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First lady praises Afghanistan women


U.S. first lady Laura Bush is greeted by Afghan schoolchildren upon her arrival Wednesday at Kabul University in Kabul, Afghanistan.
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
U.S. first lady Laura Bush is greeted by Afghan schoolchildren upon her arrival Wednesday at Kabul University in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Kim Barker Chicago Tribune

KABUL, Afghanistan – After flying from Washington to the other side of the world, First Lady Laura Bush spent six hours in Afghanistan on Wednesday, praising the courage of Afghan women and pledging more U.S. help for the war-torn country.

She shook the hands of many women, some of whom shyly held scarves across their faces. She told them how happy she was to meet them and she wished them all good luck.

“I bring the very best wishes of the American people,” she told a discussion group at the new women’s teacher training institute in Kabul.

Although her husband has not visited Afghanistan, the first lady’s trip was seen by many here as a signal of America’s commitment to Afghanistan and as a morale booster for Afghan women.

“It was a very short visit,” said Naveed Ahmad Moez, spokesman for Afghanistan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry. “But just having Laura Bush visit is a very positive sign.”

She had wanted to visit the country for several years, but the trip was delayed largely because of security concerns. Since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001, Afghanistan has been plagued by warlords, drugs and insurgents. Her trip was kept quiet until just before she left the United States, and most Afghan officials did not learn of it until Tuesday.

Recent events show that the country is far from secure. On Saturday, four U.S. soldiers died when their vehicle drove over a land mine south of Kabul. On Monday, a bomb on a Kabul road injured four people. Hours before Bush arrived Wednesday, a car bomb exploded near the governor’s office in the eastern city of Jalalabad, killing the driver.

After landing at the U.S. military base outside Kabul, Bush visited Kabul University, a teacher-training school there and the presidential palace. Still under heavy security, she ended her tour by eating dinner with U.S. troops.

Bush, a former teacher and librarian, has said she was concerned about the lack of education for Afghan girls under the former Taliban regime. On Wednesday, she referred to the Taliban as terrorists.

“That tyranny has been replaced by a young democracy, and the power of freedom is on display across Afghanistan,” she told her audience at Kabul University.

Still, all is not well for women here. The literacy rate is only 14 percent for women, compared with 43 percent for men. About 34 percent of the 4 million Afghan children in schools are girls. In two provinces, only 1 in 100 girls goes to primary school.

America’s first lady also met the first lady of Afghanistan, who made a rare public appearance to greet her. Bush also talked with President Hamid Karzai, who invited her and her husband to return.

“I know he really wants to come,” Bush assured Karzai. “He’s jealous.”

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