Interview on NBC Today Show With Katie CouricPaula J. Dobriansky,
Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs and Karen Hughes, Adviser to the President
January 24, 2003
KATIE COURIC: Earlier this month, a high-level delegation of Americans went to Kabul to convene the first meeting of the U.S.- Afghan Women's Council to be held in Afghanistan.
Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky led the American group, which included Adviser to the President Karen Hughes, who was an emissary of President Bush and a symbol of his personal commitment to the people of Afghanistan. The focus of this trip was improving life for Afghan women.
Undersecretary Dobriansky and Karen Hughes will brief the president on their trip today, and they join us this morning.
Good morning to both of you.
MS. DOBRIANSKY: Good morning.
MS. HUGHES: Good morning, Katie.
QUESTION: Karen, let me start with you, if I could. What were your impressions of Afghanistan?
MS. HUGHES: Well, Katie, first of all, the need was even greater than I could have possibly imagined. We saw people hungry, people waiting in long, long lines for quilts because they had no heat, no running water, no toilets. The need is just tremendous.
But at the same time, there's a great sense of possibility, of literally -- we called it hope in the midst of ruins. We saw schools that had been ruined, a high school, and on the first floor there were 50 families or so living there with no heat, no water, no amenities.
And on the first floor there was a world program, supported by the United States, teaching young girls to read and write. And so we saw this great sense of possibility. And literally you get a great feeling that the nation is being reborn.
QUESTION: What is the biggest challenge, do you think, right now in Afghanistan in terms of moving forward and accomplishing some of those possibilities?
MS. DOBRIANSKY: I would say that the biggest challenge is moving forward on the rebuilding and reconstruction of Afghanistan, and at the same time, providing humanitarian assistance. And this means not only for women of Afghanistan but men, children, all of the people, and really moving forward aggressively on both tracks.
QUESTION: Is that why the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council was formed in the first place?
MS. DOBRIANSKY: Well, the council was formed in the first place by President Bush and President Karzai to bring together both the public and private sector to try to work on initiatives that would benefit women and to try to tap into the kind of response in the American public that has emerged to come forward and to do what it can to help the Afghan women.
MS. HUGHES: I think we have to realize that women there were virtually prisoners in their home for so many years that it's very hard for them to realize that life has changed. And we still found a great deal of fear. I think there's still a lot of concern about security there.
I was surprised to see so many women on the streets still wearing burkas. And obviously our culture is different from Afghanistan's, and if that's a matter of their choice, we respect that choice. But as I said that in Afghanistan, I saw a number of women in the back of the room shaking their heads no. It really wasn't a matter of choice. They're still fearful.
And I noticed that when the one man in our delegation would come into the room, some of the women who had taken the veils off of their faces would cover back up. And so I think there's still a great deal of fear.
And everywhere we went, there was a great feeling of gratitude. People asked me to thank America, to thank the president, to thank our citizens, but also to make sure that we stayed there, because there's a lot of fear that Afghanistan could slide back into chaos.
QUESTION: Well, I was going to ask you, Karen, if there's a great deal of fear, what is it about? Is it about the possibility of the Taliban taking hold on Afghanistan? Are there still sort of members of the Taliban that are sort of rag-tag teams of thugs that are threatening these women?
MS. HUGHES: Well, as your report just showed -- and I think that's much more the case outside of Kabul than inside of Kabul -- the situation in Kabul, we felt, was relatively secure. But outside, in the countryside, there still are gangs of thugs. There may still be some remnants of the al Qaeda organization. And that's one of the priorities of the central government is to start to move some of the operations and some of the aid workers outside of Kabul so that people out in the countryside get a greater feeling of security.
MS. DOBRIANSKY: And not only aid workers. As we discussed during the council meeting, we announced $2.5 million, which would be provided through the U.S. Agency for International Development, to create 14 women resource centers. And these centers would not be in Kabul but they would be in the 14 provinces outside of Kabul. There are some 32 provinces. And the point is to get out of Kabul and to try to reach out to those women in rural areas.
QUESTION: Will these provide medical care? Because we heard so much about how atrocious the medical care for women was in Afghanistan. Has that improved?
MS. DOBRIANSKY: No, the situation in terms of health across the board is a very grave one and one in which we must be vigilant. For example, we work with UNICEF. There have been significant immunization campaigns of children, at the same time in terms of women who want to bear children. The maternity deaths is very high. We have to work at it.
USAID has contributed significant monies to the building of health clinics, not just in Kabul but throughout the area. These women resource centers, though, by the way, will not only assist in the area of health care, but also will provide particularly help in the area of education, making women aware not only of their rights but also helping them in the area of health, helping them and training them professionally across the board.
QUESTION: Does it ever feel like it's never going to be enough money, though, to fully rebuild this country, to change the culture in this country or at least some of the institutions and traditions that have repressed women for so long? I mean, Karen, does it just seem almost unsurmountable at times?
MS. HUGHES: Well, actually, you know, I had the opposite feeling, Katie. I was impressed by how effectively the money that is being sent there is being spent.
For example, we saw a couple of places; the widows' bakery, where money that is being sent from around the world and from the United States is being used to employ widows who otherwise would not have work or an ability to support their families. Those widows are making bread, which in turn is given or sold at a very low price to the very neediest families, who otherwise would go hungry.
We saw also a quilt project. In fact, they took off the wall a piece of one of the quilts they had made and asked me to present it to the president, which Paula and I did yesterday afternoon, a project where women are being paid in U.S. dollars. It's about a dollar a quilt. But those women are able to get the gratification of helping to do something to support their families. They come in, they're paid for those quilts, and then the quilts are distributed free of charge to families who don't have shelter.
And so I think what we saw was that the aid that is being spent is being spent very effectively.
QUESTION: And possibly changing the mentality as well. I can't let you go, Karen, without asking you a couple of quick questions, because I know you're still a close adviser to President Bush, despite the fact that you moved back to your home state of Texas. His approval rating, while still certainly high from an historical standpoint, has dropped from 88 percent to 54 percent, according to NBC/Wall Street Journal's most recent poll. To what do you attribute that dramatic drop?
MS. HUGHES: Well, Katie, first of all, I tend to look at the other side of that. I would say that a president who came into office two years ago, after one of the closest elections in the history of our country, has very strong support.
I saw this morning a poll that showed close to 60 percent approval for the job he is doing. I think that's very strong support, both by historical standards and given the fact that he did come through such a close election. I think President Bush has very deep and strong and continued support of the American people.
These are challenging times; there's no doubt of that. And that's one of the things the president is going to talk about in his State of the Union, I think, challenging both here at home, where the president is working to get the economy moving -- as you know, we've been through a recession; we're now back to growth, but it's not strong enough, and the president won't be satisfied until more Americans can find jobs -- and also challenging times in the world. And I think people appreciate the president's strong leadership as he leads us to confront the new security challenges we face around the world.
QUESTION: I know you're helping him with his State of the Union address. We only have a few seconds left. But how are you advising him? Obviously he needs to make a better, more effective case to the American people and to the world about why military action against Iraq is necessary now.
MS. HUGHES: Well, I think he will address, as I said, challenges both here at home about strengthening our economy and providing prescription drugs for our senior citizens and improving health care and education, but he will also address the threats in the world.
And I think one thing, Katie, is increasingly clear. The world has said -- President Bush went to the United Nations. The United Nations Security Council, with a unanimous resolution, said that Saddam Hussein must disarm.
We have seen what's happened when countries want to disarm, when they willingly disarm. They bring inspectors to sites. They turn over their weapons. They allow inspectors to verify that they are, in fact, destroying their weapons of mass destruction. We have seen nothing like that in Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
QUESTION: And certainly I imagine President Bush will be talking about that in his State of the Union as well. Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky and Karen Hughes, thank you both so much for talking with us this morning. We appreciate your time.
MS. DOBRIANSKY: Thank you.
MS. HUGHES: Thank you, Katie.
Released on January 27, 2003