AS NATO military operations in Afghanistan face setbacks and President Musharaff's political clout recedes, crucial U.S. interests in the war on terror are at stake. To address American policy in these evolving times, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Ambassador Richard Boucher, led a discussion at the Nixon Center yesterday. Kris Elftmann, chairman of the Richard Nixon Birthplace and Library Foundation, moderated the discussion.
"Stabilizing the center of [South and Central Asia]-Afghanistan, Pakistan-is a matter of some very, very high priority and considerable urgency," Boucher declared.
The ambassador first explained that U.S. involvement in Pakistan and Afghanistan was a matter of necessity. Because of the number of terrorist attacks that have originated from the region, the stakes are particularly high. Boucher also noted that the United States has an opportunity "to change the picture strategically for every single country in the region."
The ambassador then explained that the United States has also been presented with an opportunity of historical proportions. "For the last several hundred years Afghanistan has been a buffer, a barrier, between South Asia and Central Asia. It's been an obstacle to commerce and energy and ideas, people flowing back and forth in this part of the world. And we have an opportunity now-with Afghanistan being an open place, a stabilizing place-to start back a flow that used to exist through hundreds and hundreds of years of history," stated Boucher.
With these optimistic opening statements, Boucher then admitted that these opportunities are in addition to the challenges that must be faced. "There's an awful lot going on in Pakistan and Afghanistan that doesn't respond to historic opportunity or strategic necessity," he stated.
IF THE DESIRED outcome in Pakistan is a stable center from which to fight extremism, then, according to Ambassador Boucher, progress has been made in achieving that goal. In the past ten years, Pakistan has developed its civil society and media. Currently, the country is transitioning to an elected civilian government that is about to take office. Boucher noted that the United States will work with the new government and respect its right to form its own policies. Furthermore, the speaker pointed out that a significant factor in fighting extremism lies in creating political and economic alternatives for people in the tribal areas where terrorist groups have taken hold. By expanding and reforming the education system and the judicial system, and creating more economic opportunities for people throughout the country-particularly in tribal areas-terrorist groups will come under pressure.
Although the United States provides generous aid to Pakistan-in the hundreds of millions-anti-Americanism continues to be pervasive in the country. When asked how the United States addresses this troubling phenomenon, the ambassador explained that although the U.S. government does its best to make its involvements clear, they are often misinterpreted and misunderstood by the Pakistani people. Much of the anti-Americanism stems from the sense that the U.S. is interfering, when, in fact, it provides much needed aid. Boucher noted, "The $125 million a year spent on the [Pakistani] education system is under-appreciated… We hope we get more appreciation for the support we give."
When asked how the United States should deal with the current power divide of Pakistan, the ambassador replied, "It's no different than France." Elaborating, he explained that the situation was no different than dealing with any other country. It is not strange or unusual to work with political leaders from various sides of the political spectrum of a nation, which is how American diplomats will be involved with Pakistan.
The ambassador also pointed out that the Islamist parties lost "big time" in the election and lost most of their seats to secular nationalists. Whether this was due to their performance in government or their ideology is up for debate, but Boucher made it clear that there is "a movement away from Islamist parties in the new legislature."
Ambassador Boucher outlined a discontent and "worry" among the general population regarding the "Talibanization" of settled areas of Pakistan. Boucher gave the example of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, which he described as a "tragic loss for the whole society." Furthermore, the act was "probably perpetrated by Baitullah Mahsud-the head of a Taliban organization" the ambassador explained. The population is reacting against this type of violence instigated by extremist groups.
"When we talk to all the parties about dealing with extremism as a whole in all these different ways, part of that [conversation] is to keep up the pressure against the most dangerous elements of those extremists, which are going to have to be fought with military, as well as other, means," he said.
"What matters to us are the outcomes," Boucher summarized.
IN AFGHANISTAN, Ambassador Boucher explained that there is "an opportunity to achieve a new kind of momentum." Although there is an array of difficulties in stabilizing Afghanistan, Boucher reminded his audience that progress was being made, albeit slowly. Coalition forces have been successful at keeping the Taliban at bay, which has then allowed the Afghan government to establish itself and implement successful civil initiatives in areas such as health and education.
Although there is a long way to go in Afghanistan, Boucher explained that the key to stability is still expanding and enhancing the quality of the government. In response to an audience member questioning the progress that has been made in Afghanistan, Boucher gave an anecdote from his visit to Afghanistan in 2002 with Colin Powell. "The government was a bunch of people having lunch around a table with no money in the bank, no money in vault in the central bank, no computers, no telephones, no funding-they had nothing."
He continued, "Now you have some very capable ministries that are able to go out and run schools and who are able to build wells and dig irrigation ditches for people, who are able to provide policemen in certain areas. Not necessarily thoroughly and completely around the country, but I would say… when I went to see the minister of Reconstruction and Development, the national solidarity program that he runs is doing 35,000 projects in 25,000 villages."
As well, approximately 82 percent of the country has access to health care. In applying that statistic, Boucher estimated that improved medical care has saved the lives of 8,500 Afghan children, who would have died as little as five years previous.
The export of opium is still a huge problem, though the most rampant production occurs in the south, where the Taliban has its strongholds. Once stability is achieved, there's considerably more potential for improvement.
"THE BEST we can do is stabilize and create a direction in these places," said Boucher. Noting that current U.S. officials are conscious of the fact that the Bush administration is in its last year, Boucher expressed a desire of his office to give the next administration a platform to work from and to put forth plans that will stand up well in future years.
The ambassador concluded, "A lot of these programs, even though they're beginning or expanding this year, are designed to give something to the next administration to carry through and to really start the transformation that they're going to want to complete and benefit from in terms of the stability it can provide."
Caitlin B. Doherty is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.