Ruggiero Stands In As Acting Head Of 'AfPak' Team

Frank Ruggiero is now the acting top civilian official in charge of U.S. policy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He takes over for diplomat Richard Holbrooke who died this week. Ruggiero speaks to Steve Inskeep about the latest Afghan war review which was released Thursday.

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DON GONYEA, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

An American review of strategy in Afghanistan comes along with a change in personnel. That was not by design. Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, died this week. We're going to talk, this morning, with his replacement. Frank Ruggiero was the deputy to Richard Holbrooke. He is now the acting U.S. envoy. He's on the line.

Welcome to the program, sir.

Mr. FRANK RUGGIERO (Acting U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan): Thank you. Good morning.

INSKEEP: And thanks for joining us. I'm sure this has been a very difficult week.

Mr. RUGGIERO: It has. The passing of Mr. Holbrooke is quite a loss. He's a towering figure in American diplomacy, and a friend of the entire team that he put together. And we miss him dearly.

INSKEEP: And now it's your job to take over. We'll mention, for people who haven't heard your name before, you're from Youngstown, Ohio. You're a veteran diplomat. You've spent much time in Afghanistan. And in this week, we also are looking at a strategy review by the U.S. government; what's working?

Mr. RUGGIERO: I think the key objective in both Pakistan and Afghanistan was to degrade, dismantle al-Qaida. And I think there's been progress on that, on the Pakistani side of the border. And I think in Afghanistan, it was arresting the momentum of the Talban. So those would be the two key areas.

INSKEEP: Although those would both seem like military objectives. And the question for a lot of people is whether military progress, tactical successes -moving troops here and there, opening fire where you can - if that's actually connected to any political success, which is where the long-term battle is being fought.

Mr. RUGGIERO: I think if you look at a place like Nawa - and I think from a counterinsurgency perspective, a lot of people have looked at Nawa and said that's where the COIN strategy has worked.

INSKEEP: That's a city in southern Afghanistan - or an area?

Mr. RUGGIERO: That's a city in southern Afghanistan, in Helmand. And - you know, throughout southern Afghanistan, so Kandahar and Helmand, it really is a combination of U.S. civilians, Afghan civilians, the U.S. military and Afghan military that are having progress on the ground. And a lot of that is in development and governance. Not to sugarcoat this; there's a lot of challenges on the governance side. And the December review recognizes that.

INSKEEP: We're talking with Frank Ruggiero. He's now the acting U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

And Mr. Ruggiero, as I'm sure you're painfully familiar, your name has come up in a number of the WikiLeaks cables that have been released in recent weeks.

And there are a number of descriptions in these cables of your meetings with President Hamid Karzai's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai. He met several times with you. He says, in these meetings, he's an ally of the United States. He reminisced about how he used to have a restaurant in Chicago, near Wrigley Field.

But of course, he's also - in these memos, even - having to defend himself against charges of corruption, that he's been involved in narcotics, charges which he denies. But that seems to get to the essence of one of the challenges here. Has Ahmed Wali Karzai been helpful to the United States?

Mr. RUGGIERO: Well, unfortunately, I can't comment on what's in the WikiLeaks cables.

INSKEEP: Well, let's stipulate that. But of course, Ahmed Wali Karzai's relationship with the United States is well-known, and we've reported on it here. Has he been helpful?

Mr. RUGGIERO: Well, I think I would look - I would try to view it in a larger context. In order to transition the areas that the U.S. military has cleared, you have to create local governance and deal with local political reality. So I think across the board, in southern Afghanistan - I was there for a year, and that's what we tried to do. We tried to create a political structure that was more inclusive for the people of southern Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: Obviously, Americans get uncomfortable when they hear about Americans dealing with people who are perceived to be corrupt. Do we perhaps misunderstand these relationships a little bit, though? Is there value in dealing with all kinds of people, even people we - whose behavior we would generally not like?

Mr. RUGGIERO: Well, on the corruption front, what you really want to look at is what is the corruption that causes someone to join the Taliban? So in instances where that occurs, you want to stop that. So if, say, a local power broker that -or a warlord, to take another example, you know, you don't want to push resources - or be viewed as pushing resources through someone of that nature. So you have to be careful how you implement the strategy, in terms of those types of characters.

INSKEEP: Frank Ruggiero, we're joined here by our Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, who spent a lot of time in Afghanistan.

Tom, go ahead.

TOM BOWMAN: Yeah. I wanted to ask you about the Taliban safe havens across the border, in Pakistan. President Obama, Defense Secretary Gates and Secretary Clinton talked about this yesterday. More has to be done. But now, some are suggesting you have to put far more pressure on Pakistan, maybe even withholding aid money to get them to focus on this. Is that a good idea?

Mr. RUGGIERO: We have worked with the Pakistanis over the past two years to try to create a strategic relationship with them, to get them to take actions that are in our common interests. I think if you pulled back and looked at what the Pakistanis have done - and the December review recognizes that the sanctuaries are a big problem. I think they have taken action, though, in six of the seven agencies of the Fatah...

INSKEEP: Oh, those tribal areas along the borders of Afghanistan.

Mr. RUGGIERO: Tribal areas, thats correct. Yes. Theyve moved 140,000 troops over the past couple of years. Theyve taken significant casualties in the fight - I think 30,000 Pakistanis have been killed in this fight with extremism, on their western border.

So yes, the Pakistanis could do more. But I think we should also recognize that they have taken some significant actions over the past year and a half.

BOWMAN: But they haven't done enough, to date?

RUGGIERO: I think there, you know - the sanctuaries remain a problem, and we would want to continue to have them take actions to reduce the sanctuaries.

INSKEEP: Mr. Ruggiero, thanks very much.

Mr. RUGGIERO: Sure.

INSKEEP: Frank Ruggiero is the acting special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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