Media Roundtable

Press Conference
Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Via DVC with London
Brussels, Belgium
March 29, 2010

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you so much, Susan. Thank you all so much for joining me here today.

As Susan said, I’m the Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia, which means all of South and Central Asia except Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is handled by Ambassador Holbrooke, whom all of you know. But I’ve just returned from a quite interesting trip to first India, and then to Afghanistan, and then Pakistan, and I’ll be headed home to Washington tomorrow. But I do appreciate the chance to meet with all of you and talk a little bit about my trip and some of the themes that I’ve stressed.

First of all with respect to India, I think you all know the history of the transformation that has taken place in relations between the United States and India. We probably hit rock bottom in 1998 when India conducted a nuclear test, but there’s been really, again, a transformation in our relations since then. That transformation has continued under President Obama who has expressed his support for the U.S.-India civil nuclear deal and indeed, has taken steps to enhance our partnership with India by establishing a strategic dialogue that is led by Secretary Clinton and her counterpart, External Affairs Minister Krishna. We are looking at really across the board relations, but we have five particular pillars of cooperation. One is strategic cooperation which encompasses things like counterterrorism and defense cooperation; second is clean energy and climate, which of course is a growing area of interaction between our two countries; third is the very important economic, trade and agriculture component; fourth is education, particularly higher education, which is going to be a very fast-growing part of our dialogue because of new legislative changes that are expected to come into effect soon that would allow greater foreign university participation in the Indian market; and the last is science and technology and health, which again underlies a lot of what we do across the board.

I think one of the hallmarks of our relationship now with India is not just the very substantial bilateral cooperation that we have, but also increasingly the cooperative efforts that we have together on big, important global issues.

I would point, for example, to the very positive and constructive role that Manmohan Singh and his delegation played to help to negotiate an agreement at Copenhagen. Prime Minister Singh will also be a guest of President Obama for the Global Nuclear Security Summit in mid-April, and has endorsed the President’s goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. So we see, again, non-proliferation as an important area of cooperation. Trade as well. India and the United States both are committed to trying to achieve a successful outcome of the Doha Round.

These are all very positive and frankly new areas where previously the United States and India frankly did not see eye to eye on many of those issues.

Turning to Pakistan, Pakistan also is one of our highest foreign policy priorities now. All of you are familiar with the integrated strategy that the President has outlined in Afghanistan and Pakistan to defeat, dismantle and disrupt al-Qaida and its allies in the Afghanistan and Pakistan region. And everyone understands that we are not going to be able to succeed in Afghanistan without the active support of our friends in Pakistan. We think there’s been substantial progress made by Pakistan in its campaigns first in Swat and then in South Waziristan, and most recently with the arrest of several senior Taliban leaders. But we also understand that Pakistan faces significant internal challenges that are very important to the stability of the country. Having just spent four or five days there, I heard a lot about the severe power shortages in almost every part of Pakistan. Of course there’s a very serious problem of unemployment, particularly youth unemployment which of course can give rise to further instability if they don’t receive the proper education and job opportunities. And then also there’s been an insufficient delivery of basic services like health and education.

So the United States is really committed to a long term partnership with Pakistan now. You all know that last week Secretary Clinton and Foreign Minister Qureshi announced a new Pakistan-U.S. Strategic Dialogue, and Foreign Minister Qureshi led a Pakistani delegation to Washington for that very important event.

In Pakistan I heard a little bit of skepticism to begin with about what is new about this, and what I told them was that this is new in the sense that for the first time the Secretary of State and her counterpart are directly leading a strategic level dialogue, but even more importantly, what’s new is that we have set up a steering group and working groups to work to achieve systematic progress on a broad range of bilateral issues that we care jointly about. So they’re going to set concrete targets. These working groups, their job will be to make sure that we make progress on those targets.

The other I think sign of our long term partnership with Pakistan is the passage of the Kerry/Lugar assistance bill which provides for $1.5 billion a year in civilian assistance, so you address many of those challenges that I talked about earlier. How do we deliver more power? How do we help the government to increase the amount of power that’s available to Pakistani society and to the Pakistani economy? How do we help the Pakistani government to enhance the delivery of education and health services? How do we help the Pakistanis to improve governance? So all of these are very important and again, part of our long term partnership.

Let me just briefly talk about the India-Pakistan part of it too, because I think that’s an extremely important area of interest for us and for the two countries. We think that improved relations between India and Pakistan would have a significant impact on the Afghan situation, for many reasons. The United States welcomed the recent talks that took place between the Foreign Secretaries of India and Pakistan on February 25th, and we hope that the process of dialogue between these two friends of the United States can continue.

As many of you know, India is seeking further progress on the trial of the suspects that are believed to have been responsible for the bombings in Mumbai in November of 2008, and India is also seeking progress on curbing the flow of militants that are crossing the border between India and Pakistan that might pose a threat to India.

In Pakistan I told them that the United States very much welcomed the progress that’s been made in Swat and South Waziristan. I also urged that they take measures to address the activities of Punjabi-based militants such as the Lakshar-e-Taiba. We feel that the David Headley case that many of you know about has shown the growing global scope and global ambition of Lakshar-e-Taiba. It’s a group that has killed Americans and is on our terrorist list. So we believe it’s in all of our interest to do what we can to try to, again, address the threat posed by LET.

The other point I made in meeting with the business communities in both India and Pakistan is that there are significant under-exploited opportunities on both sides to increase trade between India and Pakistan. Right now bilateral trade is about $2.75 billion which for economies of the size of the two countries is really very very small. It could be five to ten times that quite easily if they were able to turn their attention to this. I think that such trade would not only provide important new markets and important new job opportunities for the young people on both sides of the border, but it would also have a stabilizing effect on relations between the two countries.

My bottom line in both countries was that now there’s so much that unites these two countries and rather than focusing on the few things that divide them, they should seize on those opportunities while at the same time working on the mutual concerns that they have.

Let me stop there. I’d be glad to take questions on anything I’ve talked to you about so far, or anything else you’d like to talk about about South and Central Asia. And again, thank you so much for coming.

Question: Thanks very much, Assistant Secretary.

I wanted to ask, you mentioned in your talk the arrests that the Pakistani government has made. Kai Eide, the former head of the UNAMA mission had a different take on them. He said that pretty much [inaudible] had been involved in [contacts] and it was being presented both by him and by regional specialists. And [inaudible] backwards [inaudible] an attempt by Pakistan to sort of monopolize any contacts there are with the Taliban and to cut off contacts that were made independently by the [inaudible] government and other intermediaries.

What is your take on that?


Secretary Clinton addressed that question. She said that we have great respect for Kai Eide, but that our view is that the arrests, the Pakistani arrests of the senior Taliban leaders marked a very very important step and that’s the way we see it.

In terms of the reconciliation process, our view is that this process is going to have to be Afghan led. That certainly other countries around the region have important equities in this, but that it will have to be the government of Hamid Karzai that takes the lead in this process, and indeed, they plan to do so, as you know they plan to host a peace jirga later in the spring to again continue the momentum that was established by the London Conference.

Question: What is your take on the talks that have been about Afghan led contacts, the talks that have been with Hekmatyar. What level do you think those are and where they’re going?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I can’t really comment on the details of those. We were not part of those talks so it’s really much more important that you try to talk to them directly. But again, I think this is going to have to be a process that’s Afghan led and we’ll all be following it very closely.

I don’t think the reconciliation talks have really begun yet. These are all preliminary talks. And one key consideration for the Taliban will have to be, as Secretary Gates and many others have pointed out, the Taliban are not going to really engage seriously until they believe that they do not have the chance of winning this war that’s now taking place in Afghanistan. So a part of the efforts that are underway in Marjah and later in Kandahar is to persuade the Taliban that now is the time to come to the table and that it’s very important that those who do come to the table be willing to support the Afghan constitution, renounce violence, and renounce all ties with al-Qaida.

Question: I’ve got a lot of questions, but --

Question: I also wanted to follow up on the same issue, the talks with Hekmatyar and the Taliban. Were you aware of the talks being conducted between the UN and [inaudible] before his arrest?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, I don’t want to get into too much of the details of this because Ambassador Holbrooke is the one who’s really in charge of this. I don’t have day to day responsibility for Afghanistan and Pakistan. I handle India and all the countries around India, but not Afghanistan and Pakistan. So I suggest you really talk to them because I don’t follow this on a minute by minute basis like he does.

Question: Can I also follow up, also in Afghanistan, can you differentiate a little bit the difference between your policy towards the Taliban and your policy towards al-Qaida? When the war on terror started in 2001 we didn’t see much distinction between the fight against the Taliban and the extremism in Afghanistan, the way they conducted their affairs against whomever, the way they [inaudible], all these things were objections against the Taliban. Now I don’t see that you raised that much objections to these behaviors from the Taliban. Can you just a little bit explain, is there any difference between your policy now towards the Taliban and your former policy against that organization?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Sure. As the President reiterated yesterday during his visit to Kabul, our goal remains to disrupt, defeat and dismantle the al-Qaida networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan and there’s no question of reconciliation with al-Qaida.

With respect to the Taliban, again we’re in the process now in Marjah and perhaps later in Kandahar, of clearing those areas that are the Taliban strongholds and I think the goal is not so much a military goal, it’s providing security in those areas so that civilian reconstruction efforts can take place.

What’s new and different about this campaign in Marjah is that there has been very careful and sustained planning done before the move into Marjah so that civilians could come in very rapidly and begin to develop the agricultural sector in Marjah, to develop a lot of the services there, and again, to begin to provide alternatives to the opium cultivation that has really provided the basis for the economy in that part of Afghanistan.

In a way, the Marjah efforts in that regard are part of the much wider efforts that are taking place all over Afghanistan to encourage, for example, the development of agriculture.

Let me just leave it there, if you have any further questions. Again, I come back to the reconciliation part. We’re watching reconciliation, but it’s got to be Afghan led, and those that do participate in reconciliation have to be willing in advance to respect the Afghan constitution, including the rights of women, and have to be willing to renounce both violence and their ties with al-Qaida.

Question: Can I come in with a question again on the road to reconciliation process? You said that it’s unlikely the Taliban will come to the table until the military campaign has worked its way out, and Marjah and Kandahar have happened. There are two to me, [inaudible], there’s a growing rift here in the positions taken here in London and in Washington. [David] [inaudible] pushing reconciliation [inaudible] and British officials are saying no, you’ve got to start now. You can’t just wait until the military campaign has worked its way out. There’s a political process front and center now and should be pushed now. Is that a difference in approach?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: No. I don’t think there’s any difference in approach. The reason the people are focused on Marjah and on Kandahar is that these are really the heartland of the Taliban. So it’s important that we push them out of that heartland, that we establish basic security so that again, these highly important civilian efforts can take place and succeed. But again, I think everybody understands there is not going to be a military solution to the issue of Afghanistan and that what has to take place is a political settlement within the parameters that I’ve already described.

Question: In terms of pushing reconciliation now, British officials say it is worth pushing this now because there are people in the Quetta Shura who are at least interested, and we know how, it seems now that they were referring to people like Mullah [inaudible]. And it does seem like a difference in emphasis.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: No. I don’t think there’s a difference in emphasis. Again, I come back to what I said earlier. We do want to push it now, but we want it to be Afghan led and we want to make sure that, for example, Karzai’s peace jirga will be I think the next big step in this regard. But if contacts are taking place right now, really that’s up to the Afghans to pursue, again, within the parameters that we talked about.

Question: Can you comment on recent reports in the British press on internal force and [inaudible] about Iranian weapons being delivered to the Taliban? Are you concerned that the Americans know about this reports, or can they confirm that they are correct?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I’m sorry, sir, I don’t have any information on that. I’ve come from the region just last night so I’m not in touch with all the folks back in Washington who might be working on this, so I don’t have any information on that.

Question: The trade treaty you mentioned, bilateral trade of 2.7 billion, I think, is that with both nations or --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: That’s the total trade between India and Pakistan. That’s the official figure. Now there’s some kind of informal trade that takes place that goes through Dubai and others, and then of course there’s some smuggling that goes on. But the scope of the informal and smuggling is not that great, so the larger point remains that it’s an under-exploited opportunity.

Question: In terms of support of Pakistan with trade from outside, who’s going to do that and what do you see as potential areas for sanctioning that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Sorry, when you say trade --

Question: Trade from outside Pakistan, if I understood you correctly, helping progress in Pakistan, helping to build Pakistan’s economy and so forth, to stabilize the nation.


Question: Do you see potential areas for people to invest in Pakistan like that? Where do you --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: One very clear one would be in the agricultural area. I spent some time talking to the Lahore Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and of course the economy of the Punjab in Pakistan is based largely on agriculture. There are significant opportunities for let’s say food processing. But one of the points that I made to our friends at the Lahore Chamber was that sometimes there’s a sense in Pakistan that if they open up their trade to India that somehow the Pakistani economy is going to be flooded with Indian goods and the Pakistanis won’t be able to compete. And I made the point that I had previously been Ambassador in Sri Lanka, and the experience of Sri Lanka’s free trade agreement with India shows that in fact just the opposite has happened, that the Sri Lankans also were concerned they’d be inundated by Indian goods, but in fact Sri Lanka, their exports to India have been much higher than the increase in Indian exports to Sri Lanka. So Sri Lanka has benefited disproportionately, and I think the same is true of Bangladesh and the trade relations that it has with India.

So I think there are a lot of opportunities. The Pakistanis have a quite innovative and strong private sector, so they too, could compete. But the point is that both sides need to get their respective Chambers of Commerce together and also their governments, to figure out where those opportunities are and to make a systematic effort to reduce the so-called negative list that exists on both sides. So they really can open up opportunities.

Question: If I may ask a question about [inaudible], if there’s so little control of the Punjab, where there is, with LET, the seat of the military in Pakistan, do you see any reason for hope in the tribal areas in terms of the reach into those areas to actually control that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: First of all I wouldn’t say there’s so little control. I think there is some control. So I wouldn’t go that far. And in terms of the tribal areas, there’s been quite substantial progress already as I mentioned. First into Swat and then the campaign into South Waziristan, and now most recently the quite significant arrests that have taken place of the senior Taliban leaders.

So the momentum is very positive, and continuing. But the point I was making was that, is one that Secretary Clinton also made when she was in Pakistan in October, which is that it’s often difficult to differentiate between these various groups, and to draw clear lines, and that many of them operate, as she said, in a syndicate. Therefore, it’s important to address the whole problem including the Punjab-based groups, and many of these Punjab-based groups have actually attacked Pakistan as well.

One very good example of that is Jaish al Muhammad, which is the group that was believed to be responsible for the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team, and numerous other attacks inside Lahore.

So I think there’s a very clear Pakistani interest to address these groups as well, and they pose a threat to Pakistan.

Question: They certainly do. And the momentum that you say you’ve seen following up from that progress in Swat and Waziristan, what have you seen that makes you think that will last compared to other offensives in the tribal areas? What’s new about there? That they won’t move, and then these guys will come back up and they move and it’s like whack-a-mole, you know.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Right. That’s a very good question and I think that one of the things that people don’t realize is there is quite an interesting and important effort underway on the part of the Pakistani military to hold the areas that they’ve already taken. Like in Swat, for example. So there’s actually quite a significant Pakistani military presence that remains in Swat and that’s, again, part of their understanding that to really achieve security and to make sure the Taliban are not able to return you have to allow the IDPs to return, you have to allow all the markets to get going again and to allow, again, the economy to start to function again, and that will help to keep the Taliban presence at bay, so to speak. But a certain portion of the military will have to stay in Swat to hold that territory that they’ve already taken. The same in South Waziristan. So naturally that affects the pace of future operations.

So I think our military commanders and Ambassador Holbrooke have said that the pace of future operations is really up to the Pakistanis to decide based on several of these considerations that I just talked about.

Question: I wanted to ask about the U.S.-India bilateral nuclear talks, the long, drawn out process. Where does that stand? Were you pressed in Pakistan, Pakistan is making a push for one of their own, [inaudible] issue now?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Let me talk first about the India specific part of it.

As I said earlier, the Obama administration and President Obama himself have endorsed the U.S.-India civil nuclear deal that was approved during the Bush administration. They’ve expressed support for that. Indeed, we’re committed to moving forward on the civilian nuclear partnership. We’ve made very good progress on these nuclear reprocessing talks. The Indians are also now preparing to introduce nuclear liability legislation, that is very important for our companies to invest in the nuclear area, in the civil nuclear area in India. The Indians have already set aside two nuclear reactor park sites for U.S. companies in Gujurat and Andhra Pradesh. So I think there’s good momentum that’s taking place and once these reprocessing talks are concluded and once the liability legislation is in place, assuming it’s consistent with the Convention on Supplementary Compensation which is the international convention governing these things, that we’ll be able to move forward with actual civil nuclear investments by our companies. I can tell you, there’s great interest on the part of our companies in doing so. And the Indians for their part very badly need this civil nuclear energy to meet their growing energy needs. So we see this as a win/win for us.

On the Pakistan side, as you rightly said, apparently this was raised during the talks that took place last week, the Strategic Dialogue talks. I don’t personally have any information on that because I was not in the talks, I was in Pakistan at the time. But I noticed that both Secretary Clinton and Foreign Minister Qureshi refrained from comment on that. So I also will refrain from comment.

Let me just point out though, that what we’re doing right now is to take significant steps to address the power shortages that exist. During the talks last week our AID Director, Dr. Rajiv Shah, announced that we are helping to rehabilitate and make more efficient three big power plants in Pakistan and I think that will help significantly. But there is a comprehensive effort that has to be taken.

Another signature initiative that the U.S. embassy has underway inside Pakistan is a tube well initiative where they’re going to provide more efficient pumps for 10,000 tube wells inside Pakistan. As you may know, agriculture accounts for a huge percentage of the power usage, so if you can make that more efficient that will have a big difference on the overall energy equation.

Question: You’ve been pushing the Pakistanis for years to take on the militants in the tribal belt.


Question: They did so in South Waziristan and as well in other areas. What’s causing them from taking North Waziristan? Have you discussed this issue with them? I believe you have been putting pressure on them to do something regarding North Waziristan. Have they explained why they haven’t done so yet?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, I wouldn’t say the Pakistanis have refused to do so, it’s just a matter of they want to make sure that they are able to hold the existing areas that they have taken in South Waziristan and in Swat as you said, before they then move in. Again, we want to avoid this whack-a-mole phenomenon that one of you referred to earlier.

So it’s really up to the Pakistani military to determine the timing and the pace of when the next phases of this operation will occur, but I think all of the people in my government feel there’s been great progress and so we look forward to the next phases of it.

Question: Some people speculate that the Pakistanis are reluctant to take on North Waziristan because they have [inaudible] the ISI has good connections to the Afghani network that is proliferating there, whereas they are willing to take on the Shura Quetta because they are a different kind of the Taliban. What’s your take on that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I’m not sure I buy that argument. I think similar arguments were made about the Quetta Shura, that the Pakistanis would never take on the Quetta Shura because they had these long term strategic interests with them, yet what we have seen is in fact they have arrested senior leaders of the Taliban from that area, so again, I would just emphasize that we believe they have made good progress and that we believe that’s going to continue. We have confidence in that.

Question: Some people [inaudible] Pakistanis only arrested these people from the Quetta Shura because they [inaudible] the Iranians that they know they are being conducted with the UN.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I talked about that earlier, and --

Question: Sorry.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I’d rather not repeat what I said just so we can take on other topics.

Question: Did you hear from the Pakistanis [inaudible] an intermediary between Kabul say and the Taliban or to take part in a regional [inaudible] of talks on Afghanistan? Was there much enthusiasm in Islamabad for that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, I think the Pakistanis definitely want to make sure that their equities are represented, but I don’t think there’s yet been sufficient progress to be able to say how exactly these talks are going to be held and what the format will be and so forth. These are things that are still under discussion, and once again, let me just say what I said earlier, that it’s the Afghans themselves who are going to be in the lead and in charge of this process.

Question: May I ask the exact nature of the American military presence I Pakistan?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: The nature of the military presence is to, almost exclusively, to provide training for the Pakistani forces who are engaged in this important effort that I talked about earlier, and unlike in Afghanistan where we have thousands and thousands of people on the ground, our presence in Pakistan is relatively limited. I don’t have the exact figures because, again, I’m not responsible for it, but it’s mostly in the training mode and the sort of new aspect of what we’re doing in Pakistan is really to focus much more on helping to improve their counterinsurgency capabilities. For years the Pakistani military has been focused on the threat that they see from India. And I think our view is that India is not a significant threat, and really the threat is much more in the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Question: How does that work in proving the [inaudible]?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: It’s everything. It’s both equipment, but also the training and the doctrine. Again, this effort is really just beginning, but it is an extremely important one.

Question: To what extent, just to follow up, do you think that people in Pakistan understand the extent and limit of that military presence?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Sorry, I don’t understand the question.

Question: Do you think, to what extent do you think they understand that limitation, that it is just training? And to what extent would it be a problem or is it a problem that the general perception is it is much much more than that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t know. I must say in five days in Pakistan I never once heard anybody say, and I met with all kinds of civil society and journalists and I never once heard any complaints about the presence of the U.S. military. So it didn’t strike me as a big issue. If it was, they didn’t raise it with me.

Question: Okay. I just came back from six years in Pakistan and it is.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well again, they didn’t really raise it with me. I found people much more focused on water issues, Kashmir and those kinds of things than they were on -- I felt in fact that people, that the Strategic Dialogue really was well received in Pakistan and that people do have a sense that we are committed to a longer term partnership now. The days when we went through the sort of ups and downs in our relationship are really behind us. So I was encouraged that there seemed to be a greater acceptance of that.

Question: Can you say what you did in Afghanistan during that leg of your trip.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: When I was in Afghanistan, I had been hoping to go up to Kunduz to see the Central Asia kind of focus up there. Unfortunately it was bad weather so I wasn’t able to fly up to Kunduz. I was really only in Afghanistan for a day, so I spent most of my time inside the mission, just talking with our folks there and had some meetings over at ISAF and things like that. But it was mostly internal meetings in Afghanistan.

Question: Can you tell us something about the foreign fighters, that they are going through Pakistan and Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban and the al-Qaida? Do you have any information on which countries, how they are numbered, which countries back them or finance them? Not necessarily the countries themselves, but the money coming from a country, especially they Gulf.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t have any particular new insight to offer you on that. I think those are all well known, but since I cover Uzbekistan, there are a certain number of fighters from groups like the IMU, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and so forth that are based in places like North Waziristan. So there are many, both al-Qaida elements but also groups that are affiliated with al-Qaida and it just underlines the importance of dealing with those as well because they directly threaten our troops in Afghanistan.

Question: Are you seeing what you need to see in terms of political will from Pakistan, to see concrete results in counterterrorism?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think we are. Obviously it’s going to be a continuing effort, but I think the message from the Strategic Dialogue last week is the United States is committed to a long term partnership and to broadening and deepening our relations with Pakistan and to helping to strengthen the civilian institutions of Pakistan and that we hope that all of that will be a very important part of helping the government of Pakistan and the people of Pakistan to address both the underlying issues that give rise to militancy in Pakistan in the first place, but also will help Pakistan to address the very immediate threats that are posed against, not only against Pakistan but against the United States and against other countries of the world.

So we think, again, we’re at a really important juncture now and we’re hopefully entering an even more intense phase and intense era of partnership between our two countries.