- The Washington Times - Monday, June 9, 2008

BAMIYAN, Afghanistan | First lady Laura Bush, on a mission to highlight signs of progress in war-weary Afghanistan, ventured outside the capital Sunday to an area that symbolizes both the destruction and attempt at rebirth.

Fresh attacks swept across the country and the British Broadcasting Corp. reported that one of its Afghan journalists was kidnapped and killed.

On her third visit to the country, the first lady flew into Kabul before boarding a helicopter for a 50-minute flight to Bamiyan province, the farthest she has traveled from Afghanistan’s largest city.

The helicopter landed in a dusty field at a provincial reconstruction team compound operated by New Zealand. From there, she could see the empty niches in a cliffside where two giant Buddha statues once stood.

They were carved into the sandstone cliffs more than 2,000 years ago. The Taliban, which considered the statues idolatrous and anti-Muslim, demolished the treasures in March 2001, causing an international outcry. The repressive Taliban ruled Afghanistan until the U.S. invaded after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Mrs. Bush’s visit came ahead of a conference Thursday in Paris where the U.S. hopes other countries will pledge billions of dollars to help Afghanistan. She intends to address the conference.

“The people of Afghanistan don’t want to go back and live like that,” Mrs. Bush told reporters during the nearly 14-hour flight to Kabul. “They know what it was like. The international community can’t drop Afghanistan now, at this very crucial time.”

President Bush, in an interview in Washington on Friday with RAI TV of Italy, said bluntly, “Afghanistan is broke.”

Afghanistan is seeing a resurgence of violence, even as the U.S. and NATO have poured thousands of new troops into the country, and a spiraling heroin trade. Last year, more than 8,000 people were killed in insurgency-related attacks - the most since the 2001 invasion - and violence has claimed more than 1,500 lives this year.

On Sunday, insurgents attacked a police convoy in central Afghanistan, killing 11 police officers and wounding one, an official said. Militants in the east attacked and killed four men including a local government official. The BBC said the body of one its Afghan journalists was found after he had gone missing in Helmand province.

During her daylong visit, the first lady met with President Hamid Karzai, saw a police academy where female recruits are trained and visited U.S. troops. The U.S. now has some 33,000 troops in Afghanistan, the most ever.

Mr. Bush has defended Mr. Karzai against critics who say his government is weak and not doing enough to battle corruption and drug trafficking.

Mr. Karzai said at a news conference with the first lady on the grounds of the presidential palace that his government will go to the Paris conference with a “very realistic evaluation” of the past six years, including a look at problems such as corruption.

“We’ll come back with some significant assistance from the international community to the Afghan people,” Mr. Karzai said.

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