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Afghan Leader Receives Warm Welcome at White House


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

President Bush welcomed the president of Afghanistan to the White House today for a timely show of unity and mutual support. Mr. Bush and Hamid Karzai talked about how far the Afghan nation has come since the US invasion in 2001, and they tried to sooth the sore points in the relationship. But President Bush made it clear that US troops in Afghanistan would remain under American command, and that Afghan prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay would remain there for the time being. My colleague Melissa Block had a one-on-one interview with Karzai. We'll hear that in just a few minutes. First, NPR's David Greene reports on events at the White House.

DAVID GREENE reporting:

Hamid Karzai serves as an important symbol for President Bush. Mr. Bush has made it his mission to increase the number of stable democracies in the Middle East, and Karzai's election in Afghanistan last fall was the first fruit of that policy. Today at the White House, Mr. Bush greeted Karzai warmly, hailing him as the first democratically elected leader in Afghanistan's 5,000-year history.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I've got great faith in the future in Afghanistan. First, I've got great faith in the ability of democracy to provide hope. And I've got faith in this man as a leader. He has shown tremendous courage in the face of difficult odds.

GREENE: American and Afghan flags stood side by side as a backdrop for the two leaders in the ornate East Room of the White House. Karzai, wearing a traditional Afghan robe, spoke in clear English. And while he returned Mr. Bush's warmth, he also touched on one of the issues that has complicated relations with the United States: the opium trade.

President HAMID KARZAI (Afghanistan): Mr. President, indeed, Afghanistan is suffering from the cultivation of poppies. It is undermining our economy. It's giving us a bad name, worst of all.

GREENE: The opium poppies grown in Afghanistan are used to make heroin, and production has risen sharply since the Taliban government was ousted. Karzai has pledged to wipe out the cultivation of poppies within five or six years, and today Mr. Bush appeared to be satisfied with that, praising Karzai as a partner in the anti-drug campaign. Mr. Bush called Afghanistan a `shining example of what's possible in the Middle East.' He has spoken of Iraq in a similar vein, and he insisted at the White House today that the recent spree of violence in Iraq is not a sign that the insurgency is gaining better footing.

Pres. BUSH: No, I don't think so. I think we're--I think they're being defeated, and that's why they continue to fight. Worst thing for them is to see democracy. The president can speak to that firsthand. The worst problem that an ideologue that uses terror to try to get their way is to see a free society emerge.

GREENE: And one sign of a free society, Mr. Bush has often said, is a free press. In Afghanistan, there are dozens of news organizations that have cropped up since the Taliban government was overthrown. But in the East Room today, a seating section reserved for Afghan journalists was nearly empty. White House officials rushed to fill the chairs with American reporters, and the two presidents seemed surprised when they turned to see if any foreign journalists had questions.

Pres. BUSH: Somebody from the Afghan press?

Pres. KARZAI: Anybody from the Afghan press? Do we have an Afghan press? Oh, here he is.

(Soundbite of light laughter)

GREENE: Only one newspaper reporter had traveled to Washington with Karzai. Nine other reporters were supposed to make the trip, according to a spokesman for the Afghan president, but the Karzai government decided in the end to prohibit them from traveling. The spokesman, Khalid Achmad(ph), said they were worried the journalists might try to flee once they arrived in the United States. This, Achmad said, could reflect poorly on his boss. Achmad added that the group of journalists would be traveling to the United States in two weeks when there would be less risk of them tarnishing the image of Afghanistan's leader. David Greene, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.