Bush hails Afghanistan on surprise visit

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President George Bush has visited Afghanistan for the first time since the invasion by the US and Britain and said the country was on the road to success.

Mr Bush, speaking at a public appearance with the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, said the US remained committed to the future of Afghanistan and praised the progress made following the overthrow of the Taliban regime.

However, the President's arrival was kept secret because of a deteriorating security situation that has claimed 1,500 lives, including dozens of US soldiers, in the past year. The helicopter carrying Mr and Mrs Bush from the air base at Bagram to the capital, Kabul, opened fire with its machine-gun at one point during the 15-minute journey.

The President's visit came as the director of the US Defence Intelligence Agency told the Senate's Armed Forces Committee in Washington that a resurgent Taliban and their allies were now at their most powerful since the official end of the war five years ago.

Lieutenant General Michael Maples revealed that the number of suicide bombings had risen by 400 per cent and the use of roadside bombs, of the type seen in Iraq, has doubled in the past 12 months. At the same time the numbers of attacks by the Taliban and their Islamist allies had risen by 20 per cent.

Lt-Gen Maples said the Taliban "remains capable and resilient... We judge that the insurgency appears emboldened by perceived tactical successes and will be active this spring."

Asked why, five years after he vowed "to get" Osama bin Laden "dead or alive", the al-Qa'ida leader still remained at large, alongside the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, Mr Bush said: "It's not a matter of if they're captured or brought to justice, it's when they're brought to justice. "

The Taliban deputy leader and former Afghan defence minister, Mullah Abdullah Akhund, said President Bush's "secret visit" showed the control the Taliban had over Afghanistan.

"If the American President's visit had been announced in advance, the Taliban mujahedin would have greeted him with rockets and attacks. But Bush proved his cowardice by coming on a secret visit as a thief," he said.

During his five-hour trip, Mr Bush said Afghans who had met him in the US "ask me with their words, they ask with their stares as they look in my eyes, 'Is the United States firmly committed to the future of Afghanistan'? My answer is, 'absolutely'."

Afghanistan has held elections and a World Bank report has praised the Karzai government for carrying out economic reforms. However, attacks by the Taliban and their allies have led to 165 schools and colleges across the country being either burnt down or forced to close. Dozens of teachers have been killed.

The Afghan authorities acknowledge that large areas of the country, particularly in the south and the east, are out of government control and are either under the influence of the Taliban or warlords involved in producing opium. The opium poppy crop is at a record high and Mr Karzai is under intense pressure to cut production.

A poppy eradication programme is about to start but some farmers are angry that they are being targeted while, they claim, landlords with government connections are being spared.

Britain has a force of about 6,000 troops in the Helmand province, which produces a quarter of the country's opium crop. However, Abdul Ahad, the head of the shura (council) in Nadali district, told Lieutenant Colonel Henry Worsley, the senior British officer, that "if the eradication of the crop takes place, a lot of farmers will have no choice but to join the enemy [Taliban]".

Before leaving, President Bush told about 500 US soldiers at Bagram "I assure you this government of yours will not blink, we will not yield... The United States will not cut and run."

* Soldiers and helicopter gunships attacked a suspected al-Qa'ida camp near the Afghan border yesterday, killing more than 45 militants. As news of the strike spread in the north-west region of North Waziristan, which is controlled by tribes sympathetic to the militants, tribesmen called for "jihad against the army".