WASHINGTON - Eight Afghan governors met Tuesday with US President George W. Bush to tell him a few unpleasant truths about the plight of their country as coalition forces fight terrorists and the Taliban.
While grateful for the overthrow of the Taliban regime and the changes taking place since 2001, the governors complained about the slow pace of progress and how it was serving militants' interests, and about the "excesses" of coalition forces.
The eight visitors poured out their feelings in a very civil, one-hour dialogue with Bush, who is a former governor of Texas, and before a group of reporters, including AFP, at the White House.
Asadullah Hamdam, Governor of Oruzgan province, was first to raise the thorny issue of indiscriminate arrests by coalition troops.
Bush, attempting to soften the moment by appealing to their shared experience as governors, told the group that he understood.
"They come and complain to you," he said, remembering his years as Texas governor (1995-2000).
But seeing his Afghan guests' serious demeanor, Bush added haltingly: "When somebody gets arrested that shouldn't have been arrested you file a complaint obviously ..."
"First, we don't even know who is arrested," answered Asadullah Hamdan in his native language.
"If I just may," Khost Governor Arsala Jamal politely cut in. "I think the issue is greater than that: we have 640 detainees in Bagram and like the governor said, all the governors are facing this problem."
"Special operations is the biggest, biggest challenge and (it has a) negative impact on the people's mind in regard to coalition forces. There is no single bigger issue than that," Jamal added.
The governor complained about the restricted access Afghans had to Afghanistan's Bagram prison, where hundreds of suspected terrorists are held by US forces under controversial conditions.
Jamal told Bush about the nightmare people arrested without charge face, and became downcast when Bush apparently failed to understand his suggestion that some operations were best carried out by Afghan rather than coalition forces.
"I got you," Bush repeated several times.
The danger of alienation between US and NATO troops and the local population is another unsettling aspect of the Afghan conflict, as the struggle against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda continues unabated six years after coalition forces first landed.
The bombings that kill dozens of civilians at a time also take a heavy toll among coalition troops.
With less than 10 months before he leaves the White House, Bush is striving for a successful mission in Afghanistan, lest a failure reflect poorly on his legacy.
With the presidential campaign in full swing, Bush is accused by Democratic contenders Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama of ignoring Afghanistan for the sake of another highly controversial struggle, the "war on terror" in Iraq.
Bush last week returned from a North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Bucharest with a promise from US allies that they will boost their troop contingents in Afghanistan.
But the US president also stressed the need for economic and political progress in the country.
And so, Bush eagerly questioned his eight guests on how the police force in Afghanistan was doing and on the results of the mixed, civilian-military Provincial Reconstruction Teams he holds so dear and which the governors praised for rebuilding their nation.
The governors also talked at length about the reigning insecurity and unemployment in their country, and the problems neighboring Pakistan poses.
"It's hard work in Afghanistan, but I told these leaders that I think it's necessary work," Bush told reporters before escorting his guests to the Oval Office for a head-of-state reception.
© 2008 Agence France Presse