President Bush and Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Sunday began a search for answers to the deteriorating security and sporadic rule of law in Afghanistan.
Karzai's two-day visit to Bush's mountain retreat comes as he faces competing troubles at home — a hostage crisis, civilian killings, drug trafficking and a resurgent Taliban.
All of those matters are likely to be discussed with Bush. The U.S. 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 first lady Laura Bush, 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 the first lady got in back. President Bush drove them away after wheeling the golf cart into a playful spin for the gathered media.
"We're going to talk about the future of Afghanistan, and there's a lot to talk about," Rice said earlier Sunday on Face The Nation. "There's a lot to talk about in terms of the training of Afghan security forces in order to assist in the war on terror and against the Taliban. There's reconstruction to talk about."
Ahead of his arrival, Karzai offered a reminder of the trouble that remains nearly six years after U.S. 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 Sunday. "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, the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, is believed to be living in the tribal border region of Pakistan. His ability to avoid capture remains a major source of frustration for U.S.-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 U.S. government very much wants to get a stronger sense of how we can develop a common political strategy."
Despite its progress since U.S.-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 a total of 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 U.S. 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.
Bush and Karzai are also likely to discuss Afghanistan's distrustful relationship with neighboring Pakistan. Karzai said the flow of foreign fighters from Pakistan into his country is a concern he will address soon with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.
The two are expected to meet soon as part of a gathering of tribal elders in Kabul.
Karzai said he is investigating reports that Iran is fueling violence in Afghanistan by sending in weaponry such as sophisticated roadside bombs. Yet he also praised Iran as a partner in peace and against narcotics. "So far, Iran has been a helper," he said.
Violence has been rising sharply in Afghanistan, led by different Taliban groups with various links to tribal leaders and residual al Qaeda forces.
As U.S. and NATO forces target Taliban insurgents, the civilian deaths associated with the attacks have enraged the Afghan population and eroded Karzai's authority. He has repeatedly asked military commanders for more caution and lashed out at foreign forces aiding his nation.
Karzai is likely to seek some reassurance from Bush that "whatever the U.S. is doing is going to result in fewer civilians killed," said Schaffer, now the director of the South Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Militants often wear civilian dress and seek shelter in villagers' homes, making it hard to differentiate the enemy from the innocent. Bush "is absolutely satisfied" that the U.S. military is doing all it can avoid civilian casualties, spokesman Scott Stanzel said.
On another front, Afghanistan now accounts for 95 percent of the world's poppy production used to make heroin, and profits from the drug trade are aiding the Taliban.