Remarks at Press RoundtableRichard Boucher, Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs
April 25, 2006
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think it's an opportune moment to talk to you guys because we have important developments in Nepal and Sri Lanka as well as important meetings coming up with Pakistan. Then a lot of continuing issues with working with Central Asia and India. So this South and Central Asia is a happening place these days.
In Nepal we've had good news, that the political parties have stepped up to leadership, stepped up to organizing the government. The King has stepped back and let them do that. People on the streets are justifiably celebrating for all that they've achieved. They've long-sought the restoration of democracy and they're glad to see it's happened.
We're in touch with other governments, particularly with India, coordinating closely to make sure that we all step up as well to support democracy, to support the political process, the political aspects as well as whatever economic needs there may be. So I think we've made a great step forward for all in Nepal.
It's important that the Maoists stop the violence in their blockades, end their violence and accept a political role. I think that's something the parties, outsiders like us and others will continue to press for.
QUESTION: Are you guys --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Let me say something about Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka, we've had a terrible terrorist attack today on the Chief of Army Staff. Five of his people were killed, he was injured. We express our condolences for the people that were killed and our sympathies for their families and we wish the Chief of the Army Staff a speedy recovery.
This is an act of violence to the political process as well. It's a provocation. It's regrettable that the Tamil Tigers decided to restart the war instead of restart the peace talks. We are in touch with other governments, both here and in capitals around the world to bring to bear whatever pressure we can for the Tamil Tigers to abandon this course of action and to look for ways that we can support the government in coping with the threat.
We're going to have a meeting with the Co-Chairs soon and we'll look at how we can carry that out.
Finally just to mention on Pakistan, the Pakistani Foreign Secretary, Riaz Khan, is coming tomorrow for some meetings that will extend into really a day-long discussion Thursday -- strategic dialogue. This was announced during the President's trip to Pakistan. It's important that as strategic partners we get together periodically and go through the whole breadth of U.S.-Pakistan activities together. To some extent what we'll do is we'll just review a note that there's a lot of other activity going on in different, more expert circles. So we'll look obviously at the strategic cooperation, cooperation against terrorism, cooperation against proliferation, cooperation for stability in the region. We'll look at the education cooperation, the education dialogue that we expect to come up in the next couple of months. Economic cooperation, where we'll help in Pakistan with its energy needs or with diversifying its exports. And just try to look at the whole breadth of U.S.-Pakistan relations and what we can do to continue this very important strategic relationship over this long term.
Welcome to my humble abode. I just said a few words about Nepal, about Sri Lanka and about upcoming meetings with Pakistan and I was just about to take the questions of the assembled masses.
QUESTION: I have a question which is kind of a two-parter. On Nepal, are you guys talking to the Maoists? Are you leaving the Indians to do that? I guess the same would be for Sri Lanka. I mean have you --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: We're not talking to the Maoists, and we certainly don't talk to the Tamil Tigers. We work with a lot of parties who have a lot of contacts, so we do I think know in Nepal that there are certainly groups in other countries, political parties, that have been talking to the Maoists, and they have signed onto this 12 point program, this party program, that includes taking a role in the political process which is obviously something we would welcome if they truly ended the violence and things they're doing in the villages and adopted a purely political role.
QUESTION: But they, I'm not quite sure how long the violence goes back but it pre-dates the King kind of assuming power, doesn't it?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: They have been on and off. As I began, and you've watched this longer than I have probably, but they have been on and off in politics or in the business of violence. It's time for them once again to get out of the business of violence and adopt a political role.
QUESTION: What's happened in Nepal so far, is that sufficient for the United States to think -- I know we did sever non-lethal military aid to them last year. Is there consideration of --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think we'll look at all those things, and we'll' look at all those things based on what a democratic, what a civilian government, what a new Prime Minister is looking for from the United States. We would like to have a normal relationship with Nepal across the board, including a normal relationship with the army. That will depend on support from the political process and will come to us through the political process in terms of the kinds of things they want to do with us.
QUESTION: The King has said he's going to bring the parliament back. We say he should return power to the political parties. Is there any disconnect there?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: No. He's I think basically agreed to what the political parties were asking for which was a restoration of parliament, leaving it to them to decide a Prime Minister, leaving it to them to decide how to handle the future and the next steps for the government, leaving it to them to decide on how to proceed on a ceasefire and things like that. So that's essentially what we were asking for. If we didn't use the exact same words it was just to paraphrase.
QUESTION: It originally caught my eye that the statement yesterday said he should assume a ceremonial role.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Yeah.
QUESTION: I know he can keep the title of King, he doesn't have to abdicate, but he basically has to give up all his powers. Isn't there a concern that he may have moved but he can always move back? He can once again dissolve the parliament.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think that was the concern of the political parties last Friday when he made a statement that they felt didn't go far enough and that's why there was continued pressure from people on the streets and from the political parties for him to do more and make very clear that he was turning the running of the country over to the political parties and that they were going to decide the future. I think that's now in their hands. What they decide to do about constitutional roles and things like that we'll leave to them as they proceed, but I think it's clearly now in their hands to decide how a government will be structured and how the nation will proceed.
QUESTION: So that isn't a U.S. concern, that he could, he still has the constitutional power to reverse --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Well I think we share the concern of the political parties in that regard. They were concerned last Friday, even with a significant concession from the King, they were still concerned that he was reserving that right and we think it's probably appropriate that they kept pushing and got satisfaction, at least to their satisfaction, that they would really be able to make decisions for the country.
QUESTION: I'm sorry to continue on the same thing, but what I'm hearing is --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: What you're hearing is I'm not writing the Nepalese constitution but they are. They now have it in their hands to decide how these things get settled.
QUESTION: Afghanistan. Can you talk about that too? I've just come back from the region. Things seem to be deteriorating there. More attacks. The Taliban resurgence seems to be gaining strength, or is that just how it looks? And NATO is now saying it's actually got, it's afraid to go in.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: No. NATO's not afraid. NATO is never afraid. NATO is strong and confident.
Let me tell you what I saw in Afghanistan. First, a number of you have been on trips with us and the Secretary of State when we've gone into Afghanistan. What always strikes me is what you see in the markets. The first time we went in January of 2002 there was pretty much nothing.
QUESTION: We didn't see anything. We just drove in and drove out.
QUESTION: No, no --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: What you can see from your motorcade and what you see around town.
The next time we went there were like bricks and cinder blocks. People were building houses. The next time you'd start to see windows and door frames, people were sort of finishing their houses. Then you saw furniture, they were actually living in their houses.
This time I went in March and what really struck me was school kids. There are school kids everywhere, all over the streets, every vacant lot seems to have a couple of tents on it with a school in it, a lot of girls everywhere. It's school kids, and then signs which I can't read except for the word computer. They were selling computers and computer cafes and computer learning centers and stuff like this. There's a real feeling that they're looking at the future.
Let's face it, they've finished the Bonn process, they've got a government that has different branches, that has a balance of power, that's going through the process of confirmation, of appointments to Minister, that is really operating more and more throughout the country. So there's absolute progress and continued progress in Afghanistan. There's still an awful lot to do. It's an under-developed country. It has a serious problem with security and a serious problem with narcotics. But I'm confident that we're addressing those.
We looked at the situation and really I think an increase in violence this year is to be expected for a variety of reasons. It's happening, unfortunately, but it's not unexpected.
First, the government is pushing into areas and place they haven't been before.
Second of all, we're pushing into areas and places with drug eradication and other police type actions where they've not been prevalent before, especially down in Helmand Province.
Third, NATO is deploying. NATO really represents a thickening in many places where there had not been so many coalition troops or even Afghan army troops and now with the deployment of NATO there are going to be more troops in that area, there are going to be more encounters.
The other thing is I think the insurgent side is probably testing the NATO troops at various places to try to figure out how they're going to react versus how we used to react or how we have reacted.
But we're very much a part of that, and this whole expansion of authority, assertion of security in areas that hadn't had much before is leading to more violence, more encounters, more testing, and more clashes. It's a necessary part of the process, it's a necessary part of the process of making the place more secure. But go back. Even in the security area a tremendous amount has been achieved and there's still a lot more to do.
QUESTION: You said the other side will be testing?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: The insurgents, the Taliban.
QUESTION: You're not avoiding the use of the T word or --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: No.
QUESTION: They're there. Can you talk about the Taliban? How much they're there, how much they're not there, status?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I'm probably not the best one to do that, really. I think to a great extent our military people and people on the ground are better able to do that. I better stop at that.
QUESTION: But it's more Taliban insurgents than these warlords.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Definitely. It's Taliban insurgents, it's armed groups associated with al-Qaida and the Taliban that are there.
QUESTION: And you don't feel that in the streets? There are sometimes attacks right on the outskirts of Kabul.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: We have a lot of security when we travel around there. It's a country where bad things happen. There is violence, there are attacks in a lot of different places at a lot of different times. But that's better than some of the rampant lawlessness we've seen in the past.
QUESTION: And it's not deterring people from going about their lives?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: No. I think ordinary people have ordinary lives to a great extent. They're obviously careful about security in some of the things they do.
QUESTION: If violence is inevitably going to go up because of the pushing out, when do you see the benefits of this assertion in terms of it coming back to the level it is and then even being reduced?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Over time. It's hard to give a timeframe to it.
QUESTION: You said this year we'll see an increase. Next year as well? Will it continue to increase?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I don't know.
QUESTION: How about drugs? What's the new approach, which sounds to me like the old approach?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Drugs are a significant problem for Afghanistan and frankly for the region because the corrupting influence of the narcotics trade on farmers and traffickers and officials and government institutions, customs services, just throughout the region, that kind of crop and that kind of money are bad.
There was a resurgence in planting this year. In 2004 it was a fairly high figure. It went down significantly in 2005 and 2006. Plantings for this year are back up a little bit again. Not to the level they were a couple of years ago. But there's significant plantings.
What's happening this year is there are five elements to this anti-narcotic strategy that the government has put together. I would say this is the first year that we're really attacking the narcotics problem with all five elements, with the education, the eradication, the interdiction, the use of law enforcement, and the rural development components. And there's very significant activity in all of those areas.
There's significant eradication that raises the risk to farmers that they can lose their whole crop. It changes their calculations on whether or not they plant and try to grow poppy again.
There is significant interdiction and arrests being made now and trials going on in drug courts that are punishing people involved in the network and we expect that to expand.
There's a lot of money and effort put into rural development so that farmers have roads, have opportunities to do other things, grow other crops, find other employment. There's been a massive education campaign. There's significant expansion in law enforcement. So I think for the first time this year we're actually doing a significant effort in all the areas of the strategy.
Where we will end up at the end of this crop year, I don't know. We'll probably still see a pretty large crop in Afghanistan. Where we end up at the end of this year in terms of whether farmers decide it's worth the risk to plant again, that may be a more telling sign of our success.
QUESTION: How much money or how much more money is going into that end of it? I understood the movement to get the farmers to grow something other than --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: We've spent about $600 million a year on the narcotics strategy in Afghanistan. We're spending about $600 million this year.
QUESTION: I thought that the areas where poppy was being grown were the areas where there was less of a military or police presence so the idea of law enforcement in those areas, what are you doing differently?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: There's been an expansion of law enforcement into those areas. In Helmand Province where we saw very significant plantings this year, the central government has sent down their drug police and their eradication forces supported by the army. In addition there's governors’ eradication that's going on in that area as well.
QUESTION: Are the Brits still in charge of this?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Yes. We're working with them and with other people in the international community. The Italians are working on justice; the Brits are working on drugs. All these elements have other partners involved.
QUESTION: The Spanish said today they need to double their forces in order to be secure.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: That may be true. I don't know what their force levels are to be able to judge.
QUESTION: Does anyone have any more on Afghanistan?
Can you get into a little bit about how Central Asia fits into what you're trying to do with the region?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: It's very much a part of it. When I was in Kabul I went specifically for a conference on regional economic integration. I found myself sitting in a hotel in Kabul speaking Chinese to the Kazakh Foreign Minister about regional economic integration. It's definitely one of those – whoa, the world-is-different sort of moments.
QUESTION: When Chinese is the common language? [Laughter].
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Well, we both speak -- English ended up being the common working language. He's as good in English as I am probably.
Anyway, there are big opportunities here to give Central Asia other outlets so that they have other options besides big countries to the West and big countries to the East. Indeed, the opportunities to the south are quite significant when you think about exporting energy to fast-growing markets in Pakistan and India, importing goods through the ports there or from the economies there. Trading in raw materials back and forth, cooperating on trade, cooperating on regional air services and things like that.
So our goal is not to try to take away options or get them to drop ties that they naturally have with their big neighbors, but it's to give them other options, other places to export to, other places to import from. So a lot of what we talked about was building the road systems from Almaty to Karachi and Almaty to Delhi, building power lines that can come down with Kazakh power and hydropower from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan into the markets of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Regional trade groupings that include Afghanistan and South Asian free trade as well as economic cooperation to the north.
What you really have now is that Afghanistan becomes a pivot point instead of an obstacle for -- strategically Afghanistan was an obstacle for decades, and now it's a point where things can flow through, back and forth, north and south.
QUESTION: What about the other, what has become an obstacle, Uzbekistan, given that the energy integration is necessary. Are they --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: All these things are possible without every single country in the region participating, but they certainly all benefit from having countries in the region participate. Unfortunately what we're seeing in addition to what we've seen in terms of the internal situation, Uzbekistan closing down NGOs and human rights violations, the Andijan massacre. In addition to that we're seeing Uzbekistan basically close itself off from its neighbors and to become a much more closed society, much more closed economy. Even a lot of the day trading is gone. They used to go back and forth across borders. That's been cut down and stomped on.
So it's really a shame for the people of Uzbekistan, and one has to think that they, like their neighbors, would benefit from opening up their economy and opening themselves up to cooperation. But for the moment that's not happening.
QUESTION: Kyrgyzstan is also having more and more problems. They just said that [inaudible] demonstrators, didn't they?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think another round of demonstrations is being looked at, the 29th of April they're probably going to have something.
Kyrgyzstan was a very positive story last year. Not all the promises have come to pass. There is I think a responsibility among those who entered into power to really fulfill the promises of reform that they gave. So now there's more pressures building up pro and con, pushing with civil society in the opposition. And frankly, we think it would be better if they brought everybody in and tried to cooperate in getting the kind of fundamental significant reform that was promised last year.
QUESTION: Did you go there?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Yes.
QUESTION: How serious is the basic issue, I forget where they all were or aren't any more or might not be tomorrow.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: We're operating out of Manas Airbase in Bishkek.
The first thing to remember is the basing is a question of fighting terrorism and instability in the region and the base, the operations that we and others do from that base benefit the country we're in, Kyrgyzstan, the countries of the region, and even more distant neighbors like Russia who don't want instability and terrorism to come out of this region.
So first, it's important to all of us strategically that we continue to do that.
Second, we are prepared to reimburse a fair amount for the costs of operating a base there. We are prepared to sit down with the government and negotiate that. I think we can reach agreement, but we have a little more work to do to really sit down and see if that's possible.
QUESTION: What's the terrorism situation, how is the terrorism situation there? You did a lot during the beginning of the war on terror, but --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think first of all there's a continuing need for better border controls, policing, customs controls, both for terrorism reasons, for drug smuggling reasons, and to continue to make it safe to avoid loose nuke type smuggling. So we're active in all these countries in all those ways. We're promoting coordinated action against narcotics, we're working with each of the governments -- not each of them, some of the governments -- against terrorism. I think there's a continuing danger. We've seen bombs go off in Tashkent, we've seen terrorist groups appear in other places, so there has to be continued vigilance.
QUESTION: Also throughout Europe, and wasn't there some concern that they were coming across Pakistan and Afghanistan through Central Asia into Europe?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I don't know to what extent they move that way. You hear stories of terrorists moving around in different places, but I don't know how many of them end up in Europe.
QUESTION: But you don't see like a lawless --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: No. I think we have good cooperation with the countries of the region and we're all working against it. But it's better in some places than others and it's a remaining threat that we all have to be vigilant and active against.
QUESTION: Does the pursuit of the agreement with India on the nuclear, does that somehow dilute the efforts of non-proliferation and sort of bending over backwards to get an agreement with somebody who's pursuing their own course?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: If that were true it might, but it's not true so it doesn't.
We've made an agreement with India that's good for the U.S.-India strategic relationship. It's good for the economic future, the energy needs of India, and it's good for the non-proliferation regime. Bringing a country closer to the practices and standards of non-proliferation that we follow is a good thing. It's something that the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency has said, has made clear is a good thing, and it's good for the non-proliferation regime overall. Would that other countries, some of whom are now tearing up their agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency, would take on the kind of obligations that India has and would work actively to improve their record on non-proliferation.
QUESTION: Does that mean you have the votes on the Hill for it since it's so good?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: That means we're still working on the Hill and there are a lot of supporters.
QUESTION: How --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I don't have a vote count.
QUESTION: How tough a fight?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: There are a lot of legitimate questions being asked and we're answering them, but there are also a lot of people who stood up in support of this agreement.
QUESTION: You didn't mention Pakistan at the beginning, right?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Yeah, I did. Strategic dialogue coming up.
QUESTION: That's what I wanted to talk about.
QUESTION: I'll fill you in.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: It's going to be great.
Thank you all.
QUESTION: And the Russians and you are getting along okay? I'm serious.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: We're okay. I haven't really talked to them yet about this region though, so I don't know --
QUESTION: Thank you.
Released on April 28, 2006