- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 27, 2007

NEW YORK — Just before President Bush praised his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, yesterday for his efforts to increase security, U.S.-led forces used artillery and air strikes to kill more than 165 insurgents in two strongholds of Taliban militants.

The strikes in Helmand and Uruzgan provinces came amid a surge in violence during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and nearly six years after a U.S.-led offensive toppled the Taliban regime for sheltering September 11, 2001, mastermind Osama bin Laden.

“Mr. President, you’ve got strong friends here,” Mr. Bush told Mr. Karzai after they met for about an hour at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel here. “It’s in our security interests that this democracy flourish, because if freedom takes place in Afghanistan, it will set an example of what’s possible in other parts of the broader Middle East.”

The two leaders met this summer at Camp David, and each yesterday echoed his comments from their talks there. In brief remarks after their meeting yesterday, Mr. Bush reminded Americans why U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, and Mr. Karzai praised the United States for its continuing commitment.

“Afghanistan, indeed, has made progress, and Mr. President, that should be a tribute to you, your leadership and the American people,” Mr. Karzai said after the two met on the sidelines of the annual U.N. General Assembly.

“There is an endless list for which we have to be grateful to you. And most important of all, Mr. President, something that we tend to forget from time to time: the liberation of Afghanistan, such an important thing for the Afghan people,” he said.

The two leaders discussed drug-fighting operations; the battle against al Qaeda and the Taliban; and the development of energy using Afghanistan’s natural resources.

Afghan opium-poppy cultivation has hit a record high this year, fueled by Taliban militants and corrupt officials in Mr. Karzai’s government, a U.N. report found last month. The country produces nearly all the world’s opium, and Taliban militants are profiting.

Security has also faltered as the Taliban has made a resurgence in recent months. One of yesterday’s battles was an assault by several dozen insurgents on a joint coalition-Afghan patrol near the Taliban-controlled town of Musa Qala in Helmand.

U.S. troops responded with artillery fire and attacks by fighter bombers that killed more than 100 militants. One coalition soldier was reported killed and four were wounded. The coalition reported no civilian casualties.

The second battle was in neighboring Uruzgan province, where more than 80 Taliban fighters attacked a joint coalition-Afghan patrol from multiple bunkers near the village of Kakrak and set off a six-hour fight on Tuesday night. Artillery fire and air strikes on the Taliban positions killed more than 65 insurgents, the coalition said.

Also yesterday, Mr. Bush touted new national test scores as evidence that the No Child Left Behind Act, his signature education law, is working and deserving of renewal by Congress.

“My call to the Congress is, don’t water down this good law,” he said. “Don’t go backward when it comes to educational excellence.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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