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Central/South Asia: U.S. Official Sees Progress In Volatile Region

Richard Boucher (file photo) (epa) WASHINGTON, March 23, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Richard Boucher has been assistant U.S. secretary of state for Central and South Asian affairs for a little over a year. In his second interview with RFE/RL since assuming these duties, he tells correspondent Andrew F. Tully of the challenges and achievements he's experienced in dealing with the region.

RFE/RL: How does the United States plan to face the Taliban's much-publicized plan of increased attacks during this coming spring? Is the Taliban winning the psychological war?

Richard Boucher: I think the first thing to remember is that we've got a basic process under way in Afghanistan that's working well, and that's extending government -- helping the army of Afghanistan get out and bring services and benefits to the people of the country. And that's actually going well. And we're better set in those terms this year than we were last year to face the renewal of fighting in the springtime.

And the Taliban have been threatening a lot of things, including suicide bombings, which is horrible. But frankly they've failed to take towns and cities and territory, and this is what they resort to: killing school kids and policemen and government officials and ordinary citizens in the marketplaces.

In the end, I think this process is under way, and the government's extending itself, and the Taliban is frankly under pressure from all sides, including from Pakistan, and that's how we're going to face it. We're going to face it by giving the people of Afghanistan the safety and the justice and the opportunity that they want.

RFE/RL: So you're saying the Taliban aren't winning the psychological war?

They [the Taliban] manage to get media attention, they manage to get in some place long enough to make a video and a cell-phone call. Unfortunately, they get attention by killing innocent people.

But you can get on the front pages and still not have public support. And everything shows that the government has public support, especially when they're able to deliver the kind of services that people need. And the government can do that, and the Taliban have no way to do that.

Dealing with Uzbeks 'Difficult'

RFE/RL: Even though you have specified common interests with the Uzbek government, why do you think Tashkent is keeping the United States at arms length? What stands in the way of lifting the mutual mistrust and finding a practical solution?

Boucher: I wouldn't want to speculate on the Uzbekistan government's attitude toward this. They have said to us that they want a relationship, they've said to us they want a comprehensive relationship in security, in education, in health and economics and political reform -- all the things that have been in our joint communiques over the years. We have said we want that kind of relationship, too.

The problem is they've made it very difficult for anybody who wants to have a relationship -- whether it's their neighbors, the way they shut off electricity flows, gas flows, trading, all that stuff, or countries like us from farther overseas, the way they've forced out companies, they've forced out nongovernmental organizations [NGOs] that we work with.

The practical problems of getting anything done in Uzbekistan have meant it's very hard for us to maintain that kind of comprehensive relationship we would like. And we do things that are possible and useful to us, but in the end they have just made things very, very difficult for us and for many others to work with them. They're just very hard to work with because they close down all these agencies, NGOs, they restrict their people from going overseas for study. There's just a lot of difficulties they throw in the way.

Encouraging Reform in Central Asia

RFE/RL: Kazakhstan is open to Western investment and seems to be a rather open society, yet the U.S. State Department still questions its record on human rights. How do you view Kazakhstan today?

Boucher: We look at Kazakhstan as a country that's done a lot so far in areas like nonproliferation or economic reform or developing its economy, using its oil and gas wealth to help people get education and better lives -- but still in a process of development.

We have emphasized the need for political reform, for democratic development, to build sort of democratic institutions now that they can stabilize the country over the long term, and that's something we continue to pursue. The Kazakhstan government says it's part of their program, and they're talking about some things, and we're constantly trying to encourage support and make sure there's real progress and not just paper progress.

Russia is postponing construction of the biggest hydroelectric station in Central Asia on the Vakhsh River in Tajikistan. Tajikistan has agreements with Afghanistan and Pakistan to provide them with electricity. Does the West -- and particularly the United States -- plan to help accelerate the building of this facility?

Boucher: I don't think it's one facility in particular. There are, I'm sure, other investors that would be interested in getting involved there. But we are certainly strong advocates of developing Tajikistan's hydropower and are working with them in a variety of ways so that they can develop that industry on a market basis, as well as doing the feasibility and helping with the organization of power lines that can bring Tajik power down south through Afghanistan -- to Afghanistan, and through Afghanistan to Pakistan.

So we've worked a lot with them in the power sector to try to get them set up as a major exporter for the long term of power, and that's where Tajikistan's wealth is going to be over the long term. And we think that everybody should cooperate and support that. And if one investor doesn't come through, that there should be a market opportunity so that others could make sure that the necessary gets done.

RFE/RL: To what extent does the U.S. administration plan to support democratic-reform efforts in Kyrgyzstan? This is an important issue in Kyrgyzstan because Russia and China are beginning to wield their own influence on the country.

Boucher: We've always been supporters of democratic development in Kyrgyzstan and all of Central Asia. We think it's, in the long term, the best route to stability. There's been a lot of political turmoil in Kyrgyzstan over the last year or so, and frankly our interest is not -- how can I say that? -- that's not what we're looking for in the end.

What we're trying to do is work with them so that they can get their new constitution done and establish a stable political system, have a healthy democratic debate, but also achieve a sort of democratic stability you get from having elections, having elected officials, but also having an independent judiciary, a strong commission against corruption -- all the other pieces that go to building a stable democracy for the longer term. That's what we're trying to help them do.

RFE/RL: Despite some major changes in Turkmenistan, human rights problems remain, including violations of rights of movement, freedom of speech, violations of rule of law by the authorities, etc. Are there any special projects or programs offered by the U.S. government to improve the situation?

Boucher: I think we're ready to work with them across the board in a whole host of areas, and they've indicated in many ways that they're interested in change and starting to make changes, particularly in areas of importance to us like the opportunities for the population and education and travel and access to technology and things like that.

We've talked to them quite a bit -- talked to the new leaders quite a bit about what we can help them with and where we can cooperate, and we're sending out delegations to talk to them more specifically about areas like education and health, exchanges and educational programs, security cooperation so they can control their borders better and keep narcotics out, energy cooperation, economic cooperation so they can develop a private business sector investment climate.

So there's a whole series of groups that we'll send out to really work with them in some detail in each of these areas -- political reform and democratization is one -- and try to help them develop steady programs to move in the direction of reform that they want to do.

Finally, how optimistic are you that the former Soviet Central Asian states, plus Afghanistan, can become full, stable members of the international community?

Boucher: I'm hopeful. We look at Central Asia as a place of new opportunities. And Afghanistan is part of that -- an open, stable, economically viable Afghanistan is part of the bridge for this region, part of the opening of this region, so that they can not only develop relationships to the north and to the west and to the east, with Europe and China and Russia, but they have the opportunities of India and Pakistan and indeed the opportunities of getting to the sea. Afghanistan is what makes that possible.

And so I think there are a lot of new opportunities opening up for this region and for the people of the region. And what we want to try to do is work with governments on the progress and the economics and the reforms that are necessary so that people can realize the benefit of those opportunities.

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