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Laura Bush's Afghan Visit Touts Progress

U.S. first lady Laura Bush, left, gestures during a joint press conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan on Sunday, June 8, 2008. (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq)
AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq
First lady Laura Bush, on a mission to highlight signs of rebirth in war-weary Afghanistan, ventured outside of Kabul on Sunday to an area that symbolizes both the destruction of war and Afghanistan's attempt at rebirth.

Bush, on her third unannounced visit to the country, flew into the Afghan capital then immediately boarded a helicopter for a 50-minute flight to Bamiyan province, the farthest she has traveled from Kabul.

Her chopper touched down in a dusty field at a provincial reconstruction team compound operated by New Zealand. From there she could see the empty niches in a cliffside where two giant Buddha statues once stood.

They were carved into the sandstone cliffs more than 2,000 years ago, but were demolished by the Taliban, which considered them idolatrous and anti-Muslim, in March 2001. Destruction of the historical and cultural treasures prompted an outcry from the international community.

The first lady's visit comes 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. Afghanistan was ruled by the repressive Taliban until U.S. forces invaded following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"The people of Afghanistan don't want to go back and live like that," 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 George W. Bush, in an interview in Washington on Friday with RAI TV of Italy, said bluntly, "Afghanistan is broke."

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.

Bush spent 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.

President Bush has defended Karzai against critics who say his government is weak and isn't doing enough to battle corruption and drug trafficking. Laura Bush said the U.S. and other nations should not blame Karzai unless they are going to give him credit for all the progress that's being made.

"It's really not that fair," she said. "I think it's undermining, frankly, to blame him for a lot of the things that may or may not be his fault. He inherited - just by becoming president - a country that's been totally devastated. It is very, very difficult when you have al Qaeda and Taliban all over the borders and making incursions into Afghanistan, and it's intimidating for everyone."

The first lady's trip is more sharply focused on hopeful signs of progress.

She met with female trainees at Afghanistan's National Police Bamiyan Regional Training Center. She celebrated the construction of a paved road that is linking up the Bamiyan airport with its bazaar and town center and went to a learning center under construction that will double as an orphanage.

Several dozen future students, all school-age children in traditional white scarfs, sang to the first lady at the center, a project 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.

"Of course we want more girls in school and I think that's really key to the success of Afghanistan," Bush said. "There's a huge increase in the number of kids in school. There are almost 6 million kids in school now compared to 2001 when there were maybe a million, but no girls."

Mrs. Bush is addressing the donors conference Thursday in Paris. France, the host of the gathering, has set a goal of raising US$12 billion to US$15 billion to fund Afghan reconstruction projects through 2014. The United States is looking to contribute about a quarter of that.

International donors have pledged about $32.7 billion in reconstruction funds for Afghanistan since 2001, of which $21 billion has come from the United States.

"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,'" Bush said.

Bush was spending about nine hours in Afghanistan before flying to Slovenia, where she'll meet up with President Bush on Monday for his final U.S.-European Union summit.


Afghan Insurgents Attack Convoy, Kill 11 Police

Insurgents attacked a police convoy in central Afghanistan on Sunday, killing 11 police and wounding one, an official said.

Around the same time, a clash in the same region left one Taliban insurgent dead and wounded two others, police said.

The convoy attack occurred in the Qarabagh district of Ghazni province, said the province's deputy governor, Kazim Allayar. He said at least three police vehicles were destroyed.

No information was immediately available on whether any insurgents were killed.

The clash between the police and insurgents occurred in the Mullah No area of the province.

Dowlat Khan, a local police commander, confirmed the casualties.

Militant fighters the last two years have stepped up attacks on Afghanistan's fledgling police, who have little training and weaponry. Last year more than 900 police were killed in militant attacks.

Also Sunday, a bomb exploded about 150 yards from a U.N. office in eastern Afghanistan, wounding two people, officials said.

Gen. Mohammad Ayub, the provincial police chief of Khost province, said a man carrying the explosives intended to put them under a bridge but they detonated early. The attacker survived but was in serious condition in the hospital. A woman passing by was wounded.

Aleem Siddique, a spokesman for the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, said it was too early to conclude that the U.N. building in Khost city was deliberately targeted.


Canadian Soldier Dies After Falling Into Afghan Well On Night Patrol

A Canadian soldier, who encouraged his comrades to treat all Afghans with tolerance and respect, died Saturday after falling into an open well during a night-time patrol west of Kandahar.

Capt. Jonathan Sutherland Snyder was a member of 1st Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, based in Edmonton.

He was on his second tour of Afghanistan and his third overseas deployment.

"Jon was serving as a mentor and role model to members of the Afghan National Army, and his recent leadership in the field likely saved both Canadian and Afghan lives," Brig,-Gen. Denis Thompson, the commander of Canadian troops in Afghanistan, said in a prepared statement at nearby Kandahar Airfield.

"We will not forget his sacrifice as we continue our mission to bring peace and stability to the citizens of Afghanistan."

Snyder, who was helping mentor Afghan soldiers, was on foot patrol in a field in Zhari district when he tumbled into an open well that the Afghans call a "kariz."

Those kinds of wells dot the countryside. They are often unmarked and connect to a maze of underground irrigation ditches used to soothe the parched landscape in river valleys.

Thompson estimates the well Snyder was trapped in may have been as much as 20 meters deep.

The rest of his patrol tried desperately to extract him and they radioed for help.

"Medical, engineering and search and rescue assets were rushed to the scene, and Jon was lifted from the well," said Thompson, who spoke with members of Snyder's platoon on Sunday.

Once out of the well, Snyder was rushed to the NATO military hospital at Kandahar Airfield where he was pronounced dead.

Snyder was not married, but leaves behind a fiancee and his parents.