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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

U.S. Policy in Central Asia

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Forum of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, SAIS
Washington, DC
January 25, 2012


As prepared for delivery

Dr. Starr, thank you for inviting me to address this Forum. I am delighted to be back at SAIS to speak with you today on U.S. policy in Central Asia and the partnerships we have with the countries of this strategically important region. I am grateful to you and to SAIS for all the work you do to advance our understanding of, and relationships with, Central Asia. Much of what I will talk about today draws in part on the scholarship and ideas you and your Institute have developed, and we appreciate your continued focus on Central Asia.

U.S. Priorities in Central Asia

In 2009, the Obama Administration undertook a comprehensive review of U.S. strategy in Central Asia, which aimed to build an atmosphere of trust and cooperation so we could build viable, long-term partnerships. Through that process, several core U.S. interests emerged: encouraging Central Asia’s assistance in stabilizing Afghanistan; promoting democracy and respect for human rights; combating the trafficking of narcotics and people; supporting balanced energy policies and the development of energy resources; fostering economic growth and increased opportunities for our companies; and, finally, sustaining non-proliferation.

A recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee report on Central Asia and the transition in Afghanistan underscored the main objectives of our strategy in the region. The SFRC’s report recommended, first, to balance our security and political priorities; and second, to expand the vision for transition in Afghanistan to become a working strategy for the broader region.

It is important to note at the outset, that as we think about efforts to balance competing priorities in a challenging part of the world, our interests in Central Asia are closely linked. Contrary to suggestions in some recent articles, we do not see our engagement with Central Asia as an either-or choice between developing security relationships at the expense of core values like human rights. Progress on one issue can help reinforce, or create incentives for, progress on other issues.

And indeed, our strategy for Central Asia explicitly states that our efforts to strengthen and broaden relations with Central Asia should not impinge upon our strong support for democratic development and universally recognized human rights. U.S. engagement in the five Central Asian states consistently focuses on political liberalization, good governance, civil society capacity building, and addressing human rights concerns – as well as a wide range of other important interests such as non-proliferation, energy, economic development, and educational exchanges.

We feel strongly that the best way to advance U.S. interests across the region is by enhanced engagement at all levels with the Central Asian governments, civil society, and people themselves. A cornerstone of this engagement has been the Annual Bilateral Consultation process that I chair with each of the five Central Asian countries. These consultations are a face-to-face structured dialogue based on a jointly developed agenda that promotes candid discussions on the full spectrum of bilateral issues, including human rights, religious freedom, science and technology collaboration, economic development, defense cooperation, and other subjects either side would like to discuss.

The Annual Bilateral Consultation process has given seats at the table to virtually the entire U.S. Government, including the Departments of Defense, Energy, and Commerce, and the U.S. Trade Representative, to name just a few active participants. Each discussion results in a work plan that outlines practical steps to advance U.S. and partner policy goals. The road to achieving these goals is not always smooth, but our continued engagement with the region is yielding results. We also use the consultative process to engage civil society and business communities in each country.

Afghanistan and Central Asia

Let me now talk more specifically about U.S. policy in Central Asia in the context of our continued efforts in Afghanistan.

The threat of terrorism makes very clear the security interests the United States shares with Central Asia. In support of the International Security Assistance Force’s efforts against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and now as Afghanistan is increasingly taking the lead for its own security, the Central Asian countries are serving as vital partners.

Expanded trust and cooperation with Central Asia has made possible the Northern Distribution Network, or NDN. Over the past year, we have expanded the capacity of the NDN to offer critical alternate routes for our non-lethal cargo transiting into Afghanistan to support our troops. These have become particularly important given current challenges in our relations with Pakistan, and Islamabad's decision in November to close the border crossing points to Afghanistan, effectively leaving NDN as the key land route for supporting Coalition Forces in Afghanistan.

However, the Central Asian countries’ important role is contributing to stability in Afghanistan and regional security goes well beyond the NDN. The United States will continue to encourage the Central Asian countries to support Afghanistan’s economic and political development. A peaceful, stable, prosperous, and democratic future for the Central Asian states is directly linked to the prospects for peace, stability, prosperity, and democracy in Afghanistan.

Particularly as Afghanistan assumes full security responsibility, the states of Central and South Asia will play a key role in supporting peace and economic development in the region alongside Afghanistan’s other partners. The South and Central Asian states’ active participation in regional conferences on Afghanistan, economic cooperation, and their commitment to future assistance all contribute to the future stability of Afghanistan and the region.

Enhancing Regional Integration

That’s why Secretary Clinton’s vision of a New Silk Road has been embraced by the countries of Central Asia. Our hope is to encourage all of the countries of the region and beyond to help build a network of roads, bridges, pipelines, and rail lines to facilitate the goal of embedding Afghanistan more firmly into its neighborhood and helping Afghanistan realize its goal of creating an economy based more on trade than aid. We must also seek to reduce barriers to the efficient exchange of goods across borders, open markets, and promote private sector investment in the region.

If Afghanistan is firmly integrated into the economic life of the region, it will be better able to attract private investment, continue to develop and benefit from its vast mineral resources, and provide increasing economic opportunity for its people, men and women alike.

All of the Central Asian states are taking their own steps to enhance their integration with Afghanistan. Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan are providing discounted electricity. Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan are increasing railway connections into Afghanistan. Kazakhstan provides assistance to educate Afghan students.

All of the Central Asian states also have participated in the recent international conferences in Istanbul and Bonn on Afghanistan. At both, there was a clear consensus and commitment to the future of Afghanistan. The participants in Istanbul made clear their support for regional trade. The Istanbul Process endorses regionally integrated economic growth “along historical trade routes,” and aligned closely with the New Silk Road vision elaborated by Secretary Clinton.

In Istanbul, participating countries likewise agreed to a number of confidence building measures that we believe will advance the creation of a web of economic and transit linkages across South and Central Asia. We look forward to supporting the region’s efforts with the private sector to see these plans implemented. The Istanbul Process represents efforts by Afghanistan and its neighbors to promote economic links and development.

At Bonn, the international community reaffirmed its commitment to stay engaged in Afghanistan beyond 2014, in a “transformation decade” lasting until 2024.

Re-Emergence of Historic Trade Routes, or New Silk Road

While we have seen some successes, the development of trade among the five countries of Central Asia is lagging. These countries have not yet been able to reap the benefits of economic integration. To seize the opportunities for increased integration, the region’s countries will need to overcome bilateral obstacles, ensure the rule of law, eradicate corruption and remove non-tariff barriers to trade such border crossing impediments, lack of protection for intellectual property and copyrights, onerous and contradictory foreign investment rules, and a less-than-transparent and unpredictable regulatory environment.

It is especially critical that the Central Asian countries reduce barriers to an efficient exchange of goods across borders, that they open their markets, and promote private sector investment in the region. Our bilateral engagement in the region will continue to promote the creation of a true network of economic and transit connections both within Central Asia and with the wider region. We also will continue to support accession by Central Asian states to the World Trade Organization.

Regional mechanisms can help. One important regional coordinating mechanism is the Asian Development Bank-led Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation Program, or CAREC. CAREC includes Afghanistan and Pakistan and envisions a transformation of the region through transport corridors and energy infrastructure in order to sustain economic growth. By 2020, the CAREC Program will have mobilized $20 billion to improve six corridors that traverse Central Asia. Three of the CAREC corridors link the economic hubs of Europe and the Russian Federation with East Asia, while the other three link East Asia, Europe, and the Russian Federation with South Asia and the Middle East.

The United States contributes to CAREC through the US Agency for International Development in order to support activities that increasingly strengthen the concept of revitalized historic trade routes. Just over a month ago, a train made the first trip on a new railway from Uzbekistan into Afghanistan. This line was a CAREC project to supply missing links in the rail networks of China, India, and Central Asia. We hope the Central Asian states will continue to work independently, through CAREC, through other institutional arrangements, and with partners like the United States to reduce the barriers to trade and transportation so that greater regional economic integration will become a reality.

Border Security, Counternarcotics and Counterterrorism Cooperation

Greater integration and the improved prosperity that will follow will help address some of the region’s other pressing problems. One is the flow of narcotics. A substantial portion of heroin produced in Afghanistan flows northward through the porous borders of Central Asia to Russia and China. While we are working hard with the Government of Afghanistan to deal with its domestic production problem, we are increasing our cooperation with partners in Central Asia to strengthen border security, reduce corruption, and share information in order to stem the flow of Afghan narcotics. The hallmark of this is our new Central Asia Counternarcotics Initiative, or CACI [CAH-see], which is aimed at improving operational coordination between our Drug Enforcement Administration, and counterparts from Afghanistan and Central Asian.

Upgrades to border checkpoints will not only allow for the free flow of trade and customs collection, but for the interdiction of traffickers trying to move drugs, weapons, and humans through this region. Building the capacity and professionalization of border guards, customs officials, counter-narcotics services, and other law enforcement will further our economic priorities in fostering regional economic integration, as well as encourage internal security policies that respect human rights and empower civilians. But it will also require our partners in the region to make a concerted effort to reduce corruption, a scourge that not only facilitates the drug trade but saps the confidence of people in their leaders.

Another challenge we are also working with our partners in Central Asia to address is the threat of global terrorism. Our bilateral engagement in this area includes efforts to build the capacity of governments in the region through programs such as those implemented by the State Department with funding from the Non-proliferation, Anti-terrorism, Demining, and Related Programs account. Multilaterally, we have supported the efforts by the UN Center for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia to facilitate greater consultations and cooperation within the region. They recently held a successful conference in Turkmenistan, that I addressed, which resulted in the approval of a joint plan for implementing the UN Counter Terrorism strategy.

The Future of Democracy in Central Asia

U.S. engagement in Central Asia on regional economic ties and the stability and security of Afghanistan has brought opportunities for expanded dialogue on human rights and democracy. We have seen some progress, but far more needs to be done. For instance, in 2011, Kyrgyzstan held the first peaceful democratic transfer of power in Central Asian history. But the rest of the region continues to struggle to put into practice the democracy and human rights values enshrined in their OSCE commitments, in the UN human rights treaties to which they have acceded, and in their own domestic laws.

We continue to urge the Central Asian states to address human rights and democracy concerns and to ensure space for peaceful exercise of fundamental rights, including those of assembly, expression, association, and religious belief. There is concern that Central Asian governments could respond to the example of the Arab Spring, and to the ever-present threat of terrorism, by suppressing political, religious and other freedoms. We continue to emphasize that respect for the right to free speech, media and peaceful worship, far from giving terrorists an opportunity, will counter the threat of violent extremism and contribute to long-term stability. Likewise, strengthened rule of law and democratic institutions will help build transparent and predictable investment climates that can promote economic growth that benefits both the citizens and the leaders of these countries.

Strengthening the Economies of Central Asia

Earlier, I referred to the commitments made in Bonn and Istanbul to revitalize economic connections between Central Asia and Afghanistan. Our policy in Central Asia also focuses on building each country’s capacity for internal economic growth as well as nurturing bilateral commercial ties.

Central Asia’s significant energy resources are certainly a motivating factor for regional economic development and integration. There is strong potential for Central Asia to develop energy resources to be used both domestically and regionally. The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline is an excellent example. Through it and other links, Central Asia has the potential to increase energy exports to South Asia and Afghanistan and thus help to stimulate accelerated economic growth in the region.

In all of our interactions, the United States urges the countries of Central Asia to encourage regional investment and entrepreneurship, including among women. Through collaboration on economic reforms and development, new markets will arise. The end result will be greater economic opportunity and prosperity for all. In July, the United States hosted the Central Asia and Afghanistan Women’s Economic Symposium which brought women entrepreneurs and leaders together from around the region. Our continuing follow-on assistance to Central Asian women has resulted in efforts by the participants to form regional networks and to develop cross border business initiatives with the potential to create more regional ties.


Expanded cooperation with the Central Asian states connected to enhancing the stability of Afghanistan has bolstered our interaction on other issues. We will continue to hold Annual Bilateral Consultations with each country to expand and strengthen our bilateral engagement. Our assistance to the region in the areas of economic development, health and education, border security, counter-narcotics, democratic reform, and strengthening civil society will play an important part in furthering our goals.

The United States continues to look toward a future where the countries of Central Asia work together and with the international community for peace and security, democracy and improved governance, economic development and prosperity. Although the pace of change is often slow and the challenges substantial, U.S. engagement can and will focus on long-term, meaningful results.

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