leaving town, Bush was to speak at a private fundraiser for the Republican National Committee. Back in Washington, more international diplomacy awaited.
The president was hosting a two-day climate meeting, starting Thursday, of major industrialized nations, the United Nations and a few developing countries.
Bush tried to emphasize throughout his meetings in New York that his efforts on climate change were in support of — not in competition with — a U.N. conference in December in Indonesia. That later session will be a time of negotiations on a new international climate agreement.
On the sidelines of the U.N. meeting, Bush pressed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Tuesday to move on stalled measures deemed critical to political reconciliation. Much-delayed action, such as a national oil law, have bogged down in the Iraqi parliament amid factional bickering, which, in turn, has only deepened frustration among U.S. lawmakers.