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First Lady Applauds Afghans

On Brief Visit, Bush Focuses on Women

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 31, 2005; Page A14

KABUL, Afghanistan, March 30 -- First lady Laura Bush spent several hours in Afghanistan on Wednesday for a first-time visit intended to promote education for women and to celebrate the gains made by Afghan women since the repressive Taliban government was ousted by U.S.-led forces three years ago.

Shortly before Bush arrived, however, a car bombing in the eastern city of Jalalabad highlighted the unpredictable violence that continues to bedevil this emerging democracy. The attack, which killed one man, was the latest in a wave of violence this week that included a roadside bombing in Kabul, the capital, and two ambushes of Afghan and U.S. troops in provinces near the Pakistani border. No one was killed in the attacks, the U.S. military said.

_____From Kabul_____
Video: First lady Laura Bush meets with Afghan women Wednesday.

Bush, a former teacher and librarian, began her visit by meeting with students and teachers at a teacher training institute sponsored by the U.S. government.

"This is the moment I've really been waiting for," she said. "As a teacher, I know how important teaching is."

Flanked by Margaret Spellings, the secretary of education, and Paula Dobriansky, the undersecretary of state for global affairs, Bush also toured a women's dormitory at Kabul University that was built with U.S. funds and browsed through a display of handicrafts made by women who had received U.S. grants to start small businesses.

In a speech to several hundred Afghan women in the dormitory's auditorium a few minutes later, Bush lauded the signs of progress.

"We're only a few years removed from the rule of terrorists, when women were denied education and every basic human right," she said, referring to Taliban decrees prohibiting women from attending school or working outside the home. "That tyranny has been replaced by a young democracy, and the power of freedom is on display across Afghanistan."

Bush also announced several new U.S. grants that are part of an $80 million education package for Afghanistan, including $17.7 million to build an American university and $3.5 million for an international school intended to provide Afghan children with a U.S.-style education.

"The United States government is wholeheartedly committed to the full participation of women in all aspects of Afghan society, not just in Kabul but in every province," Bush said to rousing applause.

After the speech, Shirin Gul, a gardener at the university, said of Bush: "I like her. She is a very kind woman." As she left the auditorium, Gul covered herself in a blue burqa -- the head-to-toe garment that the Taliban required women to wear in public, and which many Afghan women continue to use. Most women in the audience did not wear one.

The crowd included members of a girls soccer team; the heads of several businesses and nongovernmental organizations; Habiba Sarabi, the country's first female Afghan governor; and the minister of women's affairs, Masooda Jalal, one of three women appointed by President Hamid Karzai to his cabinet.

Jalal said she was pleased with the level of U.S. assistance. "When Americans went to the Philippines, they took education there," she said. "I think this is the gift they will give to Afghanistan, too."

Gulalai Bahrami, director of an elementary school in Kabul, was less enthusiastic.

"Even in Kabul there are schools where children attend classes in tents," she said. "Do American children study in tents? And this is almost four years after the Taliban."

Bahrami said she was worried that many traditionally minded fathers and husbands were still barring their wives and daughters from seeking an education. About 60 percent of girls remain outside the education system in Afghanistan. Human rights advocates also say that forced marriages and domestic violence are rampant.

Bush, sporting a dark gray pantsuit and a reddish Afghan scarf, visited a bakery after her speech. She bought a box of cookies and gave three children outside the shop gifts of a kaleidoscope and a bookmark.

Bush was then flown to the presidential palace for a private meeting with Karzai. She dined with some of the 17,000 U.S. troops at nearby Bagram air base. "Thanks to you," she told them, "millions of little girls are going to school in this country."

On her way home, the first lady spoke by telephone with President Bush, who has never visited Afghanistan, and said she was "very encouraged" by the trip.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company