PRAGUE, 1 March 2006 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush today paid a flying visit to the Afghan capital Kabul en route to India and Pakistan.
Bush is the first serving U.S. president to visit Afghanistan since Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1959.
Bush's brief appearance in Kabul beside Afghan President Hamid Karzai was more symbolic than substantive. But it may have served to show the Afghan people that the United States is still behind them and to reassure Karzai that when Bush meets with Pakistani officials Kabul's concerns will not be forgotten.
The U.S. president arrived at the U.S.-run Bagram air base with his wife, Laura and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and was then whisked to the presidential palace in Kabul for a short meeting with his Afghan counterpart and a brief press conference.
Describing Bush's visit as "a wonderful moment for us in Afghanistan today," Karzai called Bush "our great friend, our great supporter, a man [who] helped liberate us, a man [who] helped us rebuild, a man [who] helped us move toward the future."
With helicopters and warplanes flying overhead to ensure security, Bush also praised the Afghan people, saying their determination to move on a path toward democracy was an inspiration to people around the world.
"People all over the world are watching the experience here in Afghanistan," Bush said. "I hope the people of Afghanistan understand that, as democracy takes hold, you are 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 concluded.
Bush also stressed that the United States is determined to eliminate the Al-Qaeda terrorist network, an especially important message at this point as Al-Qaeda militants have stepped up their campaign of violence in Afghanistan in recent months.
"We're making progress [on] dismantling Al-Qaeda," Bush stated.
Al-Qaeda will be a topic of discussion when Bush meets with Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf and other officials on 4 March. And the U.S. president's stopover in Kabul may have been meant to assure Karzai that Bush would not forget about the often tense relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan when he meets with Pakistani officials. He may also and may bring up Afghan concerns.
Those relations have been particularly tense this year following an upsurge in violence in southern Afghanistan. Kabul expressed its conviction that militants from the former Taliban regime are using Pakistan as a base on 15 February when Karzai presented his Pakistani counterpart Pervez Musharraf with a list of militants suspected to be in Pakistan. On 27 February, Musharraf dismissed two-thirds of the list as "a waste of time," condemned Afghan "lies," and called Afghan accusations against the Pakistani authorities "nonsensical."
The Kabul stop may prove to be the easiest part of Bush's tour through south Asia as thousands of protesters are waiting for his arrival in both India and Pakistan.