(RFE/RL) -- On a surprise visit to Afghanistan, U.S. President George W. Bush has warned that there is still a long struggle ahead to restore stability in the country.
With his administration now in its final weeks, Bush's trip to Afghanistan is seen as a farewell visit seven years after he ordered U.S. troops into the country in response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.
Bush arrived before dawn at Bagram Air Base north of Kabul, where he spoke to hundreds of U.S. soldiers, many of whom have served duty in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
"And thanks to you, the Taliban has gone from power, the Al-Qaeda training camps are closed, and 25 million Iraqis are free, and the American people, your loved ones, are more secure," Bush told the troops.
Bush was then flown by helicopter to the presidential palace in Kabul, where he met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Bush says he assured Karzai that Washington will continue to support democracy in Afghanistan after U.S. President-elect Barack Obama takes power on January 20.
"I told the president that you can count on the United States. Just like you've been able to count on this administration, you will be able to count on the next administration, as well," Bush said.
"It is in our interest that Afghanistan's democracy flourish. It is in America's interest that we forever deny safe haven for people who still want to kill our citizens," he added.
How Long Will Troops Stay?
For his part, Karzai said Afghanistan is grateful for the help because the Afghan people "do not want to be a burden on the international community forever."
But when asked about a possible timetable for the withdrawal of the 70,000 foreign troops now in Afghanistan, Karzai indicated that it is not yet time to talk about pulling troops out, and injected some humor into the situation..
"Afghanistan will not allow the international community to leave it, before we are fully on our feet, before we are strong enough to defend our country, before we are powerful enough to have a good economy, and before we have taken from President Bush and the next administration, billions and billions of more dollars," Karzai said to laughs from reporters. "No way that we can let you go!"
Bush acknowledged the difficulty of restoring peace to Afghanistan. But he told journalists at a press conference in Kabul after his talks with Karzai that living conditions in Afghanistan are "undoubtedly" a lot better today than they were in 2001 before the ouster of the Taliban regime.
One angry Afghan journalist challenged Bush's contention -- charging that security has deteriorated in recent years, and that thousands of innocent civilians have been killed while the United States has failed to prevent the Taliban from regrouping and gaining strength.
Bush refuted that criticism, saying the fight in Afghanistan would be "a long struggle" and that "ideological struggles take time."
"I respectfully disagree with you. The Taliban was brutalizing the people of Afghanistan, and they're not in power. And I just cited the progress that is undeniable," Bush said. "Now, is there more work that can be done? You bet! I never said the Taliban was eliminated. I said they were removed from power."
Incident In Iraq
On December 14, Bush made an equally secretive visit to Iraq in order to laud the signing of an agreement on the continued presence of U.S. forces there.
The visit was overshadowed by an angry Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at President Bush in a potent indication of lingering hostility toward the outgoing U.S. leader.
The journalist, Muntader al-Zaidi, is a correspondent for Al-Baghdadiyah television, an independent Iraqi-owned station based in Cairo, Egypt.
"This is a gift from the Iraqis. This is the farewell kiss, you dog!" al-Zaidi shouted. "This is from the widows, the orphans, and those who were killed in Iraq!"
Bush ducked and the first shoe hit the U.S. and Iraqi flags behind him and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The second throw was off-target.
Throwing shoes is considered an enormous insult in the Islamic world. But Bush laughed off the shoe-throwing incident.
An Iraqi government official has since said that al-Zaidi was being held for questioning by al-Maliki's guards to determine whether anybody had paid him to throw his shoes at the press conference.
with agency reports