By Jill Dougherty
Washington (CNN) – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Wednesday delivered a stern rebuke to the Taliban, who say they are stopping peace negotiations with the United States.
"What the Taliban do is up to them," Clinton said Wednesday at the State Department after a meeting with Afghanistan's Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul. "We have been clear we are prepared to continue discussions, and our goal is to open the door so that Afghans can be negotiating among and between themselves."
"We are not stopping our efforts to support the security of Afghanistan while we try to see whether there is an opportunity for negotiations. So, really, at this point, the choice is up to them."
"Reconciliation," which also is supposed to include the Afghan government in what the U.S. calls an "Afghan-led, Afghan-owned" process, "is going to be a very long-term process...there's nothing quick or easy about it," Clinton told reporters.
After her meeting with the Afghan foreign minister, Clinton joined a luncheon celebrating the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council, founded in 2002 by former U.S. President George W. Bush and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
There was a special guest: the council's honorary adviser, former first lady Laura Bush, who has been a strong supporter of the council since the beginning and now serves as honorary adviser.
Seated at the head table, Clinton and Bush chatted animatedly but, in their remarks, both warned there is danger that the significant progress in supporting women's rights in Afghanistan since 2002 could be eroded.
"Any peace that is attempted to be made by excluding more than half the population is no peace at all. It is a figment that will not last," Clinton said, to strong applause.
Afghan women, she said, are "closely watching ... a potential reconciliation," she said. Many are worried that, at the end, whatever peace negotiations might occur, their rights might be rolled back. "We cannot and will not let that happen."
Both women highlighted progress: A decade ago life expectancy for women in Afghanistan was just 44 years; now it's 62. Almost no girls went to school; now 3 million do. Infant mortality rates have declined significantly. More Afghan children are living past their fifth birthday than at any time in Afghan history. Afghanistan is now home to more than 200 businesses owned by women, and women constitute 35 percent of the work force.
But, Bush warned: "While these signs of progress are encouraging, serious challenges remain. Women's involvement in Afghanistan's peace process has been limited. Recent statements made by the mullahs would severely limit women's ability to work outside the home. And there are some who still seek to silence women through intimidation and violence."
Both Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush say the most important task now for Afghan women is to protect the progress they have made and expand it. But Foreign Minister Rassoul, too, had a sober assessment: "Afghan women continue to suffer terrible violence," he said. "The gains are fragile."
A young Afghan woman agreed, telling the audience "We still have a long way to go."