President Bush's wife Laura told a gathering of Afghan and U.S. women Thursday in Washington that Afghan society has made great strides in the five years since the Taliban were driven from power. Later, Laura Bush stressed in an exclusive interview with Voice of America the progress Afghanistan has made. VOA's Jim Fry reports.
The first lady says men and women in Afghanistan are rebuilding a stable, democratic society. In an exclusive interview, Laura Bush told Shaista Sadat of VOA's Afghanistan service that she feels strong affection for the people and the country. "In 1957, when I was 11 years old in the sixth grade in Midland, Texas, I wrote my school report on Afghanistan," she said.
The first lady says she never would have guessed she would visit Afghanistan as an adult, as she did in 2005 when she spoke out for the rights of women and their need for education. Nor could she have known the restrictions women would face under the Islamic fundamentalism of the Taliban. Mrs. Bush says since a new government was established, she has seen dramatic changes.
"And so many people have voted including many, many women. The new government. The constitution," she said.
Mrs. Bush cites a 25 percent drop in infant mortality and five million children in school, two-fifths of them girls. She says advances have come despite the risks some people face. "I understand the fear that particularly women, but that women and men, have in Afghanistan when they talk about education - something that was denied before during the Taliban," she said.
The first lady spoke to members of the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council, including women from Afghanistan who are involved in business and the nation's reconstruction. "Their lives have changed and they've changed for the better," she said.
Mrs. Bush also spoke of neighboring Pakistan, the return of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and her assassination. "Well, I stand with all those who are reaching out for democracy and I also grieve for the life of Benazir Bhutto and send my condolences to the people of Pakistan," she said.
She says the two countries should reach out together for democracy. Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf met last month, despite heightened tensions and differences over security. "Afghanistan and Pakistan share such a very long border that the relations between the two countries should be strong," the first lady said.
While Mrs. Bush calls for continued international military support, she also says Afghanistan needs to build up its own forces to provide for security. She says it is up to the Afghan people to stand up and reject poppy growing and the drug trade. "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," she said.
The first lady tells VOA, she hopes to return as a private citizen and continue working to improve the lives of women and children in Afghanistan.