Dick Cheney meets Afghan President Hamid Karzai

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney met with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai on Thursday to discuss ways the country's fragile government can counter rising threats from al-Qaida and Taliban militants.

Cheney flew to the Afghan capital from Oman and took a helicopter straight to the presidential palace, where he greeted Karzai with a hearty handshake. The two strolled down a red carpet together, reviewing troops before heading inside for their talks.

Reporters were not allowed to disclose Cheney's visit until he had arrived safely.

More than 8,000 people died in Afghanistan last year, making it the most violent year since 2001, when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to oust the hard-line Taliban regime after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States. Al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding in rugged, mountainous areas along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Cheney spokeswoman Lea Ann McBride said U.S. President George W. Bush asked Cheney to meet with Karzai in advance of a NATO summit next month in Romania.

She said Cheney would talk with Karzai about ways the U.S. would continue to help Afghanistan become a more prosperous, stable nation. The vice president also is expected to meet with troops stationed in Afghanistan.

It is Cheney's fourth vice presidential trip to Afghanistan. Cheney, who is on a 10-day trip, visited Iraq earlier this week.

Problems in Afghanistan will be a key topic at the NATO summit. NATO has about 43,000 troops in Afghanistan, but commanders have asked for more in areas of southern Afghanistan where the insurgency is the most active.

Troops from Canada, Britain, the Netherlands and the United States have done the majority of the fighting against Taliban militants. Forces from France, Spain, Germany and Italy are stationed in more peaceful parts of the country.

Canada, which has 2,500 troops in Kandahar province, recently threatened to end its combat role unless other NATO countries provide an additional 1,000 troops to help the anti-Taliban effort there. Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay said he expected a pledge for troops before or during the April 2-4 NATO summit.

The U.S. contributes one-third of the NATO force, and also has about 12,000 other U.S. troops operating independently from NATO. The Pentagon says that by late summer, there will be about 32,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan _ up from about 28,000 now.

An official who briefed reporters during the trip from Oman to Afghanistan said Cheney wanted to compare notes with Karzai to make the NATO summit a success. The U.S. wants NATO members to issue a strong statement at the summit pledging a long-term commitment to support Afghanistan militarily as well as in efforts to rebuild the nation, the official said.

The official, who discussed the meeting agenda on condition of anonymity, said Cheney and Karzai would discuss the overall situation in Afghanistan, but particularly the violence plaguing the south. The official said the vice president would urge Karzai to continue to work with Pakistan following recent elections there and to stay focused on problems of militants moving back and forth across the border separating the two countries.

The vice president also planned to discuss steps the U.S. thinks the Afghan government needs to take to extend its governance beyond Kabul, conduct successful elections next year, and curb corruption and the rising production of opium poppies used to make narcotic drugs that help fund the insurgency, the official said.

Cheney's first vice presidential trip to Afghanistan was in December 2004. In December 2005 and February 2007, he visited Afghanistan as well as neighboring Pakistan.