Transcript of interview with US First Lady Laura Bush by Shaista Sadat of VOA's Afghanistan service
VOA: From your point of view, how has life changed for the people of Afghanistan in the last six years?
Mrs. Bush: Well, I think there have been many dramatic changes in the past six years. So many, many changes in obviously, the government changes: where there has been an election, two elections in fact, and so many people have voted including many, many women. The new government, the Constitution, I mean all of those steps that Afghanistan has taken are huge steps. It’s amazing that a Constitution has been written, that government have been elected, that schools have been built, that children are back in school, really all over Afghanistan. I mean those are very, very dramatic changes.
Are there still things left to do? Of course, and the world has watched, of course. And I think the world had stood with Afghanistan while we watched.
VOA: Why did you decide to go to Afghanistan in 2005 and what were your impressions of Afghanistan?
Mrs. Bush: Well, of course, I had been really watching Afghanistan on television, just like everyone else in the United States, since right after September 11th. I gave the President’s radio address shortly after September 11th to talk about the plight of women in Afghanistan, I wanted American women and American men and women both to know the challenges that Afghan women were facing. And really, after that, I watched it and I longed to go to Afghanistan. I really wanted to have the chance to visit Afghanistan, and then finally I did in 2005, and then I went back again with the President when we opened our embassy there.
VOA: In your opinion, what are the greatest needs of Afghan women and children and how can the international community provide these needs?
Mrs. Bush: Well, of course since I’m a teacher myself and a librarian, and that’s what I did for my career, I think education is the single most important function that the government, if it can, should provide, because I think it will make all the difference for the next generations of Afghanis. But also, there is a huge need for just basic infrastructure: for roads, so that remote areas of Afghanistan can be joined to the rest of the country; clean water, food, shelter, all of those are basic necessities, and there are many ways that the international community can help and has helped.
New roads have been built. Many, many more roads in the last five years. A health center, basic health care is necessary. There are a lot of ways the international community can help, and they have already helped. But also I think there are a lot of ways the people of Afghanistan can work together and try to put differences aside and really stand up and say, “we don’t want terrorism anymore. And we want to take this chance, this opportunity our country has to build a good, safe and decent country in Afghanistan, so that everyone can be safe and feel secure and children can be educated again.”
VOA: Can you share with me some of the success stories of Afghan women?
Mrs. Bush: Well, there are so many really terriffic success stories. One that comes immediately to my mind, because we were just here together at Georgetown University and one of the women who was here around the table with us, was a woman that started a company called “Arzu,” which I understand means hope, and she wanted to make sure Afghan women could support themselves and also make sure that many of the special crafts and arts that Afghan women know how to do, rug weaving for instance, are not lost.
And so she has helped Afghan women who make carpets be able to export those carpets - and in fact, we have bought some for the White House and I am proud that we have these two rugs made by women in Afghanistan at the White House.
But that’s only one single example of a way that an American women has worked with women in Afghanistan to make sure what while these woman are doing what they already knew how to do, which is weaving rugs, that they also get the life skills and the help to be able to help their whole families, and their lives have changed and they have changed for the better.
VOA: What can be done to protect Afghan women who take risks to go to their jobs?
Mrs. Bush: Well, it’s very important. All of the security concerns that the United States military and the United States government are involved in are very, very important. And it’s important for at the same time, for Afghanistan to build up its own police force and its own military and cooperation with all of the countries of the international community that is there on the ground in Afghanistan to protect women, and children obviously, and teachers and to make sure that children are educated.
But it’s also very important for civic society to increase in Afghanistan, so that people feel free to say, “I want my child to be educated. And my child has a right to be educated.” And to speak up to the forces that want to deny education to the children of Afghanistan.
I’m proud of all the ways the United States government has been involved in education there. I got to visit when I went to Afghanistan, to Kabul in 2005, the Teacher Training Institute that’s there and that is a dorm that's a safe place for women from the provinces to come in and live while they are trained to be teachers, with the idea that when they go back to their village, they can train other people in a cascading effect to try to get as many teachers and as many schools opened all across Afghanistan as quickly as possible.
And I’ve met teachers there. I've also met many teachers from Afghanistan who come to the United States, who live with families here and study here just for a semester or for a short time, learning as many teaching methods as possible, so they can go back and be really good quality teachers.
But I understand the fear that - particularly women - but women and men have in Afghanistan when they talk about education, something that was denied before during the Taliban. And I urge the people of Afghanistan to stand together and say, "It’s so important for our children to have better lives, for them to be educated."
VOA: What should be done to give Afghanistan the doctors that they need?
Mrs. Bush: Well, that’s also very important and there are a lot of ways the international community can help and has helped. In fact, one of the reasons the child mortality rate has decreased by a large percentage in Afghanistan is because healthcare has gotten out to many parts of Afghanistan because of NGO’s, like you said, and the international community coming in. It’s also important for healthcare workers to be trained.
One of the things that was mentioned today was that in adult literacy classes - for woman especially who, because they were growing up in the time of the Taliban, missed on the opportunity to be educated - a lot of their textbooks that they are using to learn to read ... are also health education books, so that mothers can be educated and can know what to do to help their own children. But it’s also a very important job for people to seek and that is to try to get training in healthcare, so that people can go back to their own villages and serve as healthcare workers there.
VOA: Why is advanced education so important to young Afghans?
Mrs. Bush: Well, I hope that as many young Afghans as possible will graduate from high school and then seek higher education. One of the really important things for people in Afghanistan to know is this capacity-building. If there are people who are educated who can be good managers, who can be good leaders, then when these donations come in from the international community, there is way to very successfully manage that money so that it reaches everyone in Afghanistan. And building capacity like that takes time.
And one of the things it takes is education, and in many cases, higher education, which is why I want to urge Afghan students to finish high school and then to seek a scholarship, so they can go on to higher education.
VOA: What are your thoughts on the drug trade?
Mrs. Bush: Well, I hope that people who are involved in the drug trade will see if there are some other legitimate crops they could grow. The farmers who are growing poppies, see if there is any way that you could grow an agricultural crop other than poppies that you could make money on, and in some parts of Afghanistan that is happening. In the parts where there is more security, people are stopping growing poppies and starting to grow pomegranates for instance, or tulips, or other crops that are legitimate crops that are also high dollar crops.
And I know that the United States government is joining with the government of Afghanistan to try to eradicate the drug trade, to do what we can to help farmers find a legitimate crop to grow, so they can support their families. But this also requires the will of the people of Afghanistan to say, “We don’t really want to be involved in the drug trade. We don’t want our country to be associated with that, and we urge people, all of our fellow citizens to find a legitimate way to make money."
VOA: What is your message to the brave men and women of Pakistan who are trying to carry on Benazir Bhutto’s message?
Mrs. Bush: Well, I stand behind all those who are reaching out for democracy, and also I grieve for the life of Benazir Bhutto, and send my condolences to the people of Pakistan. It’s very important for people to reach out for democracy both in Pakistan and in Afghanistan. Afghanistan and Pakistan share such a very long border, that the relations between the two countries should be strong. And as one country wants to reach out for democracy, and the other country, Afghanistan, is building its democracy, there are a lot of ways I think the two countries can help each other and can be really good friends.
I’m proud that President Bush hosted President Karzai and Musharraf together, so there are ways that both Pakistan and Afghanistan can reach out to each other.
VOA: What do you think of Hollywood’s portrayal of Afghanistan in recent films, and do you think these films will raise awareness to the situation in Afghanistan?
Mrs. Bush: Absolutely, and I want to say that the book by Khalid Hosseini that The Kite Runner is taken from was a huge best-seller in the United States. I think it’s still on the best-seller list, along with his second book, A Thousand Splendid Suns, which is also on the best-seller list. And I think both of those books give an idea to American people of what life was like in Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion, and the years of war, and what life was like during the Taliban and coming up to now. And I think they are important because I think they give Americans a chance to really understand Afghanistan.
And now of course the movie is out, a lot of people will see it, and I want Americans to know about Afghanistan, and I want Afghanis to know about Americans. I want the people of Afghanistan to know how invested the American people are in the success of Afghanistan, and how we want to make sure Afghanistan succeeds and builds a democracy and builds a place with a rule of law and where the rights of women and children and men are protected.
VOA: When you leave the White House in one year, will you continue your commitment for Afghanistan? What do you want your legacy to be? What are your best years in the White House and why?
Mrs. Bush: I certainly hope to continue my commitment to Afghanistan, I hope for the rest of my life. I think it’s sort of ironic when I look back on my childhood, in 1957 when I was 11 years old in the 6th grade in Midland, Texas, I wrote my school report on Afghanistan. And of course when I wrote that report, I saw Afghanistan as this very exotic country that was a long way away, and I would never guessed that I would have gotten to go to Afghanistan or that I would have such a strong feeling of affection for Afghanistan as an adult.
When we leave a year from now, we will build a presidential library, and I hope that Afghanistan will be a big part of that library. I certainly hope I can continue on the US Afghan Women’s Council, the meeting that you just saw today, because it will not just be government sponsored, but hopefully will be a part of Georgetown University.
So I look forward in those years to hosting Afghan women and men at the Bush library and to continue my support to Afghanistan. and I also hope to visit Afghanistan as a private citizen.
VOA: And your best memories?
Mrs. Bush: And certainly my best memories, many of them have to do with Afghanistan. To see the dramatic changes there and to see girls in school in Afghanistan, I mean, that’s really an incredible chance for me, to have the chance to see a country change so dramatically because of help and intervention of the United States.