WASHINGTON – President Bush played down rising violence in Afghanistan during a meeting with that nation's leader Friday and highlighted civilian reconstruction work that has improved the daily lives of Afghans trying to fend off a persistent insurgency.
During his session with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, Bush said work being done by more than two dozen reconstruction teams is a central part of the counterinsurgency strategy in the nation where extremist attacks have made this the most violent year since the U.S.-led invasion that ousted the hardline Taliban regime in 2001.
"No question it's difficult, but if you listen to the people who are actually on the ground working with the citizens of Afghanistan on matters such as agriculture, or education, or infrastructure, you'll understand why I said that there is progress and promise — and hope," Bush said.
The two leaders are trying to quell violence being waged by the Taliban and al-Qaida extremists hiding in the border regions of Pakistan. Also, U.S.-Afghan relations have been strained by the deaths of Afghan civilians in bombing raids that Karzai says are undermining the credibility of the international community's partnership with the Afghan people.
But Karzai lauded the work of reconstruction teams, saying that Afghanistan has made more progress in the past six or seven years, than it would have been able to make on its own in 50 or 60 years.
"Life is better," Karzai said. "Of course we have challenges, and the challenges will continue to face us as we move ahead. The success is already there, the picture will be completed."
The meeting was likely Karzai's last with Bush at the White House. Karzai thanked Bush for his commitment to his country — and for the president's patience in coping with the nation's many problems. "I've yelled at times," Karzai said, prompting a laugh from Bush. "I've been angry at times. But you've always been smiling and generous, and just so nice."
During the meeting, Bush and Karzai had a videoconference with U.S. provincial reconstruction team leaders, representatives from the National Guard's agriculture development team and Afghan governors in two provinces in eastern Afghanistan. Twenty-six reconstruction teams now operate in Afghanistan — 12 led by the U.S. and 14 directed by NATO allies and coalition partners.
Lt. Col. Frank Sturek, branch chief for Afghan policy at the Joint Chiefs of Staff who worked with provisional reconstruction teams in two provinces in southeast Afghanistan in 2006, recounted how reconstruction team workers helped to open up schools for children who had not been to class in two years.
"That's only about 8,000 to 10,000 kids going to school, which is not a big deal here in the United States, but to the Afghans in that area, it was huge," Sturek said after the meeting. "The country is so poor and the country is in such need, and wants to grow, that what we consider small improvements are really strategic successes over there."
Earlier this week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the Pentagon may be able to send thousands more combat troops to Afghanistan starting in the spring, but he also pointedly cautioned against overdoing a military buildup in a country that long has resisted the presence of foreign forces. There are now about 31,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and roughly an equal number of coalition troops.
At least 120 U.S. troops and 104 from other NATO nations have died already in Afghanistan this year, both record numbers. Overall, more than 4,500 people — mostly militants — have died in attacks this year.