KABUL, Afghanistan – Inspired by Afghan women who have boldly shed their burqas after years of Taliban (search) repression, Laura Bush urged more educational opportunities and greater rights for women Wednesday 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 first lady 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 "That tyranny has been replaced by a young democracy and the power of freedom is on display across Afghanistan.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 Hamid Karzai (search), the president of Afghanistan. Stopping at a bakery, Mrs. Bush filled a box with cookies and paid one dollar. "Good deal," she said. She paused outside the shop to talk with three young children positioned to receive gifts from Mrs. Bush, who gave them a kaleidoscope and a bookmark.
"This matters much more than hundreds of millions of dollars," 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 (search), 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. She said her day of meetings with Afghans found great appreciation for U.S. efforts.
"Thanks to you, millions of little girls are going to school in this country," she said.
Mrs. Bush is not the first first lady to venture into a potentially dangerous region. In 1969, Pat Nixon went to Vietnam to visit a hospital and visit with U.S. troops. And during World War II, Eleanor Roosevelt, a Red Cross representative, secretly flew across the Atlantic, shocking Irish farmers when she landed in their fields.
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 (search). The group, formed in 2002, promotes private-public partnerships between U.S. and Afghan institutions to help Afghan women gain the skills and education deprived them under years of the Taliban.
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.
Her plane landed on a pockmarked airstrip, situated between ranges of snowcapped Hindu Kush mountains at nearby Bagram Air Base where Mrs. Bush visited with U.S. troops. Three years after driving out the Taliban for harboring Usama bin Laden (search) and his Al Qaeda (search) network, the U.S. military has about 17,000 soldiers in Afghanistan and operates air bases at Bagram, Kandahar in the south and Jalalabad in the east.
Mrs. Bush's helicopter landed in a dusty field at the university where she met with about 15 female teacher trainees seated on a red carpet in a room where a bookshelf held a well-worn math manual in Dari as well as books in English, including a learn-to-read version of "The Three Bears." The women who met with Mrs. Bush wore head scarves; one woman kept hers around her face so only her eyes peeked through.
"I was a teacher. I taught elementary school," Mrs. Bush told them. "I know how important teaching is. I know how rewarding it is as well. Good luck to all of you."
She also held a round-table discussion with students and teachers. "Being illiterate is like being blind," village teacher Treena Abdul Momen told her.
Before leaving Kabul, Mrs. Bush called President Bush in Washington and said it had been a good trip and was well received, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.