Dispatch: Why Bush Had To Surprise Karzai

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JIM YOUNG / REUTERS

Bush is greeted by President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on Wednesday

About eight weeks ago, as the planning for President George W. Bush’s India-Pakistan trip was being finalized, Joe Hagin, the little-known but influential deputy chief of staff at the White House, brought an idea to the President and Chief of Staff Andy Card: this might be the perfect occasion for the President to not only take his first visit to the subcontinent but also visit Afghanistan. They embraced the idea, and Hagin, who helps make sure the trains run on time, put the planning together with aides from the White House Military Office and the Secret Service. Hagin, a former vice president at Chiquita Brands with experience in the Third World, was a natural at this. He had helped to plan Bush’s secret Thanksgiving mission to Iraq in 2003 when he surprised everyone — including the accompanying White House press corps — by winging from his Crawford, Texas, ranch to Baghdad to serve turkey to the troops. It was a natural to keep this visit secret as well because of security reasons. So when President Bush touched down in Afghanistan, and greeted Afghan President Mohammed Karzai — "You look great," Bush told the leader — Hagin was with him.

The surprise visit, however, was in some ways inevitable. For weeks, there had been speculation that Bush would use the occasion to visit Afghanistan — a country that the president had never visited but that his wife, Laura, had, as well as Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. At some point it probably would have become embarrassing for the White House if the President were the only top-ranking official not to visit the country to which he had dispatched thousands of American troops. Eventually Bush’s absence would only have highlighted the fragile security situation in the country, where attacks on the Karzai government have been on the rise and President Bush had to swoop in — under the protection of military escorts — in a Blackhawk helicopter instead of the unarmed Presidential chopper that usually ferries him around.

As it happened, the meetings went off without a hitch. Bush met with President Karzai to go over everything from the hunt against Al Qaeda to Afghanistan’s still heavy drug trade. Meanwhile, the First Lady met with female officials from the Karzai government to discuss health and education. Bush helped dedicate the American embassy in Kabul, joking with the new ambassador, Ron Neumann, whose father had also been ambassador to Afghanistan. “There’s nothing wrong in a son following a father’s footsteps,” said Bush to laughter. Later he thanked U.S. troops at Bagram air base and praised Afghanistan’s transition to democracy. Before leaving Afghan soil, Bush also vowed that Osama bin Laden would be caught. "I am confident [bin Laden] will be brought to justice," Bush said. "What's happening is, is we got U.S. forces on the hunt for not only for bin Laden, but those who plot and plan with him." What was left unsaid, of course, was that four and a half years after 9/11, that goal remains as elusive as ever, and Afghan President Karzai and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf have traded barbs in recent days charging the other with not doing enough to crack down on Al Qaeda.

For Bush, it was then off to India, the first Republican president to visit the world's largest democracy in 35 years. That’s one chit that Bush gets to have that his father did not. (And Bush’s visit to Afghanistan makes him the first president since Dwight D. Eisenhower went there in 1959.) At a time when a new CBS/New York Times poll shows his approval rating sinking back to the mid-thirties, those are some of the few things he can really boast about.