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Interview With Melissa Block

Richard A. Boucher, Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs
NPR's "All Things Considered"
Washington, DC
November 20, 2008

QUESTION: And I'm joined now by Richard Boucher, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs. Welcome to the program.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

QUESTION: And, Ambassador, we just heard the Afghan Ambassador say that engaging or reconciling with the Taliban is a necessary evil -- a painful process but a necessary one. Do you agree that it's necessary?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think it's necessary, but I wouldn't necessarily call it that evil. Some of the leadership in the Taliban, if they were willing to abandon violence and accept a new constitution, I mean…there are certain basic criteria: not al-Qaeda types, not criminals. But if they were willing to come across and come in from the cold, I suppose there has to be a political process to do that.

I have to say there's no sign that they really want to do that at this point. They're still on the…they’re setting off bombs and kidnapping people.

QUESTION: So you think its talk as opposed to anything practical?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think it's putting up a possibility of political solution because eventually there has to be one and there can be one.

QUESTION: The Afghan Ambassador also said that this has country needs more international help if it wants to get to a position of strength, if they are to negotiate with the Taliban or if they don't. And we've heard this same message from everyone else I've spoken with on this issue this week.

Do you share the frustration that…that the U.S. should be doing more, that they feel the U.S. should be doing more, and that after seven years of engagement in Afghanistan, the situation, in many levels, is deteriorating?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think what you've had is an enemy that's changed its tactics. And instead of trying to take over the government or take over territory, they're now just trying to make people feel unsafe. And they set off bombs and people do feel unsafe.

The only way to stop that is to, sort of, put a blanket of governance on top of it. And so we need to do more, so that we can provide safety, security, governance, schools -- all that -- throughout Afghanistan. And we need to do better in terms of coordinating out of that, so that people really get what they need from the government.

QUESTION: Does that represent, do you think, a flaw in U.S. thinking that this wasn't predicted and these things weren't done to the extent they should have been?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think we've had to…we've had to react and adjust as the situation evolved. There have been a lot of disturbing factors, but, Afghanistan…you've got to remember, this was one of the poorest countries in the world from the '50's, '60's, and '70's. And then they went downhill for 20 years.

So a lot of what we're doing is construction. It's not easy. It's not simple. And it's not overnight. So we've…you might say we've built the government up so we have a government in Kabul that's capable of doing things around the country. We need to build the government out so that they're reaching all parts of the population. And that's where you're going to get true stability.

QUESTION: And what message would you give the incoming administration on the challenge of finding Osama bin Laden and the risk that he still poses?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think the answer is when you have the ability to govern and have government on both sides of the border and in all those areas, that we'll find the leadership of al-Qaeda and be able to deal with them.

QUESTION: So you're talking about Afghanistan as well as Pakistan?


QUESTION: And how far away are we from that scenario that you're describing?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I can't estimate the amount of time. I just know what has to be done. And it's not…it's a matter of, you know, you see…you see the Pakistanis going after the problem in their tribal areas in a way that they never have before. You see a lot of expansion of government in Afghanistan, but there's still a lot of things to do: major parts of Afghanistan still not under government control because we don't have the troops and the Afghans and the capabilities to be in all places in Afghanistan get.

You still have a discussion going on in Pakistan about how to bring the tribal areas into the political structure of the country. So there's some…there's some things that have to be solved before we really get these areas under control.

QUESTION: Ambassador Boucher, thanks for being with us.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Okay. Thank you very much.

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