Mrs. Bush showcases progress in Afghanistan

June 8, 2008 7:13:07 PM PDT
BAMIYAN, Afghanistan (AP) - Rallying international aid for Afghanistan, first lady Laura Bush on Sunday showcased projects to better the lives of war-weary Afghans. Yet at each stop, an eerie reminder of the country's violent past was just a glance away. In a prelude to her trip to the Afghanistan donors conference this week in Paris, Mrs. Bush visited a construction site of a learning center for youngsters that will double as an orphanage. She marveled at how women, who just a few years ago were being forced by the Taliban to shroud themselves from head-to-toe, are now Afghan National Police trainees. She celebrated the halfway point of a project to pave a road from the airport to the town center in Bamiyan Province.

But amid all the signs of progress, it's hard to be in Bamiyan and not think about how the hardline Taliban regime destroyed two giant Buddha statues that had graced the ancient Silk Road linking Europe and Central Asia for some 1,500 years. All that's left are massive, empty niches in the sandstone cliffside.

Mrs. Bush, on her third trip to the country, opted not to get a close-up view of the site.

"I frankly just didn't want to see it myself," she said. "When it happened, I felt very discouraged. I think still that it's a destruction of historic magnitude. In many ways, I see it as a symbol of what the Taliban did and what al-Qaida does."

The Taliban viewed the Buddhas as idolatrous and anti-Muslim. In March 2001, after nearly two weeks of trying to destroy them with anti-aircraft weapons and rocket launchers, the Taliban blew up the statues with dynamite and artillery. The act, deemed an assault on Afghanistan's cultural heritage, was met with outcry from the international community.

The first lady, who slipped out of Washington without public notice on Saturday morning, landed at Kabul International Airport and swapped her blue-and-white plane for a Nighthawk helicopter. Bamiyan is one of the safer of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. Still, the first lady's entourage wore flack jackets for the trip and machine gunners leaned out the helicopter windows scouting for threats.

The choppers flew just above jagged mountainous terrain for about 50 minutes before landing in a dusty field next to a Provincial Reconstruction Team compound run by New Zealand. Few roads in Bamiyan Province are paved and her helicopters and bumpy rides in sports utility vehicles down dirt roads left clouds of dust trailing her movements.

When her convoy passed a man with a donkey loaded with crops, members of the first lady's entourage quickly looked to see if he had opium producing poppies, which local insurgents and drug traffickers use to finance their attacks. A local guide assured them that he had no poppies, then quipped that the donkey is known as the "Afghan SUV."

Among the U.S.-funded work the first lady featured was $40 million from USAID for the National Literacy Center in Kabul and $40 million to further support the American University of Afghanistan.

Her last stop before flying to Slovenia, where she'll meet up with her husband for a U.S.-European Union summit, was Bagram Air Field, a sprawling American base in the shadow of the towering Hindu Kush mountains, streaked on top with snow.

More than six years since the repressive fundamentalist Taliban regime was ousted by U.S.-led forces after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Afghanistan's future remains at a crossroads.

Afghanistan is seeing a resurgence of violence. Last year, more than 8,000 people were killed in insurgency-related attacks - the most since the 2001 invasion. Violence has claimed more than 1,500 lives this year, raising concern about the future of the democratic nation.

"A group of Afghan women who visited me most recently at the White House said `You know, we're really afraid. We think it is our chance right now, and if we don't get this chance - if Afghanistan backslides back into the Taliban - then we'll never get it,"' said Mrs. Bush, who has taken a keen interest in Afghanistan, the size of her native Texas.

Mrs. Bush is addressing the donors conference Thursday in Paris. France, host of the gathering, has set a goal of raising $12 billion to $15 billion to fund Afghan reconstruction projects through 2014. The United States is looking to contribute about a quarter of that.

International donors have pledged about $32.7 billion in reconstruction funds for Afghanistan since 2001, of which $21 billion has come from the United States.

"It's more important than ever for the international community to continue to support Afghanistan ... because we don't want it to be the way it was when the Buddhas were destroyed," she said.

Aid is partly hinged to the confidence the international community has in Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has been criticized for not doing more to combat Afghan warlords and drug traffickers.

At a press conference at his presidential palace in Kabul, Mrs. Bush standing at his side, Karzai dodged the issue.

Karzai said the Afghan government will go to the Paris conference with a "very realistic evaluation" of the past six years, including a look at problems like the widespread government corruption that has plagued the Afghan government.

"We'll come back with some significant assistance from the international community to the Afghan people," Karzai told a news conference on the grounds of the presidential palace. "The issue of corruption in the Afghan administration, the issue of corruption with regard to other administrative issues, delivery of aid and all that, is something we constantly discuss with each other."