U.S.-Afghanistan RelationsRichard A. Boucher, Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs
Remarks to the Press
January 7, 2009
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Good afternoon, everybody. It’s good to be back in Afghanistan. I’m sorry to bring you out on a holiday, which most of you probably were working today anyway, but I’m very glad to be back here. This is my first trip of the year so I think it’s entirely fitting that I come to Afghanistan and talk about a lot of important issues and see a lot of friends that I’ve been working with for the last several years.
I came here from Pakistan where I’ve just seen President Zardari, and it turned out to be on the same day that he was coming to visit. I just want to say the United States very much welcomes the cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Turning, I’d say, very strong personal relationships between Presidents and Ministers and others into really concrete efforts by the governments to build ties and open up opportunities for people in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The second reason why we think this cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan is important is because both Presidents, both governments, have a very strong determination to fight terrorism and to make their citizens safe -- a strong determination that’s supported by the United States in Pakistan and Afghanistan. We think that really the only way we’re going to beat the menace, beat back the Taliban and terrorists that are threatening Pakistanis and Afghans, is by having that kind of Afghan-Pakistan cooperation and both having strong United States and international support for doing that.
2009 will be an important year for all of us. As you know in the United States we’re going through a transition. We’ll have a new team coming on, working on…a new team that’s pledged to give a lot of priority to Afghanistan and Pakistan. So I think we’ll continue to work very hard in this region.
2009 is an election year in Afghanistan and the Afghan people will get to enjoy the same right and the same opportunity that we had in the United States.
But I think also there are a lot of elements coming together this year that we’ve been working on over the last year -- things like strengthened local governance coming into place, or enhanced police training, enhanced police reform, a higher pace of Army training, electricity coming on-line that we’ve been working on, particularly electricity for Kabul. And of course, as you’ve seen, our military already announced there will be new troops, U.S. forces coming in this year starting this month with some troops in the Logar and Wardak areas and followed by other groups of troops going to the south, so that we can work more with the Afghan people, but with the Afghan army and the police as they provide security for the people of Afghanistan.
So as we start a new year let me make clear once again the absolute commitment of the United States to a sovereign, independent, democratic Afghanistan with a government that can provide safety and justice and opportunity to its citizens. I think as we move into the new year you’ll see that commitment expressed in concrete ways, in terms of what we do but also in terms of our desire to support Afghan-led security operations, the Afghan lead in governance, the Afghan lead in the economy, so that Afghans more and more control their own destiny.
With that, I’ll be glad to take your questions.
QUESTION: You said the new troops are going to come to Logar and Wardak and the following reinforcements will go south. Is it just south? Where exactly? And (inaudible)?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think you’re going to have to go down the street to ask those questions. I frankly don’t know the exact answers on the deployments. I think that’s where the military comes in. They’ll have to do the planning on that, where they end up going in the end. I know some will go south. I don’t know about the east, but they’ll figure that out as we go along.
But I think it’s important to recognize the United States is going to be there in the fight. We’re going to be there wherever it’s needed, and we’re going to be working with Afghan forces. I think one of the things we’re doing more and more is sending troops who can work with Afghan counterparts. We’re sending troops who can support Afghan police and provide protection for them. It’s very much a joint effort at this stage. We’ll be out there fighting, but we’ll be fighting alongside our Afghan compatriots.
QUESTION: You mentioned a deployment of new troops to Wardak and Logar provinces, however the Afghan government and the Afghan political analysts and military analysts have been emphasizing time by time that the troops should be deployed to the border areas, not to the centers of the provinces. They have described an effective method that the troops should be deployed to the border areas.
In the meantime, when President-elect Obama was in Afghanistan he emphasized that the Afghan government has had a defensive position in the past few years; they’ve not had an offensive position in the war on terror. Has that perception changed to any extent so far?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: First of all, again, I’m not here to do military deployments. I’m not a military planner. I’m not a military expert. I’m going to let the military experts decide where the troops go and where they can be most effective. That means Afghan and U.S. and international military experts to do that together. I’m just telling you the facts as I know them. I’m not trying to do the planning at this table.
The element of, sort of, offensive operations, I think is important to keep in mind that we are, we’re here to help extend the reach of the Afghan government so that the Afghan government, the democratic government in Afghanistan, can provide safety and services and opportunity to its people. That does mean going into new places and helping the government establish itself. That means using military force. That means helping the Afghan government deploy police. It means helping the Afghan government put in district sub-governors, go in with aid projects and assistance. So it’s very much an effort to push out and I think that’s been underway. I think that’s what you’ll see continue.
QUESTION: (Inaudible), given there are a lot of people saying this is a parallel Taliban government in part because Afghanistan is clearly (inaudible). How do you think you can practically [inaudible]? They’re preventing voter registration (inaudible)...
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: But it’s not. Let’s try to get the facts straight on this one.
QUESTION: Can I finish my question, sir?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Yes.
QUESTION: (Inaudible). It’s having an affect on people’s access to registration (inaudible) and that is, in turn, possibly going to affect the presidential (inaudible). So from a practical point of view how can you penetrate that?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: From a practical point of view…
QUESTION: From your point of view.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: From a practical point of view. My point of view is very practical. [Laughter].
We’ve registered so far 3.5 million new voters -- not we, but the Independent Election Commission has registered so far 3.5 million new voters in Afghanistan in the voter registration drive that is still underway. They’ve been able to carry that drive out successfully in over 200 districts. You can get the exact number from them. I don’t think there are any districts where they’ve been unable to do it. Some districts they’re doing a lot of careful planning, maybe a dozen or so, where they don’t have a strong presence yet. But this is so far, knock on wood, a quite successful voter registration drive.
Second of all, I know there are these reports of Taliban governance. We see bits and pieces of it in different places, places where they’ve been, where the government hasn’t penetrated yet. In most districts where the government doesn’t have a strong presence, the Taliban don’t have a strong presence either. It’s local tribes, local apparatus, local justice systems that prevail. That’s fine in many cases. It serves some of the needs of the people. But I think the effort has to be to provide people with good, decent government.
Nobody in Afghanistan likes the Taliban very much. They’ve suffered under the Taliban. They’ve experienced the Taliban. Where they’ve accepted Taliban presence it’s frequently been under the force of the gun. I think if the government can provide good governance and good services that’s what people will want. So I think our job is to help the government get out there and provide what the people need.
QUESTION: There’s a pretty high probability, it seems, that Karzai’s term will expire before he’s able to hold elections, before elections can be held. I’m just wondering if that happens and he’s legally illegitimate, at least on paper, how, or before it comes to that, how you intend to help the government finesse the problem of having the elections in an orderly way if time has run out.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think from a practical point of view one has to look at: how do you give the maximum number of Afghan people the maximum opportunity to choose their government, to vote in an election. There is a discussion in Afghanistan about the constitution the constitutional rules, some of the different clauses. I think we understand that, we accept that. But also if there’s some sort of political consensus or understanding in Afghanistan about when the election should be held, that’s fine with us, frankly. We’re not coming at this from a legalistic point of view. We’re coming at this from what’s the best way to get the maximum number of Afghans a chance to vote. And when you look at it from security or just the matter of just organizing the elections and the ballots and the voting, there are a lot of people that say it’s just got to be later in the year rather than early in the year.
So that discussion is going on in Afghanistan. I wouldn’t say they’ve formed a consensus yet, but obviously we’ll accept and support whatever the Afghans decide to do.
QUESTION: It just sounds as if you’ve accepted that the election’s going to be later in the year and not sooner in the year.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: It sounds as if we’re accepting whatever the Afghans decide, because that’s what I said.
QUESTION: Just to follow up to the elections question, recently the Afghan Independent Elections Commission announced they are facing a lack of budget for the upcoming elections. In case that problem exists they will not be able to hold the elections on the time mentioned in the Afghan constitution. How committed is the U.S. government in funding the elections process in Afghanistan?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: We’re very committed to funding the elections. I know that other international participants, players, are also committed. I’ve talked to Europeans, I’ve talked to [the] Japanese, I’ve talked to a variety of donors. The money will be there for the election. I am going to be talking to other countries to make sure that the money actually shows up, but I don’t have any doubt that it will.
QUESTION: Are you ready to accept any other forms of legitimizing the leadership other than elections?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: There’s no other form of legitimizing leadership in a democracy than elections. There’s no other form in France; there’s no other form in Holland; there’s no other form in Canada or the United States; there’s no other form in Afghanistan. So this government, this people, this society is committed to elections and we’re committed to supporting them and doing that.
QUESTION: How do you look to President Zardari’s trip to Afghanistan, because Pakistan faces (inaudible) conflict with India? They said they would withdraw their forces from the tribal area on the border of Afghanistan to the border with India. So how will it have an effect on Afghanistan security?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: First of all, I think we see President Zardari’s trip here and the work that he’s done as a very strong commitment to opening up opportunities with Afghanistan. But also to ending the terrorist menace that afflicts Pakistani people and Afghan people both.
Pakistan remains heavily engaged in the tribal areas, heavily engaged in trying to end the terrorist menace up there. We’ve really seen very little change in that situation. But that’s part and parcel of this overall pledge that Pakistan has made to end terrorism inside Pakistan. Whether it’s the groups that have been attacking Pakistanis and blowing up the Marriott Hotel, for example, or the groups that have been supporting terrorism in Afghanistan, or the groups that organized and carried out the attack on Mumbai, these people are all a threat to Pakistan. As far as we see it the Pakistan government has said that they will try to eliminate those threats from their soil.
Thank you very much. I appreciate the chance to see you again.