Interview With Rob Watson of BBC World ServiceRichard Boucher, Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs
September 18, 2008
QUESTION: In July President Bush lifted some of the restrictions on U.S. troop incursions into Pakistan. He didn’t have much choice really, did he? The Pakistanis have proved themselves either unable or unwilling to deal with al-Qaida and Taliban leaders who are threatening the lives of coalition forces over the border.
We also understand that the solution to stabilize in this area has to be in the hands of the Pakistanis. They have to be able to control the territory. They have to have the security capabilities to do that. They have to have the economic development to give these people jobs, not guns, and to integrate them into the nation and they have to be in charge of the political arrangements.
So a lot of what we do and a lot of what we’re talking about with the Pakistanis this week and next is: how do we and they both support a sort of comprehensive approach to stabilizing these areas?
QUESTION: I understand that you can’t talk specifically about military issues or military operations, but clearly the ante has been upped, hasn’t it, which seems to reflect a level of frustration?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Once again, without confirming the premise, there is an effort to really address these issues. But let’s remember, a lot of that comes from the Pakistani government. They are the ones who have made it clear, whether it was Prime Minister Gillani during his visit to Washington or recent statements by President Zardari, they have made clear that this is their fight, that they see these extremists and terrorists as a threat to Pakistan and Pakistanis. And really, given the hundreds of Pakistanis who have died over the last year in these terrorist incidents, one shouldn’t be surprised. But they understand the need to step up the effort and they themselves have stepped up the effort.
QUESTION: That is supremely diplomatic. You’re as well aware as I am that they’ve also been shouting from the rooftops that they don’t like the idea of having U.S. troops on their territory.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Again, I think we understand their feelings but we also understand that they need to be able to deal with this. Fundamentally our job is to work with them and make sure they can deal with it.
QUESTION: Privately, do they accept that there has to be increased U.S. action in the tribal areas?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Again, I’m not talking about any particular U.S. action.
QUESTION: But I’m talking about the principle.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I’m not talking the principle of any particular U.S. action. I’m sorry. I’m just not in a position to talk about military activities that way.
QUESTION: The United States, in formulating its policy, it’s well known that there have been debates within Washington. On the one hand you have some saying that clearly there are huge threats in the tribal areas. Others said to be in the State Department worried about the effects any stepped-up action would have on destabilizing Pakistan. Have you been worried about the stability of Pakistan?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think our job is to help stabilize Pakistan overall. I think everybody in Washington understands that stability in Pakistan is a complicated matter, but fundamentally it’s a matter of modernizing Pakistan and integrating the tribal areas. The Pakistanis have to have the ability to control their territory.
Go back to British Colonial arrangements that were inherited into the modern Pakistan for the last 60 years. Then add the sort of turmoil during the Soviet, anti-Soviet jihad period in the tribal areas. You get a place where the extremism has become very entrenched, which is not integrated into the nation. We, the Pakistani government and others are now looking at this and saying this has to be part of Pakistan. The Pakistani government has to have authority up here. Our job, I think, is to support them with security measures, economic measures and other things so that they can get a hold of these areas.
QUESTION: You’ll forgive me poking you a bit more on this one, but it has been widely reported that there have been very lively policy debates in Washington. On the one hand, those who think: look, we just have to get tougher with the tribal areas because Pakistan is clearly unable to deal with it. And others who are worried about any more involvement by the United States would simply destabilize the place. You’re saying that debate hasn’t happened?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: No, I’m not saying -- We talk about everything in Washington. We have a lot of lively debates. That’s the job of people in government, is to examine something from every possible angle. But as I said, the analysis is that Pakistan has to have the ability to control these areas, and fundamentally, that’s what we need to work for.
QUESTION: Finally, on the Pakistan issue, to what extent does the security community in the United States now think that Pakistan has been playing essentially a double game with the United States, that we’ll arrest one or two senior al-Qaida leaders, but at the same time we’re not going to cut our links, perhaps even in some quarters support for the Taliban. Haven’t they been playing a double game with you?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: It’s not a phrase I would use. I would say we all know the history of this. We know the anti-Soviet period, we know how the extremists got entrenched up there. We know Pakistan’s support for the Taliban, especially in the ‘90s. They’re one of the few countries that recognized them. We know that President Musharraf announced in late 2001, early 2002 they were going to break with that.
QUESTION: Have they?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: We have never -- I think it’s a process that has ebbed and flowed sometimes. How thoroughly have they implemented that? It’s a process that I think is aided by the fact that you now have a new civilian government that’s very dedicated to fighting this menace and that wants to make sure that all the pieces of national power are lined up in the same direction. Their effort that they’re making now -- say in Baujar, one of the tribal areas -- with the military is, I think, a good sign that they are determined to try to line everything up in the same direction. We hope that we see all the elements of national power doing that. That hasn’t always been the case.
QUESTION: Isn’t the assessment in Washington that the civilian government controls policy towards the tribal areas, or indeed, that the civilian government has control over the military and Pakistani intelligence when it comes to these sensitive security issues?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I don’t know that I would assess it either/or. The civilian government has a very clear policy that they are trying to implement and that they are going to work with the other pieces of the Pakistani government to try to implement. I’ve seen the military certainly very determined to carry out military action against the militants. You can go back as far as you want, but really there’s been a period since the Red Mosque was cleared out in Islamabad last summer when there have been a whole series of military actions. But again, that’s been sort of more at some points than others.
So, working with the military on consistent action against terrorism is part of the government program. We hope they can do that and we’ll try to support that with our assistance to their military capabilities, also assistance to the tribal areas.
QUESTION: On Afghanistan, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs recently testified in Congress that the international forces weren’t possibly winning in Afghanistan, that a review was needed. What needs to happen to NATO for the U.S., for Afghanistan indeed, to be winning?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Well, we’re doing a lot. I think you have to start with that and say we’re doing a lot this year that’s developing Afghan capabilities, developing the capability of ministries, of the government, of governors to carry out projects in the rural areas, developing capabilities of the security force and the police do more in providing security for people.
But we also know that the enemy has adopted much more, sort of, terroristic tactics of bombs, lightening raids, attacks, things like that [which have made] people feel unsafe. So how do you make people feel safe? How do you bring the benefits of government throughout the country?
You really have to get out there in all the places and not only get rid of the militants, but give them the kind of policemen they need, the kind of governance they need, the kind of schools and hospitals they need to feel like the government’s taking care of them.
QUESTION: -- more troops though.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: No, it doesn’t just mean more troops. It means a bigger effort across the board. It means --
QUESTION: But it does mean more troops.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: It means more troops among other things, but it means a bigger effort across the board on developing Afghan capabilities. That’s where I think more intense focus on building up the Afghan capability to provide that web of security for people around the country, that’s something we’re looking at more intensely right now.
QUESTION: Richard, thank you very much.
You have to get up very early in the day to get one over on Mr. Richard Boucher.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I’m used to answering the same question five times. It’s good talking to you.
QUESTION: That’s a very nice way of putting it. Thank you.