Bush vows to capture bin Laden

In surprise trip to Afghanistan, he pledges al-Qaida leader will be brought to justice


NEW DELHI -- Paying an unannounced visit yesterday to Afghanistan, President Bush vowed that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and former Taliban ruler Mullah Mohammed Omar would eventually be apprehended.

"It's not a matter of if they're captured or brought to justice, it's when they're brought to justice," Bush said in a four-hour visit en route to India and Pakistan.

Yesterday's stop was the president's first to Afghanistan since the United States overthrew the Taliban government after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. Bin Laden and Omar have been in hiding since the U.S.-led war.

Unlike Bush's trip to Iraq for Thanksgiving dinner in 2003, in which a news blackout was imposed until the president had safely left the country, yesterday's visit to Afghanistan was more high-profile - featuring a televised news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai outside the presidential palace in Kabul, an address to U.S. Embassy staff and remarks to cheering troops while standing with first lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The symbolism was clear: Bush seeking to showcase a functioning democracy. But armed helicopters buzzing overhead occasionally drowned out the leaders' words, and the latest vow to capture bin Laden illustrated the challenges that remain in a country struggling with insurgent attacks and a growing drug trade.

Bush's visit came in the same week that a high-ranking U.S. intelligence official told the Senate Armed Services Committee that insurgent violence in Afghanistan has risen 20 percent over the past year, putting the elected Karzai government in greater danger than at any point since the Taliban's ouster five years ago.

The president's words on bin Laden and Omar were unusually strong, reminiscent of the early days after the attacks on New York and the Pentagon when he vowed that the United States would catch bin Laden "dead or alive."

Bush has generally avoided making such predictions, as bin Laden and top allies have remained free while hiding out, officials believe, in the rugged mountains near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

But yesterday Bush did not shy from mentioning bin Laden or Omar and almost promising their capture. His comments seemed to affirm U.S. commitments to a continued security presence in Afghanistan even as administration officials talk about reducing the nation's 19,000-troop contingent.

Bush did not directly address a question from an Afghan reporter who asked him to comment on the "worsening situation" in Afghanistan. But the president did say that the United States is receiving cooperation in its search for bin Laden and his associates. The hunt is a joint effort among several nations in the region, Bush said, while underscoring his intention to nudge Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to crack down on continued incursions of militants across the border with Afghanistan.

"I am confident [bin Laden] will be brought to justice," said Bush, who is scheduled to meet with Musharraf this weekend. "What's happening is, is that we got U.S. forces on the hunt for not only bin Laden, but anybody who plots and plans with bin Laden."

Bush's trip to Afghanistan comes at a time when violence has soared in Iraq and new polls show declining support for the president in the war on terrorism.

A survey released this week by CBS News found that 34 percent of Americans approve of Bush's job performance, while half of those surveyed disapproved of his handling of terrorism, the issue that has long been his strongest suit.

Karzai gushed with enthusiasm for Bush, crediting the U.S. president with pushing Afghanistan toward peace and democracy and thanking him for "the way you have given your hand to the Afghan people."

Bush said it was the United States' "pleasure and honor to be involved with the future of this country."

"We like stories of young girls going to school for the first time so they can realize their potential," Bush said. "We appreciate a free press. We are enthralled when we see an entrepreneurial class grow up where people are able to work and realize their dreams."

Bush used a ceremonial ribbon-cutting at the U.S. Embassy to assure Afghanis that he does not intend to abandon their country.

"My message to the people of Afghanistan is, take a look at this building," he said. "It's a big, solid, permanent structure, which should represent the commitment of the United States of America to your liberty."

Officers with machine guns surrounded Air Force One after the president's plane landed shortly after noon. Reporters traveling with the president were not informed of the visit until after a late-night refueling stop in Shannon, Ireland.

Also yesterday, Bush indicated he might not succeed this week in securing a nuclear agreement with India - one of the main topics for discussion between the president and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But even as he strives for a deal that critics fear will fuel a nuclear arms race, Bush said that Iran obtaining a nuclear bomb would be the "most destabilizing thing that can happen in this region and in the world."

Bush and Singh were to address the energy issue during meetings today.

Bush is scheduled to remain in India for two days before stopping in Islamabad. Shortly before he arrived in New Delhi late yesterday, thousands of peaceful demonstrators gathered in a park to protest the U.S. president and his policies in Iraq.

Peter Wallsten writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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