The Year Ahead in South and Central AsiaRichard Boucher, Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia
Foreign Press Center Briefing
April 23, 2008
1:00 P.M. EDT
MODERATOR: Good afternoon and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. We're pleased this afternoon to welcome Ambassador Richard Boucher, the Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia. Ambassador Boucher is on a tight schedule today, so he'll make some comments and then he'll take your questions. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR BOUCHER: Thank you. It's a pleasure to come over here and I've seen many of you over on my side of town, but I thought I'd come over here and --
QUESTION: The microphone.
AMBASSADOR BOUCHER: Somebody tell me about this thing - anyway, I thought I'd come over here and do the look-ahead for 2008. And by the time I got over here, it was already one-third of the way through 2008, so we can talk about the whole year and the half-year and the - anyway, what's to come.
But I wanted to make a few comments in the beginning. And in a way, it's good that it took me so long to get over here because a lot of what we're going to do this year, what we're dealing with this year has to do with what's happened in the last few months. And I think there's a new sense of momentum and a new sense of energy in a lot of parts of this region, of South and Central Asia, and a lot of new opportunities have opened up, particularly because of some of the things that happened in the early part of this year.
We've had an election in Pakistan. It's a successful transition to a democratic government. As we said before the election, we hope the election produced - would produce a democratic government with a strong moderate center and indeed, they formed a coalition of centrist parties. And everybody there, I think, is looking at how to move forward as a modern society and to encourage moderation and have a stable basis themselves to fight the extremism and the terrorism that afflicts Pakistan as well as the neighborhood and the world beyond. I think one of the most key things that I keep hearing from Pakistanis in the new government is they understand this is their struggle, this is their war, and that they want to approach it using all possible means, which means providing people with better opportunity and education, but also using force when necessary.
The democratic transformation in Pakistan offers us, I think, a clear opportunity, and we ourselves in the United States Government are talking to the new government and looking ourselves at how we can be more engaged in this sort of broad-based approach to, you might say, modernizing Pakistan, stabilizing Pakistan.
We've also had a very significant meeting on Afghanistan with our NATO and ISAF partners in Bucharest, where you heard from the international community a strong long term commitment, again, broad-based using all available tools and means to bring stability to Afghanistan. And we've had one of the appointments that I think sort of reflects where I'd like to see the effort concentrate this year, and that's the appointment of Kai Eide as the new Special Representative for the UN Secretary General for Afghanistan.
He's already been out in Afghanistan. He'll be visiting Washington next week. We'll have a chance to talk to him further, but one of the really important efforts this year is to better coordinate all aspects of the effort in Afghanistan, is to improve and concentrate - improve the coordination and concentrate the effort so that, particularly, when you get down to district level in Afghanistan, if you can bring in military forces necessary to deal with the bad guys, the insurgents; then you need to bring in good governance, you need to bring in police, you need to bring in small projects, you need to talk to the people in the tribes who were there, you need to start connecting them to the national grid, the electronics, the electrical system connecting them to the road system.
And so, a real opportunity there, I think, if we can coordinate well, that's what brings stability. Extending the government, extending the capabilities of the government into the districts is what brings real stability in Afghanistan. And so appointment of Kai Eide as a better coordinator for the international community, I think, is also a sign of our intention to coordinate all these efforts between ISAF, between the UN, between the donors, and between the Afghan Government.
Elsewhere in the region, we've had another successful election in Nepal that brings with it a series of questions for us that we're working our way through, but we're seeing the results come out now. But by and large, I think the observers said it was a good - a good election and one that we hope will be - produce a better future for the people of Nepal. We've had a very good election in Bhutan, for those of you who are watching, completing a transformation they started a couple years ago to a democratic form of government.
So I think there's a lot going on. India, there still is a strong sense of momentum in the relationship because there's so many areas of cooperation, of business and science and academia and students and families, even though some things like the nuclear deal are slowed down as we await the outcome of the political process in India. So I think we're still working very hard on a lot of different aspects of this relationship and hope to be able to work hard on the Civil Nuclear Agreement when the Indians say the time has come to move forward again.
And don't forget about Central Asia. We've had, I think, a series of very good visits. I was out in Kazakhstan to talk to them about developing public-private partnerships, about expanding our economic ties, and helping them carry through on their commitments as they prepare for chairmanship of the OSCE in 2010. That's a very important project. They've called - President Nazarbayev has called for entering on the path to Europe, which, as you all know from your experience elsewhere, involves a lot of modernization, standardization of laws and society. We do hope they'll follow that path and we'll intend to support them.
This week, we've got our Under Secretary for Economic Affairs Reuben Jeffery out in Turkmenistan. And he's heading very good discussions across the board on the relationship as it evolves with Turkmenistan. I think, again, we've seen a lot of progress there.
So, overall, as I look around a lot of places, obviously, I see the many, many challenges: corruption everywhere, narcotics in Afghanistan. I can go through the list, but I'm sure you all will. So I can recognize there's a whole lot of problems to deal with, but if you look at the big picture, I think we do have a sense of energy and momentum in this region, one that presents new opportunities for all of us and we intend to work with that and work with the new people in charge and try to make things really happen for the people of the region.
So that's enough for me, be glad to take questions. I think Doris is going to help me in making sure everybody gets a fair shot.
MODERATOR: Yep. I'd just like to remind everyone to please state your name, wait for the microphone. We're on a tight schedule, so if everyone could just ask one question so that we can get to everyone and then we'll proceed. Let's go.
QUESTION: Ambassador, I'm Niharika Acharya with the Voice of America. You spoke about problems that need to be addressed. Let's talk about one that seems to have cropped up in the past two days. I'm talking about Iranian President Ahmadi-Nejad's forthcoming trip to India. Well, basically, the Indian Government seems to be stung by the U.S. suggestion that India should use this trip as an occasion to persuade Iran to end its uranium enrichment program. India's shot back saying they don't need guidance on how to conduct their bilateral affairs. Do you feel this has actually hurt rather than helped the U.S., this not-so-subtle suggestion?
AMBASSADOR BOUCHER: First of all, I think many of you might have been at Tom Casey's briefing and it was pretty subtle if you ask me. It was a lot more subtle than I used to do it when I was in - over there. So I do - don't think he was, in any way, pointing the finger at India. I do understand that people want to make their own policy and decide their own choices. I have no problem with that. I don't think this is that big an issue or that big a disagreement between us, frankly. We do - we do talk to India about Iran, as we talk to them about everything in the region and farther afield. We've actually even proposed that we have more systematic exchanges on a variety of areas of the world.
Second of all, I think our policies, as Mr. Casey expressed them, are very well known in the world. And India knows what they are as well. I do - I think we also know that India has made very clear, Prime Minister Singh has made very clear they don't want to see another nuclear weapons state in their region. Now, all those things are well known to us, so I think substantively, there's probably less of a problem than this sort of flash of media stories. But they'll have the visit and we'll see what comes out of it.
QUESTION: I could just read you the --
MODERATOR: The mike. The mike, sir.
QUESTION: Oh, I'm sorry. Barry Schweid, Associated Press. For clarity, I might as well read you the AP lead here: "Pakistan freed a pro-Taliban cleric and quickly signed an accord with his hardline group Monday, the first major step by the new government to talk peace with Islamic militants and break with President Pervez Musharraf's policy of using force."
You spoke positively of developments in Pakistan. You, I think, described them as on a path of democracy. Is this an isolated case, do you think, or can we now expect democracy to represent itself by making deals with Taliban fighters and other hardliners? Is that what the U.S. wants?
AMBASSADOR BOUCHER: You want me to rewrite the lead for you? (Laughter.) Or you just want a general comment?
QUESTION: Isn't - I want a general - he's an elderly guy, say, maybe, so it's a hard case.
AMBASSADOR BOUCHER: Okay. I mean, I'd be happy to rewrite the lead for you if you want me to and make it more accurate, but --
QUESTION: All right.
AMBASSADOR BOUCHER: -- let's not do that here. I think we understand, the Pakistani Government has always understood, that there is an element of force, there is an element of negotiation. I mean, negotiating with the tribes in this area is not something new. President Musharraf's government did it. Previous Pakistani governments did it. British governments did it. Go back as far as you can, and you find out that there's always been an element of negotiation, an element of force, an element of development. In a way, that's basic counterinsurgency 101.
If you look at how anybody's operating in those kind of situations, you see that people have to - you have to talk to people. I just spent an hour, probably an hour and a half with about 10 representatives of tribe - various tribal elders and representatives of tribes from the border areas, both the Pakistan side and the Afghan side. And the message I got from them is: Work with us, support the Jurga process, we can talk these things out, we can bring people over and we can work with you as necessary where there are violent elements that have to be dealt with.
So I think that is the approach that all of us share. The Pakistani Government is engaged in a number of discussions and negotiations right now. The release of Sufi Muhammad came as a result of one of those agreements. As far as we understand it, the agreement says that they - his group will not resort to violence, they will abandon violence, they will stop supporting violent elements and whatever they want to advocate, they will advocate peacefully. That's important. Getting the tribes on your side is important. Getting people who have been involved in violence in the past to abandon violence and take on a peaceful path is important.
Now, what's been the problem? The problem has been that many times, those deals are reached and they're not enforced, that if one side - the other side violates the agreements, the other side has - in the past, has said there will be no Taliban, there will be no al-Qaida activity around here and then that activity starts up again; who is going to deal with it? So, I think, to us, negotiations are a tactic. They're part of the whole picture. One of the keys is to have enforceable agreements, enforceable negotiations, and a willingness to make sure these things are followed.
So, I don't think there's - you know, it's not the negotiation, per se. It's not a new tactic. But it's got to be done with a way to make sure it produces results. The results are what matters. The outcome is what matters. There has to be less violent activity. There has to be an end to the al-Qaida elements who are very dangerous, who are up there plotting and planning; not so much, in this case, in the Swath Valley, but certainly in the cases of Waziristan, where there's negotiations going on. And that's the outcome that matters and everybody has to be focused on that.
QUESTION: Chidanand Rajghatta, Times of India. With the benefit of having worked for both Republican and Democratic administrations, can you give us a sense of what happens to the U.S.-India nuclear deal, under a McCain administration and Obama administration or a Hillary Clinton administration? Is there going to be continuity or rewrite?
AMBASSADOR BOUCHER: I don't know. There are a lot better political commentators around here in Washington. I don't think it is so much of a political issue, though. I think if you look at any of the major candidates and, really, both parties, there's been very strong support for the U.S.-India relationship. Look at the votes for the Hyde Act, you know, strong majorities taken from both Houses and both parties in Congress. So I think all indications are that there is a very strong support for the U.S.-India relationship and a desire to see the U.S.-India relationship move forward on a bipartisan basis with that kind of support, including in the nuclear area.
Now, what's the issue of that? Well, the issue is that the election, our election, imposes on us a certain calendar of bills that expire or people that change and outcomes that are less certain. And you have Senator Biden, I think, was really the most authoritative voice on this, who spoke when he was in India, who said, unless we can get this deal up to the Congress in June so they can deal with it in July, it's going to be really hard to get approval from the Congress. Okay, that's just a fact of life in the United States. That's the congressional calendar, and we've got to get their approval to do this. So every day that goes by, makes it harder and harder and harder to get that done. So we are, you know, still a bit worried about it all. But we're fully supportive.
As the Indians - we respect the Indian democratic process, as they work through this. They'll be the ones to tell us when it's time to go to the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency, when it's time to go to the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and when we can get it to our Congress. But, as I said, every day that goes by, makes it harder. But it's about as much as we know right now.
MODERATOR: Let's go over here first.
QUESTION: Thank you. This isArshad Mahmud, Daily Prothom Alo, Bangladesh. Nice to see you. And I'm just curious, you mentioned about most of the countries in South Asia and you didn't say a word about Bangladesh. Has it - do you think - you don't think it's important anymore or -
AMBASSADOR BOUCHER: Oh, come on now. There are 13 countries in my region.
QUESTION: Right. I know.
AMBASSADOR BOUCHER: I didn't mention all these either and that's --
QUESTION: No, but given the fact that so many things are going on --
AMBASSADOR BOUCHER: I didn't mention - I did mention Sri Lanka.
QUESTION: Yes. So many things are going on in Bangladesh. Well, the question -
AMBASSADOR BOUCHER: And I -- and I didn't say anything about - about Kyrgyzstan, so let's not go down there.
QUESTION: No. What is the current thinking of the Administration about the electoral process that's now underway in Bangladesh. And my specific question to you is, as you are aware, that Bangladesh is facing a serious food crisis. And President Bush recently announced $200 million to help the countries that are in trouble. Is there any specific plan by the United States Government to overcome this crisis in Bangladesh? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR BOUCHER: No, I thank you. And I don't want to make fun of the - not mentioning Bangladesh. I think I didn't mention Bangladesh because I don't have any good news yet. The - we just sent a new ambassador out to Bangladesh. That was very important to us to get him through the process, confirmed, and out there on the ground. As you know, Bangladesh has faced some awful problems in the last year, in addition to the whole issue of getting back to elections. And we've tried to be very helpful. We've helped a lot in the immediate aftermath of the cyclone. We brought in the Navy, we brought in assistance. We did a lot on the immediate basis.
And now we're moving into - have moved into really a rehabilitation or recovery mode, where we're doing - continuing our efforts to help the people of Bangladesh who have suffered from the cyclone. We're very aware of the food crisis. We're exploring what we can do. I don't have any specific plans yet, and I don't think we have any specific plans yet for this fund that the President created. But we are aware that Bangladesh, among other countries, have been hit pretty hard by the food problems.
I think, you know -- I need to say, as our Ambassador said, the big goal this year ought to be move from a caretaker government back to an elected government in Bangladesh. And as we watch that process unfold, we'll be very, very supportive. But it's important to do it and to do this year, because as was promised, I think the people of Bangladesh had been looking - you know, they've been quite supportive of the caretaker so far, but they've been looking for that outcome, those steps that produce, that lead back to an election, an elected government by the end of the year and that's what we'll be looking for, as well.
QUESTION: So you are hopeful the election --
AMBASSADOR BOUCHER: I'm hopeful it will be held by the end of the year, the way they promised it will be held and that's what we'll try to work with them to achieve.
MODERATOR: Let's go to Aziz and then we'll go to the young lady there.
AMBASSADOR BOUCHER: Okay.
QUESTION: Richard, Aziz Haniffa from TV Abroad. Instead of the Nixon Administration, the more immediate problem with the new deal, in terms of it being consummated in time, the Congress party chief spokesman was here last week and he made it very clear that it's the 123 Agreement to -- that they abide by and not the Hyde Agreement. You just spoke about the fact about the overwhelming work for the Hyde Amendment. How do you reconcile this? Condi Rice was up on the Hill, assuring Berman that it would be consistent with the Hyde Act. And here is the chief spokesman for the Congress party, making it very clear, no way are we going to abide by the Hyde Act, it's going to be the 123. And I know you've been asked this question before and you sort of dodged it and flubbed and -
AMBASSADOR BOUCHER: No, I didn't. I gave you a very clear answer. I'll give it to you again.
QUESTION: Okay, please.
AMBASSADOR BOUCHER: No problem. Okay, next question. (Laughter.) It is not really a problem. We don't see any inconsistency between the Hyde Act and the 123 Agreement. The requirements of U.S. law are requirements on us, for us to meet. Let's remember the essential function of the Hyde Act. The essential function of the Hyde Act is to allow this to happen, to empower us, to engender, to enable a nuclear deal with India because otherwise under U.S. law, we were prohibited from doing anything with India. And so the Hyde Act is what makes it possible for us to sign this deal. The Hyde Act is what makes it possible to conclude this agreement. So that's what we've done.
That's what the Hyde Act told us we could do and we've gone out and done that. We've done an agreement. The agreement binds the U.S. and India, once it's fully ratified and finished, but it's essentially - that's the deal between the U.S. and India. And we don't see any inconsistency between -- what we were allowed to do and required to do under the Hyde Act, was to negotiate our posture as negotiators was consistent with the Hyde Act and, therefore, we think that the deal that we negotiated is consistent with the Hyde Act. But what binds India and the United States together is the 123 Agreement, not the act.
MODERATOR: The young lady.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador Boucher. Naichian from Phoenix Satellite Television of Hong Kong. Could you comment on how the Shanghai Cooperation Organization has affected the U.S. geopolitical position in Central Asia, especially it seems Iran fits into the block pretty well? And is the U.S. pursuing any form of participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR BOUCHER: We're not pursuing any particular form of cooperation ourselves with Shanghai Cooperation. There's plenty of organizations in the region that have different memberships and different rules for membership. This is not one that we're particularly attracted to ourselves. It is for the countries of the region. We do think it's had a very useful role in some of the economic issues, the border issues, the transit issues and things like that. We've criticized it when they went wandering into political areas. We've criticized it when they started making pronouncements about other countries, like us. But I'd say for the last couple years, it's pretty much stuck to its agenda and done some useful things. So we keep in touch with countries involved. When I was last in Beijing, I met with the people at the Secretariat of Shanghai Cooperation Organization. I'll probably do that again next time I get a chance to go. But no, we're not looking for any formal association with this organization.
MODERATOR: In the front here.
QUESTION: Hi, Richard. It's Anwar Iqbal from Pakistan's Dawn Newspaper. Two things, this is about the peace deal between Pakistan and the militants, did they take you into confidence before they started the negotiations and did you give some sort of a sketch or an outline what you expect from these talks and how do you want Pakistan to deal with it, if the militants break their promise and go back to violence? And also there is a statement today attributed to one of your senior officials, I believe in Islamabad, saying that the United States does not want to impose its views on Pakistan on the judicial issue and that they will have no problem with a reinstatement, either way - they're not for it or against it. So is it something of a change in U.S. attitude on this issue?
AMBASSADOR BOUCHER: No. And the answer to the first part is: a little bit. We have had - I guess the subject of negotiations, the subject of approaches to the tribal areas, whether it's the economic development of these areas and tribal areas strategic development plan, whether it's a question of security transformation and dealing with the security problems or whether it's the issue of the political context of negotiation as a matter of, these are all things we discuss very frequently with the Pakistani officials. During Deputy Secretary Negroponte's trip and some of the meetings I had afterwards, we talked about all these issues with the new political leaders, the prime minister and others, talked about it with people in the military and people we knew who'd been in the government for a while. So -- and to that extent, yes, this is a regular subject of conversation with members of the Pakistani Government. We've heard a lot of their views and will continue to listen to their views and discuss these issues with them.
As far as a particular deal having been discussed with us, frankly, I haven't had any conversations about Sufi Muhammad or some of the things going on in Waziristan, but I'm sure our Embassy has, I just don't know. I mean, I think we generally kind of know what's going on. We probably read your newspaper every morning to find out, but we also have our own conversations. So I'd just say generally we're pretty much aware of the ideas and plans the Pakistani Government makes to try to solve the problems in the tribal areas. We're supportive. That's, I think our main role is to support these things, support the transformation of the Frontier Corps into a capable security organization, support the sustainable development plans so that people can get an education, can get jobs, instead of having to take up the gun in those areas, and support the political context which is really mostly a Pakistani effort of the new government to change the political context with those areas as well.
QUESTION: Naseem Stanazai, VOA, Afghanistan Service. In relation to Afghanistan, that -- given the developments in Afghanistan and the problems, especially the security one, does it have any bad impact or - on Central Asian countries, given the fact that they can use Afghanistan as their trade route with other countries? If you can comment on that. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR BOUCHER: I think -- I think Afghanistan is vital to the Central Asian countries for good and for bad. That what's happening now in Afghanistan, stabilizing Afghanistan as an open economy, as a friendly nation for everyone, is really not just necessary to fight the terrorism that we're all concerned about, but it's a strategic and historic shift. I mean, for several hundred years, some would say for a thousand years, Afghanistan has been a barrier between Central Asia and South Asia. It's prevented -- largely prevented people from moving across. Certainly, for the last couple hundred years, it's been the barrier between empires.
Now, for Afghanistan to open up as an open nation, a trading nation, a nation with good relations all around, really presents everybody in the region with a new strategic opportunity. Everybody from India with a potential new source of energy and a place to export to, to Pakistan, which becomes a logical port and hub for a lot of this trade. Afghanistan, which becomes a transit point and contributor to the trade or Central Asia, which in addition to their ties to Russia, China, Europe, gets to open up another set of export routes and avenues.
So we do believe that this development in Afghanistan is vital to these countries and presents a tremendous opportunity. At the same time, the problems of Afghanistan, the problems of terrorism and narcotics, are very much of concern to the countries of Central Asia. So we're working with them on how to control the problems, how to deal with terrorism, how to deal with better control of borders, how to deal with narcotics flow, working together at the center that's being organized in Almaty on sharing information on narcotics trafficking so we can stop it better.
But we're also working with them on the opportunities. We opened -- last August, Secretary Gutierrez and I opened a bridge between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. And if you look at what's going on in the region, there's enough roads being built by us and Japan and the Asian Development Bank and the Chinese and others that there's really coming together an Almaty-to-Karachi highway that this bridge is part of. That's new. That's different. That's good. And that's an opportunity. Customs revenues across that bridge have already increased 10 times since last August across that crossing point. So definitely an opportunity there. We're working with all the countries, all the neighboring countries of the north -- Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan -- to develop electricity lines and supply for Afghanistan, because Afghanistan needs electricity and they can generate it. We're working with Tajikistan to help bring electricity south to Pakistan, where Pakistan really needs the electricity.
So all these things are happening. So I think, yes, the problems of Afghanistan are problems for the region, but the opportunities of Afghanistan are strategic and historic opportunities for the region as well. And we need to work on it all.
MODERATOR: Okay, we'll go all the way in the back.
QUESTION: Thank you. Good afternoon, I'm Meredith Buel with Voice of America. To follow up on Barry's question and the correspondent from Dawn's question, to be clear, Dawn has on the front page today that Pakistan's new government has drafted a peace agreement with Taliban militants in the tribal belt, and it quotes both a Taliban spokesman by name and Pakistani officials unnamed as confirming this.
In the past, the United States has said it was very concerned about this sort of an agreement, that these agreements have not worked in the past and have only allowed the Taliban to regroup and al-Qaida to regroup in an environment under which they are under no military pressure. This would also appear to be a major change in Pakistan's policy on how to deal with militants, certainly from the time before this election.
Has the United States changed its approach or policy or feeling about this type of negotiations and peace deal, and/or are you still concerned that it could allow the militants in the tribal areas to regroup, to plan attacks against the West, and some of the other concerns that you've had in the past?
AMBASSADOR BOUCHER: I guess I'm happy to give you the same answer I gave to your colleagues, and I don't understand a question that says, gosh, this is new and it hasn't worked in the past, because it's either not new or it has no history to it. So let's deal with the issue of, you know, previous agreements have put on paper things like -- previous agreements in these areas have put on paper things like no Taliban activity, no Talibanization, no al-Qaida activity, no cross-border activity. Where these agreements have failed is not in what they put on the piece of the paper, not the understandings reached with the militants or the tribes. It was the understandings were not kept and that there was no -- no one made clear that they had to be enforced. And so if you look back at what we've said, say in September 2006 when they reached the deal, we said maybe it'll work. And by the end of the year, we would say, hey, this is not working because it wasn't enforced. And it was a lack of enforcement that I think was the real problem there.
So everybody involved in doing this again, and it has happened many more times in various places, sometimes I suppose it's worked. But in reaching these agreements now, we just have to keep that experience in mind and make sure that everybody understands that it is important to work with the tribal leaders. And some of those involved in these discussions already make the distinctions that these are understandings being reached with the tribes, not with a militant organization. We'll see, that may be a better formula. But in the end, it's the outcome that matters: Are these agreements going to produce an end to the cross-border infiltration, and end to the suicide bombers that head into other parts of Pakistan as well as into Afghanistan, and an end to the plotting and planning of al-Qaida from this area?
The gentlemen that I talked today, the tribal leaders, the tribal elders from both sides of the borders, said they can; that given the right agreements and the right support, they can make sure it results in that kind of outcome. But we all understand, you know, it's the outcome that matters and we all have to be careful to make sure it achieves that outcome.
QUESTION: Can I follow up?
AMBASSADOR BOUCHER: Sure.
QUESTION: Thank you. So is the United States supporting Pakistan's effort to negotiate with the Taliban and reach a peace agreement with the Taliban and al-Qaida supporting groups in the tribal areas of Pakistan?
AMBASSADOR BOUCHER: We understand that negotiating with the tribes, and I make a distinction between the tribes and the Taliban and al-Qaida, but negotiating with the tribes especially, is one of the tactics that needs to be used, along with other measures. But in the end, any particular agreement can only be judged by whether it stops militant activity and produces a safer situation for all.
MODERATOR: We only have time for two more questions, so let's go here.
QUESTION: Thank you. Navbahor Imamova from the Voice of America. Kazakhstan, which has been emerging as an economic leader in Central Asia, has been offering an idea of creating a union in the region to create a free trade zone, to create the visa free zone. And Uzbekistan, which is the largest country in the region, just rejected that idea, saying that they are not ready. Does the U.S. support that idea? And also could you comment on the military assistance that Uzbekistan has been offering in Afghanistan? Are they -- is U.S. using the base in Uzbekistan? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR BOUCHER: First, we have always supported regional cooperation. Many of the problems that the countries in the region face, even, you know, I've talked before about the problem of fruit, how do the melons of the Fergana Valley get to the breakfast tables of New Delhi? And if you start looking at that, it's tons of regulatory problems, government problems. It's probably the government -- the cooperation between governments is more necessary in order to have -- than even some of the roads to make this kind of opportunity, this kind of exports, happen. So we do a lot to try to encourage cooperation between the countries of the region.
In the end, how they are going to work this out and what structures they're going to create, it's up to them. I don't think -- you know, this is not a place for big countries to push small countries around. This is a place for these countries to establish their own sovereignty and independence and decide how they want to relate to each other. So rather than having some outsider like me or somebody else tell them how to organize themselves, they are going to have to figure that one out. So I value the attempt to do so, and I just hope they keep trying to work something that results in real cooperation between the countries.
As far as Uzbekistan and NATO, there is a provision that they've agreed to with NATO that there can be transit of certain ISAF and NATO officials through Termez base. That doesn't involve any additional foreign aircraft, and it's not U.S. aircraft coming through. There were a very small number. I think when I checked last, something like 30 people this year, Americans who are under NATO command who have actually transited through that base on German aircraft.
So yes, that's a good thing. I think we welcome President Karimov's statement in Bucharest that he wanted to help the coalition supplies flow through Russia and down through Uzbekistan into Afghanistan. That was something the Russians said as well, and so this kind of fits together. I think we've heard the same from President Rahmon of Tajikistan. So there are many opportunities here for transit routes, for non-lethal goods, and that's a good opportunity. It's a good way just to support the coalition effort, to recognize what we were talking about before, that it's very important that we all succeed together in Afghanistan, because the opportunities are enormous and the problems are very real as well.
MODERATOR: Last question.
QUESTION: Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much. Staying on Afghanistan and (inaudible).
AMBASSADOR BOUCHER: You're good.
QUESTION: Sorry. Yes, my name is Ayub Khawreen and I'm with Ashna Television for Afghanistan. Staying on Afghanistan, as you termed it very well, it's -- Afghanistan problems are regional problems. But aside from the military front where, as a result of U.S. pressure, NATO countries and others are sending more troops to help on the military front in Afghanistan, but the Afghan Government is criticized, widely criticized, for the lack of governance and the widespread corruption. What are your expectations from the Afghan Government?
AMBASSADOR BOUCHER: Well, we see the Afghan Government as a full partner in the effort. Obviously, they have an increasingly -- increasing lead, I would say, I think. One of the -- a couple of things I talked about at the beginning about 2008 in Afghanistan was we could hopefully see better coordination. We're going to see more concentration of effort at -- particularly at the district level.
And the third thing I'd say is Afghan ownership or Afghans in the lead. In a lot of places, militarily, you see Afghan forces taking the lead with support from the coalition. I was just up in the Regional Command North visiting with a commander at RC North and he was telling me about how they do operations, how they do planning with the Afghans and operations with the Afghan army up there. The same is true in the east and the south. If you look at the governance effort, the new director of local governance in Afghanistan has the central government sending out officials and organizing with the local shura, organizing the ministries to do projects together with the locals. The national solidarity program is that way, too. So you see the Afghan Government extending itself more and more. You see Afghans in the lead on policing now, then policemen are trained, new policemen are trained they go out in the field, they go out with foreign support and mentors, but essentially they're taking -- they're trying to reform the policing in the districts that they go to.
So I do think one of the things we'll be dealing with all year is how to help the Afghans take the lead, and they are increasingly capable of doing that. We're looking at aid programs and how we can make aid more effective. And there was just a mission out there of our aid director and directors of foreign assistance from other countries to talk with the Afghan Government about that. So a lot of these things being done.
But the chief, I think, indicator of stability in Afghanistan is going to exactly where you put your finger, is the ability of the Afghan Government to deliver opportunity, to deliver justice, to deliver governance and services to the people of Afghan in the field. And that, I think, is growing steadily and that they're a lot stronger this year than they were last year. A lot of the ministries are capable; the local governors, the local officials are capable. They are being supported with money. Their plans are coming forward and being funded. So I think we really are watching the Afghan Government, helping the Afghan Government extend itself and serve the people of Afghanistan throughout the country, and that's what's going to produce real stability in the effort.
MODERATOR: We're going to have to end there.
AMBASSADOR BOUCHER: Thank you very much.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador Boucher.
AMBASSADOR BOUCHER: It's good to see you.
Released on April 23, 2008