REUTERS - US President George W. Bush landed in Afghanistan early Monday on a surprise visit to meet President Hamid Karzai and dispel any fears of flagging support when he leaves office.
"I want to be in Afghanistan to say 'thank you' to President Karzai, to let the people of Afghanistan know that the United States has stood with them and will stand with them," Bush said en route here.
Fresh from a secret trip to Baghdad, Bush arrived in the pre-dawn darkness, virtually all lights on his Air Force One airplane turned off as part of the thick shroud of secrecy that also enveloped his stop in Iraq.
"These nations need to know that the United States has been with them, is with them, and will be with them," said Bush, who hands the keys to the White House to successor Barack Obama on January 20.
The US president was speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One after his stop in Baghdad, where he warned that "the war is not over" and laughed off an incident in which he was nearly pelted with an angry Iraqi's pair of shoes.
A journalist hurled two shoes at the US leader during a press conference, highlighting lingering hostility toward the man who ordered the 2003 invasion of the country.
Bush ducked and the first shoe hit the American and Iraqi flags behind him and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The second was off target.
Soles of shoes are considered the ultimate insult in Arab culture. "It is the farewell kiss, you dog" the journalist shouted before he was wrestled to the ground.
Bush was met at Bagram by General David McKiernan, the US commander who is overseeing a ramp-up in troop levels which the president warned would lead to increased levels of violence.
"You'll see violence tick up," Bush said in his airborne conference room, drawing a comparison with the "surge" that helped bring violence down in Iraq and paved the way for some progress toward political reconciliation.
But "the degree of difficulty in Afghanistan is high," he added.
"This is a significantly larger country than Iraq and significantly poorer. The infrastructure is difficult. Nevertheless, the mission is essential."
Bush said Washington was working with Pakistan to halt cross-border strikes in Afghanistan, and praised Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of slain former premier Benazir Bhutto, as "determined" to help.
"He's said so publicly and he's said so to me privately. He looked me in the eye and said 'you don't need to talk to me about extremist violence, after all my wife got killed by extremists,'" said Bush.
Bush declined to comment on reported US missile strikes along the Afghan-Pakistan border, saying: "When it comes to certain matters, the US government doesn't discuss operations."
Asked whether Karzai was the right person to lead Afghanistan, Bush replied: "That will be determined by the Afghan people."