Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Laura Bush Rally for Afghan Women

Carolyn Kaster / AP Photo

WASHINGTON - Addressing the rights of Afghan women and girls, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shared the stage at Georgetown University on Friday with former first lady Laura Bush and current Secretary of State John Kerry. Afghanistan, all agreed before an audience of students snapping cellphone photos, is at a critical point in the drawdown of U.S. troops and it is crucial for the U.S. to remain engaged in the fight for the advancement of Afghan women and girls.

Acknowledging "a lot of progress," Clinton added, "But we are well aware this is a serious turning point for all the people of Afghanistan, but in particular the hard-fought gains that women and children have been able to enjoy."

Clinton, Kerry and Bush all made passionate pleas that the drawdown of U.S troops would not mean the abandonment of the work that has been made on behalf of Afghan women. Both Clinton and Bush are honorary co-chairs of the U.S-Afghan Women's Council, one of the forum's sponsors.

Global partners must work together so that women and girls "will not go back, they will not be forced back into their homes, denied education and health care, stripped away of their rights to participate in the economic and political systems of their country," Clinton said.

The George W. Bush Institute; the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security; and the Alliance in Support of the Afghan People also sponsored the event. The conversation was moderated by Melanne Verveer, executive director of the Georgetown Institute.

"Once our troops leave, the eyes of the United States will go away and we can't let that happen," Bush said. "We need to make sure they don't think we shifted our attention as well as our troops."

"I'm so worried that once our troops leave, no one will pay attention again to Afghanistan," she added.

Clinton, a possible 2016 presidential candidate, agreed. While it is an "understandable, totally human response" in the United States to think after the drawdown, "'O.K , fine, we spent all this money, we lost all these brave men and women, we ran into a lot of problems, we are proud of what we accomplished, but we can't continue at that rate.' And we have to be prepared to make the case why we don't have a choice to continue, in some form and fashion, what has worked."

The issue is an important one to Clinton and her family's organization, the Clinton Foundation, recently launched a new effort to empower women throughout the world.

U.S. combat forces are scheduled to leave Afghanistan at the end of 2014 and the two countries are negotiating a security agreement that will determine whether the U.S. leaves in place a small combat force after next year to train and advise the Afghans. Clinton said the next two weeks will be a critical time in the future security of Afghanistan and while she called President Hamid Karzai a "friend," she hopes "he will reach in the next two weeks an agreement with the United States on a bilateral security agreement."

"It is an absolute requirement that our troops be given immunity from local arrest and prosecution," Clinton said, before reminding the audience of students, professors and other dignitaries in Georgetown's Gaston Hall that an agreement on immunity was not reached with Iraq before U.S. forces departed and that country has been "descending into a cycle of terrible violence."

"I understand President Karzai's sensitivity to this," Clinton said. "It doesn't mean the United States will be there in great numbers, it means we will be available to help support the security forces of Afghanistan."

As Kerry did as well, Clinton noted the upcoming elections in Afghanistan are critical, saying our country needs to "continue to make the case to the leadership of Afghanistan that all the sacrifice and the decades of war and conflict that have ravaged their country could be for naught if we don't have a unified consensus about what must happen going forward."

Calling the "anxiety" he heard among Afghan women he met "palpable," Kerry said, "As we think about the future, we are mindful of the challenges that Afghan women continue to face. This is a critical moment, many of the women I met share very legitimate concerns that the gains of the past decade could be lost."

"We remember too well the difficulties, the difficult history that led to the decades of war in Afghanistan, we know the costs of walking away. Believe me, Afghan women know the costs because they have always paid the steepest price," Kerry said.

Kerry called ending violence against women in the country "not just a challenge for the moment" but a "generational challenge."

"We all know the single most important milestone in the next year is the peaceful transfer of power from President Karzai to a democratically elected successor," added the secretary of state. "The elections have to be on time, they have to be accountable, transparent, free, and fair."

The event did have some lighter moments. Kerry gave some tips to the male students in the audience, where former President Bill Clinton also attended.

"For all the men…who sat in or who sit in classrooms where Bill Clinton sat so many years ago, my advice to you is this: Study hard, go to Oxford, become governor of your state, and then maybe you can marry one of the country's remarkable secretaries of state," he quipped to laughs from the crowd.