Media Roundtable on South and Central AsianRichard A. Boucher, Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs
Remarks to U.S. Mission to the European Union
February 21, 2008
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: As many of you know, I come here periodically. We have regular consultations with our friends in Europe every six months on issues around the world, but for my part it is two sessions – one on South Asia and one on Central Asia. And I get a chance to run around and see other people. I didn’t get a chance this time to go out to NATO because most of the NATO leadership – ambassadors – are out in Afghanistan right now. I’ll see them some other time.
It is a good moment, a key moment for us to get together with Europeans and talk about developments in these regions, particularly given the election in Pakistan.
I think the bottom line on that is that, despite serious flaws, this election was a success. It gave the Pakistani people a chance to choose their leadership and we look forward to working with the leadership that comes out of this election process.
They are now in the beginning, middle – I don’t know exactly where – in the process of discussing coalitions, positions, issues – amongst the parties. That process will move forward. We look forward to working with whoever emerges as prime minister and look forward to working with President Musharraf in his new role. And we look forward to working with all of the elements of Pakistani civil society and government, as we have before.
It is also an important moment for us to talk about Afghanistan. There has been a fair amount of discussion on the situation in Afghanistan and what we can expect to achieve this year and how we can all do a better job on some of the things we are doing in Afghanistan. There is an awful lot of progress in Afghanistan, whether it is keeping children alive – we have a better health care system – or educating children, providing the basics of economic growth – banking, economy, cell phone service. There is a lot that has been achieved in Afghanistan, including in the battle, but also in the fight to win by helping the government provide services and provide good governance to the people of Afghanistan. There are still some very big challenges: government corruption, narcotics. We talked a lot about how to go about some of those things, how to strengthen the things that work and how to deal with problems ahead. So I thought that was good. We are both, obviously, very...major donors to Afghanistan, and how we coordinate and how we spend money is critical to the success that we need to achieve there.
We also spent a lot of time, a fair amount of time on India, and the various relationships that we have there. I won’t go into that any more now, but India is an important player for both the EU and the United States. We are both pursuing economic agreements and broader agreements to cooperate with India.
And then we spent an afternoon yesterday looking at Central Asia, looking at some of the real difficulties that people faced in parts of the region this winter, like in Tajikistan. We are both trying to help people out. We are looking at the process of reform going on in the region and looking at how we cooperate with Kazakhstan as Kazakhstan prepares for the OSCE chairmanship in 2010, and in particular how we work with Kazakhstan to help Kazakhstan implement the commitments it has made to improve its political environment, its electoral environment, as it goes forward.
So, I am happy to be here again – always appreciative of the chance to talk to friends in Europe. For people who are players around the world, as we are, it’s a partnership – a partnership that works – and this is one of the ways it works. We get together and look at how we can do things together. It’s a partnership for democracy, for safety, for development – a partnership that serves our people and the people of Europe, as well as the people of the world. So, I am glad to be back.
QUESTION: You said that you are expecting to work with, besides the future government in Pakistan, with President Musharraf. It seems that most of the future government and most of the parliament don’t want to work with him. How do you square this with…
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I wouldn’t make that assumption. I would read the Pakistan press. I would look at positions the parties are taking. And I would just be patient and wait. We will see what government emerges and who emerges as prime minister. In the current set-up right now in Pakistan, we look forward to a new prime minister, who comes out of the elections. We look forward to working with the president of Pakistan and with the other institutions and with people in society. People will have to see how the whole thing settles out.
QUESTION: Can the United States, given the statements we have had from opposition parties, can the United States envisage working with a government that does not have Musharraf as its head?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: We can envisage working with a Pakistani government that is duly constituted, particularly through an election. We have said all along that we looked forward to working with whoever emerges from the election. That is as true today, after the election, as it was before.
QUESTION: You also said that you look forward to working with President Musharraf in his new role? How do you envisage that new role?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Well, again, that is something that the Pakistanis will have to work out. The division of powers between the president and prime minister is an issue in Pakistan. There are certain basics in the constitution, but the “who does what” in the future is something that they are going to have to settle into. We are pretty much bystanders in that process. Those are things that need to be worked out within Pakistani politics and Pakistani society.
QUESTION: Are you at ease with the situation in Pakistan or are you worried?
A/S Boucher: I am very at ease, because our chief goal for the last six months has been helping Pakistan make a successful democratic transition – a successful transition to civilian government through an election, an election that truly reflects the desires of the Pakistani people. We achieved that goal. That was a success for us, but more important, a success for Pakistan. After all the troubles they have faced over the last six months, I think they deserve to be congratulated for having an election that gave people a chance to choose. We are very comfortable working with any democratic government. That is the essence of legitimacy for all of us.
QUESTION: One of the things that the Bhutto party has said on quite a few occasions now is that they think that the strategy in dealing with militants, terrorists in the mountains has been wrong, and that they want to see less military force used. They want to talk to them. Does that seem correct to you?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I don’t think it’s time yet to analyze the policies of the new government because we don’t have a new government yet.
There are a number of moderate parties, forces in Pakistan. We’ve always hoped that they could cooperate together, that the country could form a moderate political and social center, you might say, that was determined against extremism. And fighting extremism has a lot of aspects. There is a military aspect that everybody recognizes. There’s also an economic aspect of giving people hope and opportunity. There’s a political aspect and a social aspect. One of the noteworthy things about the outcome of the election is that the Islamic parties, religious parties, didn’t do very well at all. In fact, some of the more stable and nationalist parties in the Northwest Frontier Province did quite well.
So that, again, is something that will have to be integrated in the political thinking in Pakistan, whether and how they come in the government or whatever happens.
I think there are a lot of different aspects to the fight against extremism - pressing forward with education, pressing forward with economic opportunity, pressing forward, as I said, with some military means. We’ll look to cooperate with Pakistan in all those areas.
QUESTION: On Afghanistan, after the failure of Paddy Ashdown’s candidacy, where do things stand on the search for an international overseer?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: We were able to compare notes with European friends on that matter. I think we agree and the Afghans agree that it’s important to have a strong senior international figure who can help lead the international effort in support of the Government of Afghanistan. That figure would be appointed by the United Nations, so the choice of exactly who is a matter for the Secretary-General of the United Nations. Different countries have floated different names. I’m not going to get into that at this point because ultimately it’s for the Secretary-General to decide and for the Afghans to give their approval, as well. That process is underway.
But I think we’re all committed and determined to working with a senior international civilian. We are looking to that person to help us do a better job of coordination.
I think as we look at what we have to do in Afghanistan this year, it includes coordinating the efforts: coordinating the international effort; coordinating the international effort with the Afghan effort; coordinating the civilian effort with a military effort; and then concentrating all our capabilities on stabilizing regions and districts. Those are probably two of the hallmarks of what we have to achieve this year, so we still want that figure. We want to try to move forward as quickly as the Secretary-General can on that.
QUESTION: Just on that issue, isn’t it the truth that as with Karzai’s intervention on Ashdown that one of the problems we face is actually the Karzai regime, that he is actually standing in the way of you doing that, of getting stable government, of getting the tipping point from a military operation?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: No.
QUESTION: You don’t see that as true? Because a lot of people are saying that….
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Look, first of all, you may not agree with everything that the Government of Afghanistan does, but you have to accept and we all have to start from the premise and understand the premise that this was a democratically elected government. That is our partner and that’s who we will work with because that’s who the people of Afghanistan chose.
Second of all, I think it’s very clear that from our discussions with the Afghan government, even since Paddy Ashdown felt he had to withdraw his candidacy, that they, too, want to see better coordination, want to see strong international coordination and welcome that.
I think if you look at the facts on the ground in Afghanistan you see that there is better Afghan governance, better Afghan government, than any previous time. The national government is up and running. Some of the ministries are highly capable. Some of them are still weak and need to reform. There is better and better provincial government, and frankly, where there are good governors and good provincial governance, the situation stabilizes. That’s probably the key factor if you look around the country - what makes a difference between a stable province and one that’s not stable yet.
Then the government’s extending itself at district level as well – a series of new appointments concentrating on key districts, and that process is going to continue.
So there is more Afghan government and more capable Afghan government than ever before, but it remains one of the biggest challenges. If you want to stabilize the whole country, you have to extend good governance and the benefits of good governance to the people throughout the country - and that’s a big task. But that’s what’s underway now.
QUESTION: How, in terms of building stable provinces and the rest of it, did you see the expulsion of those EU diplomats the other week?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I didn’t see that as related to building stable provinces.
QUESTION: Do you have a view on that?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I don’t have a particular view on that. That is something that the Afghans decided and will have to explain.
QUESTION: Do you see a difference between the American approach and the European approach in Afghanistan?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: No, I don’t think you can find any divide across the Atlantic on the approach to Afghanistan.
We all, whether it’s here, in NATO or in individual discussions, I think we understand the need for the comprehensive approach. That’s what we’ve called it, as we’ve discussed it, and that involves the fighting, of course, because there’s a determined enemy that we have to fight. It could also then involve providing safety for people of Afghanistan - policemen, governance; providing economic opportunities, roads or electricity, things like that; and, providing the benefits of government - health care, education, that sort of thing.
So I think we’re all committed to doing this across the board. We’ve talked before...there are differences now emerging within the Alliance over how some people go about this task. Some want to stay in the North and do it one way, or do it slightly differently to those who have to face the fighting in the South and the insurgency. We’d like to eliminate those differences within the Alliance by getting rid of caveats and having more flexibility for the commanders.
But in terms of the fundamental approach that we have, there’s no divide between the U.S. and Europe. The fundamental approach is one that we share.
QUESTION: Is there any progress on that? On caveats, any progress at all? We keep on hearing this debate going on.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: The debate goes on. Every time we come up on a big NATO meeting we get rid of a few more caveats, we get a little more flexibility from some of the allies. We’re always looking for ways ourselves to work with others within their own capabilities, their limitations.
So I’d say there’s a sort of steady and incremental process. We’ve always looked for this sort of wholesale wiping off of the caveats. Essentially it boils down to having the flexibility in the field to use different forces where they’re needed.
The job that’s being done by allies in the North, the East, the South, or the West is equally important. You can’t neglect any part of this country. We all have a job to do on the military side, but also on the training and security side, as well as the development side. So I think we have to recognize everybody’s contribution as important, but for the people who run these operations on the ground, the fewer caveats the better. We keep inching away, nicking away at them. We’d like to see them discarded wholesale.
QUESTION: To follow up, if you talk to some of the British military, you get the sense that they feel they’ve more or less done what they can in terms of security in the South, and that we’re moving to a new phase in which perhaps the emphasis has got to be more on nation-building and so forth. Is that your sense too?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: To some extent. I wouldn’t exaggerate it, though. What’s happened over the last year is the Taliban has failed to achieve their military goals. If you look at where we were last year, look at some of your own reports from a year ago, they were talking about a spring offensive. They were talking about taking towns and territories. We were internally looking at what appeared to be their plans to put a ring around Kandahar and try to take Kandahar. They didn’t achieve any of that. They failed to hold on to territory. They were kicked out of their heartland near Kandahar in the Panjwayi Valley, kicked out of strongholds in the Sangin Valley in northern Helmand, and Musa Qala. But they’ve adjusted, as well. So while they’re no longer able to take and hold territory or occupy their strongholds or mass forces, they’ve turned more and more to tactics of pure terror - to setting off bombs, kidnapping, and other terrorist acts.
So, we have to deal with that. The way to deal with that is to provide security to the people of Afghanistan. The people of Afghanistan have to be safe from bombings and kidnappings for them to live peacefully. That’s probably a harder job than pushing the enemy out of its strongholds - a job of providing, spreading the web of government and network of security throughout the country. That doesn’t preclude fighting because you are still going to encounter bad guys, but it also is a harder job in terms of building up the training of policemen, providing good government.
QUESTION: What are your expectations on the relations of the new government of Pakistan with Afghanistan? It’s impossible to take one from the other. Will that be changing? What is your view?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: It’s a very interesting and very important QUESTION. One of the things that we’ve seen over the last six months is really some very positive developments of Pakistan-Afghanistan relations. We had the jirga that was held in the fall – the meeting of the tribes from both sides of the border, where they agreed that they wanted peace, stability, and development. They didn’t want the extremists in their midst. They did that, they held that jirga with the expectation of follow-up and another jirga. People recognized it would happen after the Pakistani election.
There have been some very positive meetings, I think, between President Musharraf and President Karzai, including one right after Christmas. There have been follow-up meetings by others in the security apparatus and elsewhere between Pakistan and Afghanistan. So, we really do think that positive momentum needs to be maintained. I would expect a new government in Pakistan to want to maintain it.
I think all those who want to fight against extremism recognize that you have to be able to stop the extremism from spreading. It spreads out from the Tribal Areas. Rather than having it spread out in two directions into Pakistan and into Afghanistan, we need to be able to push in on it from two directions as well as push in on it with economics and other opportunities.
So, I think there really is an opportunity here to move forward with better relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan. My guess is that a new government in Pakistan would want to take that opportunity.
QUESTION: There is a kind of view here at senior levels in Brussels, that in policy terms perhaps one of the key opportunities that was missed early on in Afghanistan was the failure to deal with elements of the Taliban as part of the settlement, rather than being an absolute enemy, the idea that a politically more inclusive approach might not have paid dividends. You wouldn’t agree with that?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: No. I wouldn’t agree with that. I wasn’t as deeply involved in this in the beginning as I am now, but I just don’t see it. I don’t see what they’re talking about. You had people in power. The people who were in power whipped people in the marketplace. The people who were in power kept girls out of school. The people who were in power kept the government under-developed. The people who were in power were basically carrying out a vendetta upon the people of the country. When they were kicked out, I think the people of Afghanistan had had enough of the Taliban and don’t want them back.
So what was one supposed to do or what is one supposed to do now if you talk about negotiating? Are we going to take a province of Afghanistan and say it’s okay to whip people in the marketplace in this part of Afghanistan? It’s okay that girls don’t go to school in this part of Afghanistan? I don’t think so.
The only way to establish good governance for everybody in Afghanistan is for people to join up with a new system, accept the constitution. There are reconciliation programs for people who want to stop fighting, lay down their guns, and accept the new constitution and be part of the new system. But that’s the way it has to go forward.
The idea that there was some moderate group that could be negotiated with, I just don’t see it.
QUESTION: I think that discussion is perhaps more keen at the moment where you hear people saying, people who seem to know what they are talking about, they say: “The problem with the Americans is that that they have this very abstract and kind of idealist, Washington think tank model about how Afghanistan society should work. Whereas us countries who have got a rich colonial history know that you work with people on the ground and you can be relatively realistic about whipping girls in marketplaces and the rest of it….”
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: How does one scoff? I would scoff at the idea, if I knew how to scoff.
Look, we’ve got boots on the ground. We’ve got people with mud on their shoes. The people with mud on their shoes are not just shooting at people, they’re talking to people. They’re talking to people all over Afghanistan. They’re talking to people with the Afghan government together.
The programs that work, the programs that stabilize areas of Afghanistan, are programs that get out in the field, that talk to villagers, that talk to provincial leaders, that talk to tribal leaders and say: “What does it take for you guys to sign up for the government? What does it take for you guys to work with us?” And frankly, you get good answers to those QUESTIONs. If you can provide them with the kind of services, and above all, the kind of safety that they want for their people you can stabilize parts of Afghanistan. We’ve done this. We’ve done it in the East.
I was just in Kunar Province two weeks ago. We built a road up the valley because that’s what the local people wanted. The governor found out, when he went to consult with the shuras. We helped them build a road up the Kunar Valley. And we’re not talking about the number of insurgents in the valley any more. This used to be one of the most violent provinces in Afghanistan. Now we’re talking about how many internet cafes and gas stations there are along the road.
So, we’re not doing this out of Washington think tanks. We’re doing this out of a lot of people on the ground with dust on their boots and mud on their boots.
QUESTION: Can I ask one quick question about Afghanistan and then switch back to Pakistan, if I may?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Okay.
QUESTION: In Afghanistan, you say that you’re getting gradual results from your allies in terms of getting rid of the caveats, et cetera. Do you therefore get the impression that without your kind of encouragement they would be doing less than they are now? That’s Afghanistan.
The Pakistan question is: what steps would you like to see any new government take that would reassure you that it was going in the right direction for starters?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think they’re both hard questions to answer. I don’t know what governments would do absent our nagging - because they’re going to do what they do and we’re going to nag and hopefully that leads to a better outcome for all of us. So, I would hesitate to predict what it might have been or what could be the situation.
I think there are many allies that are very committed to the fight and there are many allies who are as vocal as we are about the need to share the burden and to get rid of caveats and to send troops all around the country. So we’re not the only ones. That’s the way it is. We’ll keep working the way we are.
As far as what a new government can do, I just think the fact that there will be a new government, that there has been an election that the Pakistani people can be proud of, I think that’s a very important factor. I suppose there’s a moment when all the political parties have to start not just talking about what they’re against, but what they’re for. They have to develop government programs. They have to work out coalitions. They have to decide what to do. We need to give them a little time and space to do that. But as I said before, we look for a coalition to emerge that’s committed to moving the society forward. We’re very committed to help Pakistan as we have been with education, with economic growth, with health care, with providing security for its people. I think we’ll have an opportunity to work with the new government on all those things.
QUESTION: Do you have any readout on how the military staff and the ISI* viewed the electoral process?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think there have been some comments, but, no, I have no special insights into that.
QUESTION: One thing you mentioned almost in passing, was that when you talk about Central Asia and you discuss with your partners here how to push the reform process. What reform process?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: That’s a very legitimate question. There are a number of areas. First of all, the economic aspirations of these countries. They’re looking for opportunity, they’re looking for investment, and many of them are looking for better ways to build their economies. Whether it’s Kazakhstan that’s at a fairly advanced stage, or Turkmenistan that is really just starting down this path, there’s a lot of desire for economic reform and the ability to attract investment. Tajikistan, while it’s going through a crisis right now, I think, understands that to come out of this crisis on a more stable basis they need to undertake economic reforms.
On the political side, some places less, some places more. You have Turkmenistan starting to free political prisoners, starting to deal with basic rights, starting to deal with the availability of information. And you have Kazakhstan with some very clear commitments made in Madrid that we all expect them to carry out and want to work with them to help them carry out.
So, it certainly differs a lot from place to place. There’s more commitment in some places. There’s more clarity in some places. But I think all the countries of Central Asia do understand that living in a modern world requires change. As they try to make those changes we’re going to try to help them.
QUESTION: You don’t think they’ve decided the kind of change they want looks much more like Russia than the kinds of thing you would think of as reform?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I’m sure they all have different ideas, but there are certain realities about the modern world, certain realities about investment, certain realities about how to build an economy, certain realities about how to involve your people in the political life of a society. We’ll keep pushing those things because we think the countries that do adapt, that do make these changes, end up more stable and more prosperous and, in the long run, safer.
QUESTION: You did not mention Uzbekistan?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: They’re not a very good example of anything right now, Uzbekistan. We recognize Uzbekistan is an important player and we try to have as good, as decent a relationship with Uzbekistan as we can. But it’s hard to see how to develop that relationship with the kind of policies that they’ve been following, particularly when it comes to their own people, when it comes to the NGOs, when it comes to the human rights situation in that country. Nonetheless, we are open to better cooperation and we are, in fact, exploring the possibilities of better cooperation. But at this point it’s hard to say.
QUESTION: Could I ask you something about Iran?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: It’s not in my district.
QUESTION: Yesterday we had here in Brussels a group of the opposition, the National Council of Resistance [of Iran]. And they were revealing the existence of a secret nuclear place in Iran, where they apparently trying to create warheads, nuclear warheads to put in missiles. Do you have any information about that?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: No, I don’t, and partly because Iran’s not in my region. I deal with the problems that Iran creates in my neighborhood, some of the trouble they’ve caused in Afghanistan. We’re all, I think, determined that Iran should not have a nuclear bomb. I think that’s what I hear from other people in this neighborhood. We have to sort of work together on that, to prevent that. But no, I don’t know about the internal developments.
QUESTION: It might be possible that the opposition parties in Pakistan will demand Musharraf to quit. Would you persuade the president to leave his job?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Let’s not speculate at this point. Let’s let them get together, form a government, decide what their program is, and we look forward to working with them.
QUESTION: If I can just jump in, you did speak about his new role, so presumably you don’t expect him to maintain his old one.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: No, he’s already changed. He’s no longer military ruler and President. He’s no longer the chief architect of the country. He’s --
QUESTION: So you don’t mean a new role, post-election.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Well, he’s now a civilian president with a civilian prime minister emerging in the country. They’re going to have to settle in to what their duties and responsibilities are and what they want to undertake, each in their own position.
QUESTION: But Musharraf has clearly been a key U.S. ally in recent years, and in the war on terror.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Let’s start with this: Pakistan has been a key U.S. ally with Musharraf as the leader.
QUESTION: Well, given the changed circumstances…..
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Pakistan will remain a key U.S. ally with Musharraf and a prime minister and others as leaders. As I said right from the start, we wanted to see a democratic transition to civilian government because we believe in the long run that makes Pakistan more stable and gives it more opportunities. We’ve had that now and we look forward to dealing with whoever emerges as prime minister and we’ll work with all the players in the new system.
QUESTION: Are we correct, the slight implication is that the future would be better with Musharraf in some role despite what some opposition parties are...
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: A lot of the election, a lot of the politicking, was about Musharraf. We’re at a point now when people are forming coalitions. They are deciding on their program, what they want to do and how they want to do it. Let’s see what emerges from that before we start speculating on exactly who is going to play what role. They are going to have to settle into a new arrangement, a new system, with a civilian prime minister. That’s a good thing. Overall it’s a positive transition. How exactly all the pieces are going to fit together, I don’t think anybody can predict.
QUESTION: Were you surprised by the severity of the defeat?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: You never know how an election’s going to turn out until you have the election, but I think if you watched the opinion polls and listened to a lot of the people who knew, even discounting claims of different parties of what they were going to achieve, this looks like a fair representation of what the people of Pakistan wanted and that’s what was important to us.
Every election that reflects what the voters want is a good election. Every outcome from that is a good outcome. We’ll work with whoever gets put in the position of power by that process. Whoever emerges has the legitimacy to emerge from a new election.
Okay? Good to see you all.
* Inter-Services Intelligence directorate