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A Democratic Stable South and Central Asia

Richard Boucher, Assistant Secretary
Interview With Department Spokesman Sean McCormack
Washington, DC
April 2, 2008

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MR. MCCORMACK: Assistant Secretary Richard Boucher, thanks very much for joining us this morning.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Good to be here today.

MR. MCCORMACK: I want to talk a lot about Afghanistan, because that’s in the news. At the NATO summit, they’re talking about Afghanistan quite a bit. But let me just start off with a question about Pakistan. You were recently there with Deputy Secretary Negroponte.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Yeah.

MR. MCCORMACK: How did you find the new political leadership in terms of our overlapping interests, you know, seeing a democratic, stable Pakistan that’s fighting terrorism?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think they’re interested in the same things we are. They want to build on democracy, they want to build the institutions. They want to deal with the economic problems and they want to deal with the terrorist problem. I think the most important thing that we heard was people telling us and telling the public this is our problem. Pakistanis see it as their problem that they have to deal with. And they’re going to have a discussion, a democratic debate in their parliament. They’re going to work out how they want to proceed. They’re going to talk to their own army of people about how they can proceed. So there’s a bit of settling in to be done. But I think basically, they take the same approach as we do. That’s a multifaceted approach that says to deal with extremism in Pakistan, you’ve got to do everything from improving the education system to fighting the bad guys. And that’s the kind of approach they have to work out and they are -- always seem to be wanting to work out.

MR. MCCORMACK: So that’s a little bit different than some of the focus on the media where they were talking about talking to these violent extremists.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: And they are going to talk to them, I mean, but they’re going to talk to the tribes to try to get the tribes on their side against the extremists. And let’s face it, this is not just a military problem. We’ve always said and the Pakistani Government has always said you need to have a political context for people to reach peace, you have to have an economic context for the – to get people jobs instead of guns. And you have to have military context because there’s some horribly dangerous bad guys up there that we need to deal with militarily.

So we don’t have anything against the political context, but people have to be clear: You can’t do the politics without the military side or the economics; and you can’t do the military side without a political context. So I think that’s what they’ve got to do is figure out how these pieces fit together and how to proceed.

MR. MCCORMACK: Let’s move a little bit to the northwest and talk about Afghanistan. Let me start with a very broad question about the integration of our political, economic and military efforts where we are and where NATO is in the southeast as well as down in the south. How do you view those efforts? What’s the trend line here?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think the trend line is positive. You can never just kind of rest on your laurels on these things. There’s a lot to do in Afghanistan. There’s serious challenges of corruption and governance in narcotics and the Taliban. But the chief obstacle to stability is that the government hasn’t been able to extend itself out and provide safety and justice and opportunity to the people in the districts. Where we’ve been able to do that in certain provinces and areas of Afghanistan, it’s been able to stabilize. I visited the various provinces, the Provincial Reconstruction Teams we’ve got. Konar Valley used to be a chief place of insurgency. We’ve built a road up there now. We’re doing projects with the new governor. They’re talking about internet cafes and gas stations along the – in the valley, not insurgents.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: So it can be done. Former UN Ambassador Dick Holbrooke just had an op-ed piece about Khost, another province where we’re seeing the same things take hold. So the issue is how much can we do that and how can we do it in the tough, tough bases in the south where they’re still fighting. Everybody understands it, but the NATO catchphrase is “comprehensive approach.” And then you’ll see that phrase coming out of the Bucharest summit this week. But actually doing it on the ground is hard and we’re in there. We’re in there with our aid people, with our State Department people and with our Marines and our army guys who are able to do this comprehensively. And I think we’re trying to work with allies so that they can integrate their efforts better and we can all integrate our efforts better, so that we come into a place, with military force; the Afghan Government has policemen to go in behind it. We have aid programs to go in behind that. The Afghan Government has administrators to go in behind that. And those are the things that stabilize district by district, stabilize Afghanistan.

MR. MCCORMACK: Just so people understand, what’s the breakdown, the – or the division of labor geographically in terms of the United States effort and the NATO effort? And how do those – what’s the mechanism for coordinating the efforts between those different sectors?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Well, there’s two big commands. One is Operation Enduring Freedom. It’s largely U.S., has some other partners in it. And then the other one is the ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force, which is composed around NATO. We are heavily the Enduring Freedom side, and we’re a big part of ISAF, the NATO side as well.

The coordination is through the command structure in Kabul. It’s all coordinated also with the Afghan Government. Coordination can always be better. I think one of the things we’re looking at across the board this year is how to improve coordination between the forces, as well as between the aid effort and the military effort and with the Afghan Government.

But in the parts of the country like the eastern part of the country, it’s largely U.S. forces. And I’d say that’s where we’ve been able to show what works and what can have success. And now we’re going to have some of those methods work in the south. Some of our allies have been – the Brits and others, Canadians -- have been down in the south, trying these things, doing these things. We’re going to get some Marines there in the upcoming seven months and there may be some other forces going in. We’ll see what’s announced in Bucharest. But I think, in the end, everybody is trying to do the same thing and we can all share experiences about how to do it well.

MR. MCCORMACK: There’s been a recent announcement about a high-level political official who would work as the Secretary General's personal representative in Afghanistan. Kai Eide has agreed to take the job on. What is his role going to be and how does he relate, for example, to our Ambassador on the ground and our military commander for Operation Enduring Freedom, and how does he relate to that NATO commander?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Yeah. His role is to coordinate the international civilian effort. He's the senior international civilian. And we've all sort of pledged our support and our respect for him in that regard, so that what we do will be coordinated with him and through him with the other donors. He's going to run a series of committees in Kabul that have all the donors getting together so when we look, say, at the electricity sector, we know who's doing a hydro dam and who's building the gas plant and who's doing the transition lines, and we can make sure it all fits together.

MR. MCCORMACK: So geographically, there's a rational distribution --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: So there's --

MR. MCCORMACK: -- of aid and --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Exactly.

MR. MCCORMACK: -- there's not an overlap.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Exactly. Now, the other thing that he can do by being the senior international civilian, is you can -- think about it in three pieces. One is the military effort that's led by the NATO commander, General McNeill right now, going to be replaced over the summer. The international civilian effort led by the UN Rep Kai Eide. And then the Afghan, the governance effort led by the Afghan President, President Karzai. And all of this really in support of the Afghan Government. So now that we've have -- we've got three figures who can coordinate, who can do a joint civil-military planning for Afghanistan, who can do a coordinated strategy for Afghanistan, who can work on the ground to make sure that all the pieces fit together properly, and that's the goal. That's one of the goals of having a senior civilian that can fit into that effort with the other two.

MR. MCCORMACK: Two last quick questions. The first one, give us a general sense of how you view the Taliban's strength currently vis-à-vis the past few years. We've seen a lot of different stories: They're attempting a resurgence, they're attempting a comeback. But what's your view of the situation on the ground, given the fact that you've been dealing with this the past few years?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: My view is that whenever there's a battle, whenever they try to take something, they lose. I mean, our forces beat them in any fight that we have. The problem is they are changing their tactics, too.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: And what they're doing is going more and more to the tactics of pure terror: the kidnappings, the bombings. Now, that in some ways turns the population against them, but it also intimidates the population.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: And it's also -- frankly, it's very hard to stop. You can set off a bomb in some place where you couldn't bring a substantial force.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: So you've seen a spread of the bombings. You've seen a bit of -- more of the fear in the population feeling an insecurity. To counter that, you need to establish this firm government presence. You need to provide people with safety. And so I think as NATO and ISAF, as we spread out our forces, as we train more Afghan forces, bring in more policemen and bring in more good governance, that's -- that kind of stability, providing safety for ordinary Afghans, that's what's going to beat the Taliban in the long run.

But last year, I mean, they failed. They failed -- they set out to acquire towns and territory. They couldn't do it. They set out to -- for a spring offensive that never happened. They talked about a summer offensive that never happened. Because we countered them successfully. And I think we're going to do that again this year. So I'm not so much worried about the military situation, about them sort of running us out of town or taking something over. What I'm worried about is they've shown they can kill themselves and kill other people in the process, and you just have to keep at that in providing that basic framework of stability for the whole country if you're going to get -- in the end, if you're going to get at the bombing problem.

MR. MCCORMACK: So we basically -- we have to fight an effective countrywide counter-insurgency program?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Yeah. We've got to establish governance -- government countrywide if you're ever going to stop with the bombs.

MR. MCCORMACK: One last question, turning towards poppy production, narcotics. What's the story there? What is our story over the past few years and where do we stand?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: The story is we've been able to eliminate it or reduce it drastically in the northwest and now east of the country. And if you look at the UN maps of where the poppy's being grown, it's more and more concentrated down in the south. Their preliminary estimates for this year is that it will be down a little bit from last year. We're trying to make it more, down a little bit, which is good. It's not an increase. We had a 34 percent increase last year.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: But it's still at a horribly high level. So what the story really is is where there is insurgency, there’s poppy. The poppy and the insurgents feed off each other.

MR. MCCORMACK: So there's a link between terror/insurgency and poppy growing?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Yeah. The Taliban tax it. Last year, they let their fighters off for the month of May to go harvest poppy. I mean, it's a symbiotic relationship --

MR. MCCORMACK: Right.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: -- they've got with the poppy growers and some of the large corrupt landowners who grow poppy. What we've shown is where the government takes control and you can carry out effective counter-narcotics programs and you can give people effective means of rural development of earning a different livelihood. So, in part, you have to establish that government control, but you also need to carry out significant counter-narcotics programs. We're going to keep doing that. We're going to keep pushing that at both fronts: establish control, carry out the antidrug programs. And I think we've got to be as determined as anybody, but the Afghan Government's got to be as determined, too, to get at the poppy problem. And we're keeping -- constantly working on new ways of getting at it.

MR. MCCORMACK: Okay. Well, we're out of time. Richard, thanks so much for joining us. I hope we can have you back.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: It's good to talk to you. It's nice to be down here in the Foggy Bottom Café with you. (Laughter.)

MR. MCCORMACK: Likewise.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Okay, thanks a lot.



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