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First lady makes Afghanistan visit

June 7, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
First lady Laura Bush is highlighting signs of rebirth in war-weary Afghanistan on Sunday ahead of a donors conference in Paris, where the U.S. hopes billions of dollars in international aid will be pledged to help the embattled nation.This is Mrs. Bush's third trip to Afghanistan, where the repressive Taliban ruled until U.S. forces invaded following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. "The people of Afghanistan don't want to go back and live like that," Mrs. Bush told reporters on her plane as it made the nearly 14-hour flight to the Afghan capital. "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." Mrs. Bush also is visiting Bamiyan Province, where two colossal statues of Buddha that were carved into sandstone cliffs more than 2,000 years ago were demolished by the Taliban in March 2001. Destruction of the historical and cultural treasures prompted an outcry from the international community. From her helicopter, Mrs. Bush will see the empty niches where the Buddha statues once stood. But even though there are plans under way to rebuild them, she opted not to see them close-up, saying the ruins are symbolic of Afghanistan's past. Afghanistan is seeing a resurgence of violence 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. She is spending several hours on the ground to meet with President Hamid Karzai, visit U.S. troops and see a police training academy that is training female recruits. But her trip is more sharply focused on hopeful signs of progress. She is going to a new learning center that will double as an orphanage; celebrating the construction of a road; and meeting with university students and members of the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council. The council was set up to help women gain the skills and education deprived them under years of the Taliban. "A group of Afghan women who visited me most recently at the White House said: 'You know, we're really afraid. We think it is our chance right now, and if we don't get this chance - if Afghanistan backslides back into the Taliban - then we'll never get it,"' Mrs. Bush said. "It's more important than ever for the international community to continue to support Afghanistan - certainly for the U.S. to continue to support Afghanistan - because we don't want it to be the way it was when the Buddhas were destroyed."

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