President Bush declined to say Monday whether the United States would seek permission from Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf before attacking top Al Qaeda leaders if intelligence indicated they were hiding in Pakistan.
The reputed presence of Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in lawless regions of western Pakistan has been a persistent irritant in relations between Musharraf and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who met with Bush at Camp David for a two-day strategy session.
Karzai and Musharraf are expected to take part in a special tribal council this week in Kabul, the Afghan capital, to try to relieve tensions and foster more cooperation.
“We’re in constant communications with the Pakistan government. It’s in their interest that foreign fighters be brought to justice; after all, these are the same ones who are plotting to kill President Musharraf,” Bush told reporters, responding to a question about whether he would wait for the Pakistani leader’s permission to attack. “We share a concern. And I’m confident with real actionable intelligence we will get the job done.”
Last week, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama set off a furor in Pakistan when he suggested that the U.S. should go after Islamic militants in Pakistan on its own if Musharraf did not do more to roust them.
At the brief question-and-answer session Monday, Karzai expressed frustration with the surge in violence that has troubled his country. The U.S. and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies have been trying to prevent a resurgence of the Taliban, which harbored Al Qaeda militants before the ruling Islamic movement was defeated by a U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
In the last two years, the Taliban has become a destabilizing force in some regions of Afghanistan, and Karzai has blamed support from Al Qaeda and Taliban sympathizers in Pakistani tribal regions, where Musharraf’s government exercises little control.
Bush said Karzai has made progress in building up Afghanistan’s security forces.
“There’s still a fight going on, but I’m proud to report to the American people that the Afghan army is in the fight,” Bush said. “There’s about 110,000 Afghans now defending their nation, and more Afghans are stepping up to serve.”
Karzai said that despite recent Taliban-linked attacks, the movement was a defeated force that had turned to bombings and other acts of terrorism as a last resort.
“The Taliban do pose dangers to our innocent people, to children going to school, to our clergy, to our teachers, to our engineers, to international aid workers,” Karzai said. “They’re not posing any threat to the government of Afghanistan. They are not posing any threat to the institutions of Afghanistan or to the buildup of institutions of Afghanistan.”
For the most part, Bush and Karzai spoke in harmony about the progress Afghanistan has made over the last six years, but they sounded a notably discordant note over the role of Iran, which borders Afghanistan to the west.
In comments before his Camp David visit, Karzai praised Iran for aiding the Afghan government in combating the huge increase in opium poppy cultivation in his country, which is the world’s top producer.
“So far, Iran has been a helper,” Karzai said in a weekend interview with CNN.
Bush said he disagreed strongly.
“From my perspective, the burden of proof is on the Iranian government to show us that they’re a positive force,” he said. “And I must tell you that this current leadership there is a big disappointment to the people of Iran.... Because of the actions of this government, this country is isolated. And we will continue to work to isolate it, because they’re not a force for good, as far as we can see.”
Karzai did win from Bush a pledge to work to limit civilian casualties from NATO combat operations.
“I fully understand the angst, the agony and the sorrow that Afghan citizens feel when an innocent life is lost,” Bush said. “I can assure the Afghan people, like I assured the president, that we do everything that we can to protect the innocent.”