Afghanistan

Delegation says trip renewed faith in Afghans' courage, determination

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By Stephen Kaufman, Washington File Staff Writer
Washington - The U.S. delegates to the second meeting of the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council held in Kabul earlier this month expressed high praise for the efforts of the Afghan people, especially women, to rebuild their country.

Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky said she was inspired by "the determination and courage of Afghans, especially Afghan women, to emerge from what ... can clearly be described as the long dark night of the Taliban."

Dobriansky and President Bush's counselor and close advisor Karen Hughes met with the president in the White House January 23 to tell him about their January 8-9 visit to Afghanistan. Afterwards, they addressed an audience of approximately 120 guests, including Afghanistan's Ambassador to the United States Ishaq Shahryar at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the White House.

"It was one of the best things I've ever done," said Hughes, who said she had been trying to make a trip to Afghanistan "for some time." Hughes said she was invited by Dobriansky to join the delegation despite having made a prior commitment to the president. "Please go," she reported Bush telling her, as a sign of his and Mrs. Bush's "personal ongoing commitment to the people of Afghanistan, and especially to the women and little girls."

Hughes said she felt "a powerful sense ... of rebirth" of Afghanistan. "I called it literally hope in the midst of ruins," she said.

She said the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council meeting provided a forum for Afghanistan's women leaders to express their views to the members of the U.S. delegation and to their fellow Afghan citizens and government ministers.

Dobriansky reported that ten Afghan cabinet ministers attended the Kabul meeting, which she called "an important testament to the effectiveness of [the] partnership" between the two governments, as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and private sector donors, which "are striving to work together to keep the empowerment of Afghan women high on our common agenda."

The under secretary reported that the United States continues to be the largest donor of aid to Afghanistan, having provided $850 million in humanitarian and reconstruction assistance since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

Hughes said that while it is in U.S. interests to rebuild the country to prevent it from reverting as a haven for terrorist groups and narcotics traffickers, the people of the United States also feel a moral obligation to help ease the suffering in Afghanistan.

"Our country was founded out of respect for life," she explained. "We believe that we were created equal and that we are all precious in the sight of our creator."

Hughes recounted her meeting with a 13-year-old Afghan girl who participated in a literacy program in Kabul, and said she hoped to be a writer. The girl told Hughes that she had a message to convey. "I want to say: women ought to be free to choose their husbands, they ought to be able to get educated, and they ought to be able to work," Hughes quoted the girl as saying.

Dobriansky and Hughes visited U.S.-supported projects for women's entrepreneurship in Kabul, including a bakery operated by widows, which supplies bread to tens of thousands of Afghans, and a clothing factory that employs widows to sew uniforms for schoolchildren.

"This kind of project, I think, is one that really embodies and underscores what we are promoting through the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council," said Dobriansky.

She also mentioned the new Afghan Conservation Corps, which will hire refugees, unemployed and internally displaced persons (IDPs) throughout the country to work in "rehabilitation programs of forests, dams, aquifers, soil and irrigation systems."

Before her trip to Afghanistan, Hughes said she was aware of the desperation of the people, "but to see it personally, to look into the eyes and see the people lining up for a quilt because they had no heat, and the nights were going down to zero, and to see the people lining up for bread, ... we were just stuck by the overwhelming nature of the need," she said.

"The average life expectancy of women in Afghanistan is only 45. And that really hit home to me because I just turned 46," said Hughes.

But she added that she also felt "an incredible sense of possibility" in the country, and praised its citizens.

"All of us who went on the trip, I think our hearts have been captured by the people of Afghanistan. They were so friendly and so grateful to country and to our people for the help. Even in the midst of their desperation, they are so grateful," said Hughes.

Dobriansky said the American and Afghan people "share a common set of objectives." They both want "an Afghanistan that is democratic, secure, stable, prosperous, at peace with its neighbors and that respects human rights, including the rights of women," she said.

(The Washington File is a product of the Office of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)