Urging the world to "stand more strongly with Afghanistan," first lady Laura Bush visited remote Bamiyan province, where the Taliban regime prompted international outrage by destroying two giant Buddhist statues in 2001.
"We have seen a resurgence of Taliban and al Qaeda killings and kidnappings in Afghanistan," Bush told ABC News in an exclusive interview aboard the Air Force jet she flew from Washington to Afghanistan. "I don't want people to think it means we need to give up. I think it just means we really need to stand more strongly with Afghanistan."
Bush has made support for Afghanistan's women -- who endured brutal repression under the Taliban regime -- one of her signature issues. This is her third trip here, the second traveling alone, without the president. Previously, no first lady had ever stepped foot in Afghanistan.
The first lady's trip to Bamiyan Province is rich in symbolism. Dirt poor and remote, Bamiyan became a symbol of the Taliban's backwardness and senseless brutality when two enormous Buddhist statues were blown up in March 2001 by Taliban militiamen.
The statues, which were destroyed under an edict to remove the "gods of the infidels," had stood for more than 1500 years and were considered among the world's greatest ancient cultural treasures.
"It's a destruction of historical magnitude," Laura Bush said. "I see it as a symbol of what the Taliban did and what al Qaeda does. [It was] a way of destroying the past, a way of destroying what people before you thought or what they believed or what they liked and I think it really is representative of a sort of destruction of civil life, cultural life, civil society that they represented."
Today Bamiyan is a different kind of symbol: Governor Habiba Sarabi is the first woman governor in Afghanistan's history. Bamiyan remains one of Afghanistan's poorest provinces -- underdeveloped even by Afghanistan's standards, but there has been progress here. Under the Taliban in 2001, there were few schools here and virtually no female students. Now government officials say 38,000 girls attending Bamiyan's schools, 45 percent of the total.
Bush is in Afghanistan at a time when President Hamid Karzai is facing criticism for not taking strong enough action against drug lords, war lords and government corruption.
Former NATO commander Gen. James Jones (ret), for example, expressed a widely held view when he recently told the New York Times, "The Karzai government, which is benefiting so much from the sacrifice, in both treasure and lives, by so many countries, needs to show more willingness to meet the expectations of the international community."
For her part, the first lady defended Karzai as "very popular" in Afghanistan.
"I think its undermining, frankly, to blame him for a lot of things that may or may not be his fault. He inherited, just by becoming president, a country that had been totally devastated," Bush said. "It's very, very difficult when you when you have al Qaeda and the Taliban all on your border and making incursions."
Due to security concerns, Bush's trip was shrouded with secrecy. President Karzai wasn't even told of her plans until about 24 hours before her arrival, and the small group of reporters traveling with her were sworn to secrecy until she landed.