PRAGUE -- U.S. Assistant Secretary Of State for South and Central Asia Richard Boucher says that while the United States actively works to promote security and cooperation in Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, in many cases it's up to the governments themselves to take responsibility for addressing the challenges they face.
Boucher discussed U.S. efforts in the region with RFE/RL Central Newsroom Director Jay Tolson and correspondents Golnaz Esfandiari and Abubakar Siddique.
RFE/RL: Some say that the United States, at least since 2005, has been less conspicuously engaged in Central Asia. You recently said that the new administration will place greater emphasis on the region. How so?
U.S. Assistant Secretary Of State Richard Boucher: I think visits, high-level visits, engagement across the board and, of course, working with the neighbors on Afghanistan, engagement on issues like agriculture and energy. But we've been pretty active, and we'll stay very active on electricity and some of those issues. But I think you'll see more visits out there. I think we are trying to increase our aid budgets. And we are going to work very closely with the countries of Central Asia on Afghanistan and other issues.
RFE/RL: Human rights groups say that the West, in general , and the United States, in particular, put energy and security interests before human rights issues in Central Asia. Others say democratic institutions and practices receive equally scant emphasis. How would you respond to those charges?
Boucher: I'd just tell you what I do. Every meeting that I have, every time I go on a visit, human rights issues are just as prominent as any other issue. I just spent two days in Turkmenistan. We went through everything -- everything from Afghanistan to energy to education to agriculture to democracy and human rights. And we are always trying to move on all these fronts. We don't hold one thing hostage to another, but every visit I've had, every meeting I've had, human rights issues have been very prominent with every country in Central Asia.
RFE/RL: Recently, Iran offered to train Afghan police. What is your reaction to that?
Boucher: I think, you know, everything that any country offers to do with Afghanistan, the Afghans have to look at it and decide if it fits their program. It is up to them to decide.
RFE/RL: What things does the United States want to see Iran do in Afghanistan?
Boucher: I think we want to see Iran play a constructive role, that is to work with Afghanistan and the neighbors against narcotics, against terrorism, to support the government of Afghanistan and not individual factions or political groups and to try to help Afghanistan's people get training, get opportunities to trade, get support for agriculture, whatever they need.
RFE/RL: So, if the Afghan government agrees with Iran training their police forces, the United States is not going to object?
Boucher: I'm not going to say, "If this, if that." I'm going to say it is principally a question for the Afghans to decide.
'Integrated Development Strategies'
RFE/RL: How is the new U.S.-AfPak (Afghanistan-Pakistan) strategy going to address the critical issue of underdevelopment in the Pashtun regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. You know that 50 million people live there, and the Taliban violence, most of it is based there.
Boucher: Well, the violence has made it harder to do the development, frankly. It has made it harder to build the roads, do the electricity projects, do the agricultural projects. But in some places, we've been able to stop the violence, and you have provinces, areas like Nangarhar, where there was just this terrible earthquake today, which we are concerned about. But overall, some of these parts have calmed down, and they are starting the development process more seriously.
I think what we have to do is have better integrated strategy, both civilian and military together, so that we are actually moving forward on all fronts as much as we can, so that as the military goes into the area, we are able to help the Afghans deploy police, deploy government, to provide stability, start the projects to rebuild, start the projects to develop irrigation, to develop electricity, whatever, and to do that in a much more planned and integrated manner. That's one of the goals of the new policy.
RFE/RL: How do you see the idea of talking to the Taliban moving forward on the ground, both in Pakistan and Afghanistan?
Boucher: I think the first issue -- it has to be led by the local government. Like in Afghanistan, it has to be led by the Afghan government. They are the ones who have to live with these people, eventually, and they have to decide who they can integrate and who they can't.
The second [issue] is you have to be clear. There are different groups that are fighting the government. The Taliban is a general term. But some of these people fight for money. Some fight because of coercion by the Taliban -- they go into villages and shoot people and say, "OK, you've got to sign up." Some of them fight because of other grievances against the government or they are mad about corruption. Some fight for tribal reasons.
So, a lot of those people at the lower and mid-levels, I think the Afghans can engage in a process, and they've made it clear: abandon violence, distance yourself from Al-Qaeda, reject Al-Qaeda, and accept the government system, and we'll take you back. And those seem like reasonable conditions to us. We'll support that.
RFE/RL: Mr. Boucher, recently the U.S. government expressed concerns over the Swat Shari'a deal, but your government has never shown any concerns over the Frontier Crimes Regulations, which is a draconian, colonial-era law.
Boucher: First of all, I don't think the two are the same. The issue in Swat is, one, is the rights of people, but it is also the issue of government control. And those are two concerns about the arrangements in the Swat Valley.
The Frontier Crimes [Regulations have] been around since the British days. It needs to be modernized. The Pakistani government, the Pakistani political parties have started talking already about how to bring that up to date, how to integrate these places into the national economy, but also the national structures. They are going to have to figure that out politically as well as legally. But that is a process we support. That is something that they have started to talk about, how to change it, and we hope they can figure that one out.
RFE/RL: The U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan have recently attracted a lot of attention. Does the intensity of these attacks mean that the U.S. government has lost faith in the Pakistani military and are these attacks going to eventually lead to U.S. boots on the ground in the Pakistani tribal areas?
Boucher: Our goal is for the Pakistanis to be able to control their territory and control the problem of terrorism on their territory. We've been very clear about that. If you look at our budgets, our money, the recent supplemental budget that we've proposed to Congress would support a counterinsurgency fund to help Pakistan develop its own capabilities against terrorism.
So, I think we're very clear and consistent in this, in saying that Pakistan has to be able to control these people, has to able to stop Al-Qaeda from operating on its territory, it has to be able stop the other terrorist groups, and we're going to make sure we help Pakistan develop that capability.
Central Asian Cooperation
RFE/RL: On April 16, Turkmenistan signed a memorandum of understanding with the German firm RWE AG, a partner in the EU-backed Nabucco project. What is the U.S. doing to encourage the diversification of gas delivery from Central Asia to other parts of the world?
Boucher: Here's how I'd put it: It's clear to us, and I think it's clear to the governments involved, that if they're going to have a stable use of their natural resources, if they're going to get the maximum benefit from their natural resources, they're going to need diversified routes for exports, they're going to need a diversified customer base.
And so you have them doing different things. Not just using their pipeline through Russia, but building pipelines into China, or Kazakhstan, or starting to ship oil across the Caspian. So there's a lot of different things that they're doing. What we're trying to do is support and encourage all that.
We've certainly supported American firms, who offer another opportunity, another set of advantages to these countries. Some, they're already invested in, others, they offer new opportunities to countries. So, we try to work with them and develop all these different opportunities.
RFE/RL: What role could the U.S. play in promoting greater cooperation among the countries of Central Asia?
Boucher: We've worked with all of them, we've worked especially on trade facilitation, we have a trade and investment framework agreement. Actually, just about the same time as I'm out there this week, we have another official from our trade representative's office who's going around to all the countries to talk about how we can promote better trade, better customs procedures, and just help them develop together.
Some of these thing that we've done, in terms of supporting the building of the bridge from Tajikistan to Afghanistan, for example, that connects to roads built by others, including the Japanese, the Chinese, the Asian Development Bank, but you really now have a highway that goes from Almaty to Karachi. And so what we're trying to do now is work with the countries on the regulations and the trading environments so that people can start using that for trade, give them an outlet to the sea.
So, there's a lot of things like that. We've focused on the trade and investment side, others, the United Nations has worked with them on water issues, and we're always looking for chances to connect them to Afghanistan, with electricity, and make sure that Afghanistan becomes not just a problem, but an opportunity for them.