The White House, President George W. Bush Click to print this document

For Immediate Release
Office of the First Lady
June 8, 2008

Press Gaggle by the First Lady
En route Ramstein, Germany

June 7, 2008

MRS. BUSH: Well, thank you all very much for joining me on this trip to Afghanistan. As you know, this is my third trip -- my second trip alone, and the first time I've been to Bamiyan. And Bamiyan is one of those parts of Afghanistan that I think everyone has watched and looked at over the years since we first heard about the Buddhas. I remember when UNESCO was trying to send envoys to the Taliban to urge them not to destroy the big Buddhas, 3,000-year-old Buddhas, or however old they are. But they did anyway.

And that's still an issue in front of UNESCO, and I do a lot of work with UNESCO as their Ambassador for the Decade of Literacy, but also cultural work that UNESCO does. As you know, they are the ones who declare different areas World Heritage Sites. And so they were very active in trying to save the Buddhas.

So I think, really, that -- learning about Bamiyan first through that has sort of -- now, I think we're going to see when we go there that Bamiyan really will represent a lot of progress since the Taliban and since the support of the United States and now NATO allies, as well as the international community the whole time it's been in Afghanistan.

And I also think that that symbolism is instructive to us as we go into the donors conference this week in Paris, and that is that Afghanistan has made a lot of progress. There's still a lot more that needs to be done. And as a group of Afghan women who visited me most recently at the White House said, we're really afraid; we think this 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, and that it's more important than ever for the international community to continue to support Afghanistan -- certainly for the United States to continue to support Afghanistan because we don't want it to be the way it was when the Buddhas were destroyed. And we want it to be what so many people in Afghanistan want, which is secure and safe and prosperous.

But when we look at the destruction of the country, once again symbolized by the Buddhas, and the destruction of all the infrastructure -- no schools, no girls in school, very few boys in school in 2001, shortly after September 11th, the highest infant mortality rate, highest maternal mortality rate in the world, Afghanistan has -- and now a lot of those statistics have improved very, very dramatically.

Lots of -- over 6 million children in school now, they think; about 35 percent of that number are girls. Many women who couldn't leave their houses unescorted, and many were widows or single parents and the sole supporter of their families, now are in businesses, and we'll see some of those businesses today. A lot of the businesses that Afghan women have started have been supported in -- very strongly, both, I think, sort of emotionally and financially by American businesswomen. We'll visit the groups who have been educated about business at Thunderbird in Arizona; Thunderbird Business School that's part of the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council. It's one woman who happens to serve on the board, or did serve on the board of Thunderbird who started this program there; we'll see ARZU, the women's cooperative now that is making rugs, so that both they're saving their hand-knotted rugs technique, and, at the same time, women are being educated -- they're persuaded as they work for ARZU to make sure their children are in school and their children are educated. We have two rugs from ARZU at the White House, and then George and I have one custom rug at our ranch that I bought from ARZU.

Arzu means hope. And I think there are very, very hopeful signs. And I think that we'll see that. I think we'll see a lot more agricultural land as we helicopter over Afghanistan -- we did a dip when we were there before -- a lot more land in production, which, with the food prices right now, is particularly important for Afghanistan to maximize their agriculture as much as they can. And I understand that President Karzai brought a lot of farmers together and urged them to plant wheat rather than opium -- rather than poppies, because food is so needed for their country. I think still it's more lucrative to grow poppies, but not near as lucrative as it was compared to wheat, because of the rise in food prices, the rise in (inaudible) prices worldwide.

I hope that what we'll be able to see today will encourage all of us so that when I go to the donors conference later this week in Paris, I can make the case that we need to stay -- the whole international community needs to stay with Afghanistan. Certainly the United States is committed, and I think the rest of the international community is as well.

It just takes a long time, and it takes a long time to build both the infrastructure, the expensive infrastructure that they don't have, the electricity, the roads, the hydropower -- all of the things that they're trying to build, which you need to be able to increase your economy and your prosperity. And it's very, very difficult to build the infrastructure laws that we take for granted in the United States, but that are very difficult to build when you're starting from scratch like they are, after years of war, and in the very, very oppressive years under the Taliban.

So, do you all have any questions?

Q How hesitant is the international community, do you think, and what kind of hurdles do you think you're going to have to hop when you get to Paris?

MRS. BUSH: What was the first part? How what?

Q How hesitant is the international community in terms of (inaudible)?

MRS. BUSH: I don't think the international community is hesitant. I mean, one of the (inaudible) visits today is the New Zealand PRT that's in Bamiyan, and they've been very, very active, including the Governor of Bamiyan has visited New Zealand, who also -- as you know, New Zealand has a woman leader like Governor Sarabi, the Governor of Bamiyan. I know they've been very active, this New Zealand PRT. I think they've been very successful. I suspect that New Zealand and many other countries who are running the PRTs in other parts of Afghanistan will continue to be very supportive of Afghanistan.

Q What kind of hurdles do you see in Paris?

MRS. BUSH: What I really see is that these sort of incursions by the Taliban and by al Qaeda that intimidate the people of Afghanistan, I don't want those to intimidate the people of the international community. If we're not there, if the international community is not there with our support, both financial and governmental, the way we can help them as they try to build their infrastructure of laws, then the Taliban will have a much -- it will not be as difficult for them to intimidate the people of Afghanistan.

And that's really what their -- that's their whole purpose. That's what they do. They come in and kill a group of people and intimidate women, for instance, who are trying to either be leaders in business, or teachers, or, you know, in government. And it's not a huge number, but it's a huge effect psychologically on people. People want to live a life without a constant threat of terrorism. And that's what the international community is facing. That's what they're facing when they look at Afghanistan, because they see these terrorist happenings by the Taliban or by al Qaeda as setbacks, and they are setbacks.

But on the other hand, they're just meant to intimidate, and we don't need to be intimidated by them. The people of Afghanistan don't want to go back and live like that. They know what it was like. And the international community can't drop Afghanistan now at this very fragile time.

And is it going to take a long time? Of course it's going to take a long time. There's no doubt about it. It takes a long time to rebuild that very expensive infrastructure, to start building an economy so that everyone can benefit from it, and to build the infrastructure of laws that you need to really have a very strong civil and legal society, and to attract foreign capital. You really need to have those sort of contract law, that business law -- all of the laws that we take so for granted that really are what allow us to have a thriving economy.

Q Are you concerned that the international community is going to drop Afghanistan? Is that a worry?

MRS. BUSH: No. I don't think they will. I just don't want them to be discouraged. I want the international community to know that everything the international community has already done is very appreciated. I know these PRTs that are all over Afghanistan that are building schools and doing a million great things, that that's appreciated by the people of Afghanistan. And I want them, the international community, to know that just what those women said to me, that this is their chance. And we need to stay with them while they have this chance, and do everything we can to make sure they succeed.

Q Is the U.S. doing enough? Or is the U.S. doing its share and more?

MRS. BUSH: The U.S. is doing a lot, and you'll hear today when we're there later some of the things that we're doing that I'll be talking about. There are some specific programs that I'm not mentioning that aren't part of what I'll talk about today that USAID is already doing in Bamiyan, for instance -- veterinary work to try to train veterinarians and try to train animal husbandry around the province of Bamiyan, because agriculture is so important to them; and a great big program where they train women to raise chickens so they can have both chicken and egg production as a wage for themselves and a way to build their agricultural economy.

And so I think there are lots of really great things going on that we don't know about, that we don't hear about at home that the United States is involved in.

Q Mrs. Bush, do you not encounter or have you not encountered "giving fatigue" on the international stage? Even in the U.S., the needs are so great all over the world -- we help in Africa, we help in Iraq. The needs are great in Afghanistan. Is the world weary of all this giving?

MRS. BUSH: Well, I don't see that. No, I don't think that. And of course I don't know about the world, but what I know about us in the United States, I know that the people of the United States are very generous. I know very well a lot of the women have been working since 2001 on the Afghan women's -- American Afghan women's initiative, and they're not discouraged and they are redoubling their efforts to make sure that their investment, that their investment of time and of energy is rewarded with the success in Afghanistan.

We've moved the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council to Georgetown University so that it can continue on after this administration and so that all the women who've already been involved in it can continue to be involved in it, as well as attract other women that might come in with the next administration to also be involved. It's not just women, actually; there are men on the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council, like Tim McBride. (Laughter.)

Q How much money is the Paris Conference expected to generate?

MRS. BUSH: I'm not really sure what the goals are. I need to find out about the -- how much money is the conference expected to generate?

MS. McDONOUGH: The five-year plan -- $50 billion, five zero.

MRS. BUSH: Fifty million.

MS. McDONOUGH: Fifty billion.

MRS. BUSH: Oh, $50 billion. That's what I thought. I was thinking, wow, that's very light. (Laughter.)

MS. McDONOUGH: Over five years.

MRS. BUSH: Fifty billion over five years is what she says.

Q That's what he wants.

MRS. BUSH: That's what he's going to request. And one of the things he really wants to talk about is agriculture -- if nothing else for Afghanistan to be able to feed itself. Afghanistan was known for its pomegranates and is known for its dates -- it supposedly had really wonderful dates and raisins. And these are things that they could grow again, and with food -- food prices like it is, it's both very important for Afghanistan to try to increase agricultural production, feed itself, and then to have a possible larger economic benefit of being able to export food as well.

MS. McDONOUGH: And I think for the donors conference, they met in London two years ago. So this is bringing the community back together to check on progress, to get the commitments. And it's not to say that there's not going to be another donors conference within the next five years. So I think this donors conference is to receive his plan and to show the support of the international community.

MRS. BUSH: Because Afghanistan has just worked -- the government of Afghanistan has worked to develop their plan. It's now called the National -- what's it called? -- ANDS -- Afghanistan National Strategy. And this is -- these are their plans. And this is really what other governments want to know. It's just like in the early years of our funding for AIDS in Africa. Part of that AIDS funding required the government to make their strategy, to know that if you get this amount of money you really, you know, can you really use this money. You really -- you have the capacity to take this amount of money and then you have your strategy so you know where the money is going to go and how you're going to spend it and how you're going to distribute -- in the AIDS example, for instance -- how you're going to distribute ARVs or do testing or whatever.

And so now Afghanistan has their strategy of -- their national strategy of what they want to do. A lot of it's infrastructure -- the infrastructure items, both roads and obviously electrical power, hydro-electricity.

Q What's your take on some of the increasing questioning of Karzai's leadership, you know, he's not doing enough on corruption, not doing enough against the drug lords or the war lords? Even some comments from General Jones, as you know, has been very involved in Afghanistan, says, look, American blood and treasure is being spent in Afghanistan; Karzai's government has to earn that, and he hasn't been.

MRS. BUSH: I don't know if that's exactly what Jones said at the end, your last addition. But this is what I think: Karzai is the President of Afghanistan, was elected the President of Afghanistan. He's very popular in Afghanistan. It's very important because he is the head of an elected government that the United States and the rest of the international community not try to blame him for -- you know, unless they're really going to give him credit for every -- for all the progress they've made, it's really not that fair. I think it's undermining, frankly, to blame him for a lot of things that may or may not be his fault. You know, he inherited, just by becoming President, a country that had been totally devastated. And we'll see today when we go there how much progress we think we can see in Bamiyan.

It's very, very difficult when you have al Qaeda and Taliban all on your border, and making incursions into Afghanistan. And it's intimidating for everybody and it makes it very, very difficult. On the other hand, are they making progress? I think we'll see that they are.

Q (Inaudible) to nail down -- everybody says this is a really critical time, but I'm not sure why you think it's such a critical time.

MRS. BUSH: Well, I think it's a critical time because I think we saw the resurgence of the Taliban last year during the year and then a little bit this year. And I think that's one of the reasons it's very important for the international community to redouble their efforts so that that -- so that the word gets out to the people of Afghanistan that the rest of world is with them and that we're not going to leave you right now when the Taliban is trying to -- and al Qaeda are trying to intimidate you; and that -- and to let them know that we know how hard it is to build a country -- both to build the physical part of the country as well as the whole infrastructure.

Q Are you carrying a message from President Bush to President Karzai?

MRS. BUSH: No. I mean, President Bush didn't say anything except give President Karzai his best. And they talk, as you know, every couple of weeks on videoconference -- are in very close contact. I've spent a lot of time on Afghanistan myself. My staff has -- since 2001 a lot of our focus has been on Afghanistan, particularly women and children in Afghanistan, both with events that I do as well as just a lot of back and forth with USAID, with the State Department, with the Afghan embassy, with civil society, U.S. civil society that's backing Afghan civil society. So it's a very important issue to me as well, and I know President Karzai knows that. And I think the women of Afghanistan know that.

Q (Inaudible.)

MRS. BUSH: If they were worried I don't think they would have let me go. (Laughter.)

Q Doesn't your family worry about you making a trip like this?

MRS. BUSH: They don't worry about me. I mean, I really don't think they do.

Q Well, I'm sure they worry about you.

MRS. BUSH: They -- Barbara and Jenna both are sorry they're not with us.

Q Mrs. Bush, I just wanted -- one last question. We were given some information about the announcements you're making while you're there. (Inaudible) be able to use that in our stories as we land --

MS. McDONOUGH: No, we're going to wait until the speech -- we're going to wait -- not the story that we land, no numbers will be in the story that we land. It will be in her deliverable speech --

Q Okay. (Inaudible) can I ask one more question?


Q Bamiyan is really known only for the destruction of the statues, and when we saw -- people saw the video of that, there were a lot of different reactions. What was your reaction when you first saw the destruction video of the statues? And are you disappointed at all that you're not going to be able to go and see them up close?

MRS. BUSH: Well, I had the option to do that, but I really didn't want to. I mean, I frankly just didn't want to see it myself, but when it happened I was -- felt very, very discouraged. I thought it was -- I mean, I think still that it's a destruction of historical magnitude, really. I mean, these -- and for it to happen in our century when we no longer -- when we read old world history and we know about marauding groups that would go into one part of the world and destroy what was there. But I think in a lot of ways we thought we were past that as a world, and come to find out we weren't.

I think it's very discouraging and in many ways I see it, like I said before, as a symbol of what the Taliban did and what al Qaeda does, which is -- even though these were statues, they represented people from a long, long time ago, that they represented the beliefs of people that lived there before. And so, in some ways, it's an inhumane destruction -- a way of destroying the past, a way of destroying what people before you thought, what they believed or what they valued. And I think it really is a representative of a sort of a destruction of civil life and cultural life and civil society that they represented.

Q We understand you will be getting a view of the -- aerial view of this.

MRS. BUSH: Well, when we fly in -- or helicopter in, yes.

Q Not a close-up.


Q Thank you, Mrs. Bush.


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