BAMIYAN, Afghanistan - 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.
Mrs. 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," Mrs. 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 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.
Mrs. Bush is spending 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. Mrs. 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-Qaida 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," Mrs. 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 $12 billion to $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,'" Mrs. Bush said.
"It's more important than ever for the international community to continue to support Afghanistan - certainly for the U.S. to continue to support Afghanistan - because we don't want it to be the way it was when the Buddhas were destroyed."
Mrs. Bush is 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. Her stop-off in Afghanistan goes along with the president's effort to convince European leaders that they have a keen interest in the future of Afghanistan.
The administration worries that Europe may not comprehend the magnitude of the threat that radical elements in Afghanistan pose to European security. The U.S. wants European nations to not only supply additional military assistance to Afghanistan, but also pledge more money to build up the country wrecked by years of war.
"It's very important for the international community to redouble their efforts so that the word gets out to the people of Afghanistan that the rest of the world is with you and that we're not going to leave you right now while the Taliban and al-Qaida are trying to intimidate you," Mrs. Bush said.