KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Under heavy protection in this dusty, dangerous capital, Laura Bush on Wednesday talked with Afghan women freed from Taliban repression and urged greater rights. She expressed high hopes, envisioning a day when tourists would flock here for vacations.

There were reminders of war at every turn of Mrs. Bush’s visit. U.S. soldiers in camouflage fatigues manned M-60 machine guns at both ends of four transport helicopters that flew the first lady and her entourage to events around Kabul. Apache attack helicopters that shadowed the aircraft provided further protection.

“I knew we’d be safe,” Mrs. Bush said aboard her plane shortly after it left to return to Washington. “Afghanistan is safe. There are certainly parts of it that aren’t right now. But, in general, I think it is a very safe place to travel.”

Still, Mrs. Bush kept her stay brief. She spent just six hours on the ground after flying nearly halfway around the world to get here. The trip was kept secret until the morning she left Washington.

Mrs. Bush met with women who are training to be teachers and gave presents to Afghan children on the street. She thanked U.S. troops for bringing down rulers who kept girls from school.

U.S. commanders have said they may cut their 17,000-strong force this year if a Taliban insurgency wanes. But they say the Afghan government remains vulnerable and some kind of U.S. presence will be needed for years. Security guards flanked President Hamid Karzai everywhere he walked within the presidential palace compound.

“He really wants our troops to stay here,” Mrs. Bush said about her talk with Karzai. “He thinks it’s very important for their stability.”

Karzai said Mrs. Bush’s visit “matters much more than hundreds of millions of dollars. Much more.” Yet the fragile democracy is heavily dependent on international aid, and Mrs. Bush said she was asked for help to pay for scholarships, computers and books.

“I think Afghanistan really is a very beautiful place,” Mrs. Bush said.

“I think eventually at some point – and I hope to see this – Afghanistan will become a wonderful place for tourists to come to because it is so exotic and because of its very, very fascinating history.”

The rest of her visit focused on the future of Afghan women. Mrs. Bush talked of the women who ignored threats of violence and strode to the polls last October to vote in the presidential election and how millions of young girls, who were banned from school by the Taliban, are enrolled for the first time.

Just four years ago, Taliban rulers were forcing them to veil themselves from head to toe in burqas. Some of those once-hidden faces were bathed in the limelight of Mrs. Bush’s visit, although the women who met with Mrs. Bush at Kabul University wore head scarves. One kept hers around her face so only her eyes peeked through.

“Democracy is more than just elections,” Mrs. Bush said at a teacher training institute. “The survival of a free society ultimately depends on the participation of all its citizens, both men and women.”

President Bush said his wife called him before she left Kabul. The president said Afghans are showing people who live under oppression an example of the benefits of freedom.

“Think about a society that has gone from a Taliban-dominated society – where if you were a woman who spoke your mind, you were taken to a public square and whipped – to a free society in which women are now being trained to be able to follow their hearts and teach,” he said during a visit to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “That’s the difference between tyranny and freedom.”


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