(WASHINGTON) -- Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shared the stage with former first lady Laura Bush on Friday, along with Secretary of State John Kerry, and all said Afghanistan was at a critical point amid the drawdown of U.S. troops, stressing that it’s crucial that America remains engaged in the fight for the advancement of Afghan women and girls.
“We can point to a lot of progress,” Clinton said at the forum at Georgetown University. “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 and what we can do as Americans to try and support these courageous women and men who want to build the Afghanistan they imagine.”
Clinton, Kerry and Bush all made passionate pleas that the drawdown of U.S troops not mean the abandonment of the work that has been done on behalf of Afghan women. Both Clinton and Bush are honorary co-chairs of the U.S-Afghan Women’s Council. Clinton said working with global partners and like-minded groups can “keep that hope and promise alive to women and girls in Afghanistan.”
“That they will not go back, they will not be forced back into their homes, denied education and health care, stripped away their rights to participate in the economic and political systems of their country,” Clinton said to the excited students who eagerly took photos of her with their cell phones.
The George W. Bush Institute was also a sponsor of the event, along with the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security and Bush said it is “very, very important that we continue to support all the programs that were built over the last ten years in Afghanistan.”
The two former first ladies spoke as part of a conversation moderated by Melanne Verveer, the Executive Director of the Georgetown Institute, and Bush said it is was critical “to work with our congressman and women to make sure Afghanistan stays in the forefront, that people do pay attention to it.”
“Once our troops leave, the eyes of the United States will go away and we can’t let that happen,” Bush, seated next to Clinton, said. “We need to make sure they don’t think we shifted our attention as well as our troops.“
Bush added: “I’m so worried that once our troops leave, nobody will pay attention to Afghanistan.”
Clinton, a top possible 2016 presidential candidate, agreed, saying we “need to keep this issue at the forefront” and while it is an “understandable, totally human response” in the United States to think, “‘OK, 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, which 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 inside Georgetown’s Gaston Hall that an agreement on immunity could not be reached with Iraq before U.S. forces departed and the 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.”
Clinton called it a “difficult decision,” but it “has to be thought through carefully because security is paramount.”
As Kerry did, 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 consensus about what must happen going forward, security is key, so are the elections…those elections will determine if there can be a peaceful transfer of power.”
Kerry also touted the progress not only Afghan women and girls have made over the past 10 years, but also the country as a whole, calling it “remarkable,” but cautioning “it will be more than a tragedy if the world ever allowed this progress to be threatened.”
“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,” Kerry said. “The truth is their anxiety that I hear… is palpable.”
Kerry added that “despite the significant achievements of Afghan women and girls, many challenges still remain.”
“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. “As Afghanistan sees women standing up in Afghanistan to take control of their county’s future not only for themselves, but for all Afghans, we have to be determined they will not stand alone. America will stand up with them as they shape a strong and united Afghanistan…that is why America’s relationship with Afghans is changing, it’s not ending.”
Kerry called ending violence against women in the country “not just a challenge for the moment” but a “generational challenge.”
“We have spent a great deal of blood and treasure in Afghanistan and that makes even greater our obligation to get this right,” said Kerry. “Yes, there are challenges ahead, for sure the transition will be difficult, but without question there is a world of possibilities staring at us in the face…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. The elections have to be on time, they have to be accountable, transparent, free, and fair.”
The event did have some light moments. Kerry gave some tips to the male students in the audience, at the school that 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.
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