The Hague Conference on Afghanistan

Richard A. Boucher
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
With NRC Handelsbald
Washington, DC, United States
March 20, 2009

QUESTION: Why did you pick The Netherlands?

Assistant Secretary Boucher: Why did we pick The Netherlands?

QUESTION: Did you pick The Netherlands?

Assistant Secretary Boucher: Well, we picked The Netherlands because they offered, because they are capable and organised, and because they are solid, in terms of being involved in all aspects of Afghanistan. They seem like the right place to have a big meeting on Afghanistan.

QUESTION: But it could have been another place?

Assistant Secretary Boucher: The Netherlands government offered, and The Hague was the perfect location. We appreciate the fact that they made the offer, and we were happy to accept because they are such a solid ally in Afghanistan and are involved in all the aspects of what is going on there. They are capable of addressing Afghanistan from all points of view – governance, economics, security; both in terms of NATO and EU and what individual allies are doing. It just seems the place that can bring everything together, and the goal of the meeting is to bring everything together.

QUESTION: At the same time, the Dutch administration has decided to leave its current mission in southern Afghanistan in the summer of 2010. How do you see that?

Assistant Secretary Boucher: Each nation has to make its own decision about how their mission evolves. I don’t think the Dutch government has said they want to leave Afghanistan. I think they have said they want to change the current form of their military mission. The point that we will make as we talk to people is that it is going to require a big commitment, a long-term commitment and a commitment on both the military and civilian sides. Each country has to see what it can do. How that evolves in terms of the Dutch mission is up to the Dutch to decide. We want to work together with all our of our allies on an integrated strategy.

QUESTION: But what signal does it send that one of the allies, in the midst of that proces, decides to leave its current mission?

Assistant Secretary Boucher: This has been going on for some time. There have been NATO needs, NATO projections, and they have been met. All I can tell you is, as we come out of this review, with considerable input from a lot of allies, that the United States will be making more commitments. We hope that our allies take a look at what they can do as well.

QUESTION: Do you any suggestions for the Dutch?

Assistant Secretary Boucher: I think we will wait a little bit. In the final stages of the review we are trying to define better what kind of things we all need to do. As we talk to our allies in the next couple of weeks we will be able to define a bit better what each ally can do. We are not yet at the point were we can say, “Here is what we need”.

QUESTION: David Kilcullen emphasizes that a lot of civilian efforts are to be made, and that the Dutch could be very useful in that area. Can you elaborate on that?

Assistant Secretary Boucher: We are trying to prevent terrorism coming from that area. To do that, the most important thing is to build an Afghan government that is capable of governing – protecting itself, its people, and diminishing violent influences. There is going to be a big effort needed on the civilian side. More help for the police and justice system. Increased efforts in governance – developing capable ministries, but also local and provincial institutions. Yes, there is a lot to do on the civilian side, and we want to get the civilian and military efforts in better harmony. An integrated plan of civilian and military work that fits together. That plan is going to require more on the civilian side.

QUESTION: The United States has asked for more troops from NATO allies. How are things evolving?

Assistant Secretary Boucher: I wouldn’t emphasize the troops. We have decided to send more troops. Our president has already made that decision right now, in order to make more space for the elections. We have sees some allies that have decided to bolster their contigents for the same purpose. There is a standing NATO requirement that not has been met – so, yes, everybody should send more troops. But as we come out of the review we are going to be able to talk in more detail about military forces, civilians, trainers, police trainers, government technical assistence – whatever is necessary, from combat troops to financial advisors. We are trying to get the whole package together in an integrated way. That is why I say: we do not emphasize the troops, we will ask for a lot of things – from combat troops to technical support, etc.

QUESTION: So you say: we will not only ask for more troops. But that would still mean you would ask for more troops?

Assistant Secretary Boucher: Some countries may provide the one thing, some the other. I am not trying to say: the U.S. wants more troops from The Netherlands. I am trying to say: we need stuff across the board to make sure we all do whatever we can.

QUESTION: The President has already pointed out that he prefers to talk to parts of the Taliban.

Assistant Secretary Boucher: You have to think of it in a couple of ways. One of the important things is to increase the capabilities of the Afghan government. As they stretch out, they are going to have to work with tribes in villages – some of whom have been working with the Taliban. There is a hard core of Taliban ideologues who want to impose their draconian rules on Afghan society and we will probably end up fighting them. But then there are a lot of people [as in different types of Taliban] – villagers, tribes, subtribes – who have fought with the Taliban, were associated with the Taliban because they felt coerced to work with them, had grievances with the government, or were in a rivalry with some other tribe – and as the Afghan government spreads around, I have to say, in my view this is [reconciliation with Taliban] principly an Afghan function which we can support. The Afghans have to bring people to the government side. And we should definitely support that. There may be some others who need resettlement – individuals who want to cross over.

Whether the Afghan government ends up negotiating with the Taliban ideologues – I think we will have to see. But in principle the United States will support Afghan efforts to bring people to the side of government. To get them to stop fighting, stop the violence, stop the support of al Qaeda, and support the government. That is the way I think of it.

QUESTION: Story in The Post yesterday about more diplomatic efforts. Was it accurate?

Assistant Secretary Boucher: I can’t go into numbers at this stage but yes, we will need more civilians. We need a bigger civilian effort to support the Afghan government, projects.

QUESTION: The Afghanistan conference is probably going to attract a lot of attention for the fact that the U.S. Secretary of State will sit on the table with a representative from Iran.

Assistant Secretary Boucher: Well, we had the Donors Conference in Paris last year, where Secretary Rice sat at the table with Iran. Look, what kind of interaction there is going to be, we will have to wait and see. I know there is going to be enormous speculation. The fact that they will be in the same room together won’t be new, but I don’t know what The Secretary is planning in terms of interaction or not. She recognizes that Iran has an interest as a neighbor, also related to drugs, so it ought to be there. At a big tent meeting – everybody ought to be there. How much interaction there will be between these two participants – we will have to wait and see.

QUESTION: And the video?

Assistant Secretary Boucher: The President’s video? Nice video! I was going to watch it on YouTube.

QUESTION: Didn’t President Bush send New Year’s greetings in a letter?

Assistant Secretary Boucher: I was trying to remember that. You would have to look it up on the Internet.

QUESTION: Do you know what your future is?

Assistant Secretary Boucher: No. What I do know is that it won’t be here. In a normal situation the new Secretary gets to choose his/her own Assistant Secretaries. That’s how I got the job, that’s how I will leave it. So I move on to something else, but I don’t know what.

QUESTION: You know you are gonna be working within State?

Assistant Secretary Boucher: You never know. Sometime it works out, sometimes it doesn’t.

QUESTION: You worked as a Spokesman for a lot of Secretaries of State. Which one did you like best?

Assistant Secretary Boucher: It’s a very hard question. I worked very closely for Colin Powell for four years. I probably worked closer with him than with anybody. But, you know, every Secretary of State has their moments, their capabilities. It’s a unique perspective you have. You always deal with the whole world. But I try not to compare, I try just to enjoy.

QUESTION: Are you going to be in The Hague, at the conference?

Assistant Secretary Boucher: Yes.

QUESTION: What is your work there? What do you do?

Assistant Secretary Boucher: These meetings are good because you can grab everybody in the corner. Ambassador Holbrooke and the Secretary do probably the same thing. You see your Afghan friends, your Pakistanian friends, your Central Asian friends – they are all there. You talk to the Europeans. And by that time we will be having finished our review, and move on to the second stage and talk to people how to move forward. And of course you watch the conference, the exciting moment that come up, if any, and there is always stuff that needs to be done. Improving documents, corridor work – it keeps you pretty busy, usually. Most of the work is in advance, so a lot of work is going on right now.

QUESTION: Are you optimistic?

Assistant Secretary Boucher: I am. I think we are able to change the dynamic in Afghanistan. Not without more resources – troops, trainers, etc. But I think we are also at the point that Afghanistan can have succesful elections this year. We can improve the capabilities of police and government quite a bit. And we can get some important projects going, in electricity for example. So I think it will be good year. Whether it’s enough to turn the tide, we will have wait and see.