KABUL, Afghanistan — Inspired by Afghan women who boldly have shed their burkas after years of Taliban repression, first lady Laura Bush yesterday urged more educational opportunities and greater rights for women in this war-wrecked nation.
Under heavy security, Mrs. Bush spent just six hours on the ground after flying nearly halfway around the world. U.S. troops manned M-60 rifles at either end of four helicopters that flew the her and her entourage to Kabul University.
“We are only a few years removed from the rule of the terrorists, when women were denied education and every basic human right,” Mrs. Bush said at a teacher training institute. “That tyranny has been replaced by a young democracy, and the power of freedom is on display across Afghanistan.
“We must be mindful though that democracy is more than just elections. The survival of a free society ultimately depends on the participation of all its citizens, both men and women,” she said. “This is possible if institutions like this exist to give women the basic tools they need to contribute fully to society — and the most critical tool of all is an education.”
She wore an Afghan scarf on her shoulders as she met with teachers and talked with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
“This matters much more than hundreds of millions of dollars,” Mr. Karzai said of Mrs. Bush’s visit, although the fragile democracy is heavily dependent on international aid. “Much more.”
In remarks to U.S. troops after dining with them at Bagram Air Base, Mrs. Bush told them, “Millions of Americans are thinking of you and praying for you every single day, and one of them is your commander in chief.”
She said her day of meetings with Afghans showed great appreciation for U.S. efforts.
“Thanks to you, millions of little girls are going to school in this country,” she told the troops.
Three years after driving out the Taliban regime for harboring Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorist network, the U.S. military has about 17,000 troops in Afghanistan and operates air bases at Bagram, Kandahar in the south and Jalalabad in the east.
Mrs. Bush’s trip, kept secret until the last minute for security reasons, was timed to coincide with a meeting in Kabul of the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council. The group, formed in 2002, promotes private-public partnerships between U.S. and Afghan institutions to help Afghan women gain the skills and education of which they were deprived under years of Taliban rule.
The first lady’s stops sought to put a positive spin on conditions in Afghanistan, where millions of women and girls have returned to work and school since the Taliban was ousted. Equality before the law is embedded in a new constitution, and some women have abandoned the head-to-toe public veiling that was mandatory under the tough Islamist regime.
At the university, Mrs. Bush met with about 15 female teacher trainees.
“I was a teacher. I taught elementary school,” she told them. “I know how important teaching is. I know how rewarding it is, as well. Good luck to all of you.”