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Bush, Karzai target unrest in Afghanistan

Leaders meet at Camp David

President Bush, with his wife, Laura, and the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, drove a golf cart at Camp David. President Bush, with his wife, Laura, and the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, drove a golf cart at Camp David. (Larry Downing/reuters)

CAMP DAVID, Md. -- President Bush and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan began a search for answers yesterday to the deteriorating security and sporadic rule of law in Afghanistan.

Karzai's two-day visit to Bush's mountain retreat occurs as he faces competing troubles at home -- a hostage crisis, civilian killings, drug trafficking, and a resurgent Taliban.

He is likely to discuss all of those matters with Bush. The US president is looking to bolster Karzai but also to prod his government to exert and extend its authority.

Karzai arrived on a misty afternoon in the Catoctin Mountains. He was greeted by Bush and his wife, Laura, who led him through a cordon of Marines and Navy sailors.

Karzai chatted briefly with a few of Bush's top aides, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Then he climbed in the front in Bush's local ride -- Golf Cart One -- while Laura Bush got in back. President Bush drove them away after wheeling the golf cart into a playful spin for the gathered media.

Ahead of his arrival, Karzai offered a reminder of the trouble that remains nearly six years after US and coalition forces entered his country. In the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the United States and its allies have essentially gotten nowhere lately, Karzai said.

"We are not closer, we are not further away from it," Karzai said in an interview with CNN's "Late Edition," which aired yesterday. "We are where we were a few years ago."

Karzai ruled out that bin Laden was in Afghanistan, but otherwise said he didn't know where the leader of the Al Qaeda terror network was likely to be hiding. Bin Laden is believed to be living in the tribal border region of Pakistan. His ability to avoid capture remains a major source of frustration for US-led forces and a political sore spot for Bush.

Afghanistan's fragility remains of paramount concern to the United States. "Karzai wants to shore up his ties in Washington," said Teresita Schaffer, a former top State Department official for south Asia. "And I think the US government very much wants to get a stronger sense of how we can develop a common political strategy."

Despite its progress since US-led forces toppled the militant Taliban regime in 2001, Afghanistan still is dominated by poverty and lawlessness. Stability has been hindered by the lack of government order, particularly in the southern part of the country.

"The security situation in Afghanistan over the past two years has definitely deteriorated," Karzai said in the interview. "There is no doubt about that."

Overshadowing the Bush-Karzai meeting is the fate of 21 South Korean volunteers who were abducted by the Taliban on July 19 and are now believed to be in central Afghanistan. The captors took 23 people hostage and have shot and killed two of them.

The Taliban is seeking the release of prisoners; the Afghan government has refused, and the United States adamantly opposes conceding to such demands. The crisis has put considerable pressure on Karzai and raised more doubts about his ability to enforce the rule of law.