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Diplomacy in Action

Interview With Al Jazeera TV Interview

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Washington, DC
March 25, 2012


Question: Secretary Blake, can I just, first of all start with the basics, the NSR, how prominently is this vision expected to be featured in this conference in the coming Monday and Tuesday?

A/S Blake: I think this conference is going to be all about the New Silk Road. The purpose of the conference will be for all of the participants of the region to generate a consensus on the priority infrastructure projects, the priority reform projects, and the priority capacity building projects, that are going to be needed to promote regional integration and provide for private sector investment in the region.

Question: Does the NSR have its roots in the NDN, or is it kind of, because that is what originally has been facilitated through cooperation agreements. Is that how it all began?

A/S Blake: No, I think, first of all the NSR is not really anything that new. I mean the countries of the region have been pursuing this kind of projects for some time now. It is possible that the NDN could help in that regard, because certainly we’ve been active in promoting the development of, for example rail links and road links between Afghanistan and its neighbors, but it goes far beyond that. We’re looking at things like big energy transmission projects, electricity transmission, of course the big Turkmenistan – Afghanistan – Pakistan – India gas pipeline and many many others. The idea is to create a network, an interconnected network of railroad, transport, electricity and energy linkages to promote regional integration and embed Afghanistan into its regional neighborhood to help this transition that is going to be going on next several years and particularly to provide for private sector investment within Afghanistan and the region.

Question: If you like, it’s kind of a naturally occurring phenomenon, isn’t it? You’re giving it a name, but it’s something that is going to happen anyway or do countries here really need a push to make it happen?

A/S Blake: Well, I’m not sure that they need the push. I think they need some help for sure. But I’ve been struck over the last year or so how much progress the countries themselves are making to develop these networks that I talked about. The reason that there is more progress on TAPI is because the president of Turkmenistan got all the leaders of those four countries together, signed an intergovernmental agreement and all of these countries are interested in exporting more to India, which is becoming such an important market, and it is going to be, really, one of the anchors of this whole regional integration vision.

Question: But TAPI is a clear example of something that is a nice idea, but in reality, how you’re going to get a pipeline across Afghanistan and guarantee the security. Security has to come first before development, surely.

A/S Blake: Actually I would respectfully disagree. I think TAPI as a pipeline has been on the books for many many years and sort of lay dormant, and became active because the countries of the region saw that there is a real economic opportunity. So they signed this intergovernmental agreement, they now are negotiating gas sale purchase agreements and the next step will be to form a consortium to actually discuss who is going to build the pipeline, and again I don’t think that security is going to be the main consideration. I think the main consideration is going to be, is there sufficient economic return for an international oil company to undertake a project of this magnitude. And the main factor in that will not be security, it will be the extent to which they can get some attractive opportunities in Turkmenistan that will give them sufficient return to undertake this pipeline.

Question: Ok, but let’s say, that’s an agreement that seems to be working perhaps but I mean, let’s say between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. These are neighbors. They have to get along and yet we know that the blockade on the border with Tajikistan continues with rail freight. Uzbekistan, as I understand didn’t sign this regional cooperation agreement back in November. I’m not clear if that’s changed since then but there is this certainly resistance or at least some countries drag their feet, when it comes to actually sitting down and working together here.

A/S Blake: I think Uzbekistan is an example of a country that embraces the philosophy of regional integration but prefers to work bilaterally with countries, particularly with Afghanistan, and so Uzbekistan is actually very active in developing rail links from its own border to Mazare-Sharif, in developing electricity transmission projects. Much of the electricity that is now lighting Kabul comes from Uzbekistan. So they are very much a part of this regional integration vision and they themselves can be a great beneficiary of it because they are centrally located, they are producing things like cars now that can be exported all over the region. So, I think they themselves see that benefit. Certainly there are regional rivalries that need to overcome, but again I think as economic opportunities become more plentiful, that will provide an incentive for these countries to resolve some of these differences.

Question: To come back again to the security issue. I met one afghan businessman yesterday, who was telling me, look this NSR is a lovely idea, but it is impossible to see it becoming a reality at this stage, because you can get stuff to the border but you can’t guarantee once you cross that border that it’s going to be able to get to Kabul without it coming under attack, just ordinary freight. So, without that security how can you make this NSR a reality?

A/S Blake: Well to be sure, security is very important in any country and as you know we and all of the NATO partners are very invested in this project now to provide and ensure the transition to Afghan control. We are making huge efforts to train up the Afghan national security forces so they can take full responsibility for their own security by the end of 2014. At the same time there is a political effort under way to talk to the Taliban and that’s also going to be quite important. So the hope is that over time, these two will enhance security in Afghanistan. All of these economic efforts will help the security piece as well because they will provide opportunities for young Afghans and hopefully draw them away from conflict. So there is quite an important link there. And I wouldn’t be as pessimistic as your Afghan interlocutor was , I would point to the huge investments that are already taking place by the Indians at the Hagigak iron ore project, where they’ve committed more than $10 billion to help develop that and all the associated infrastructure. Likewise the Chinese have invested in the Aynak copper mine, so there are a lot of significant investments right now and there may be future ones as well as rare earth opportunities become possible inside Afghanistan. So I think all of these will provide a clear incentive for the countries of the region to help develop the Afghan economy and again help develop a safe secure Afghanistan imbedded within a safe, secure, and prosperous region.

Question: One last question to you. This NSR, is everyone travelling along this NSR? Or are there some countries who would prefer to follow their own, and I’m thinking of Iran for instance, I mean are they on board, do you want them on board, are they included in this? On the surface everything looks…they’re keeping muted about it but what’s your stance on that?

A/S Blake: The focus of the NSR is Afghanistan. It’s all about a safe, secure and prosperous Afghanistan in a safe secure and prosperous neighborhood and region. Certainly Iran has a role to play in that, but we don’t talk to the Iranians about that, on the contrary we are looking for ways to move things away as much as possible to pressure the Iranians to come back to the negotiating table and to again work in a transparent manner with the IAEA and others and to prove that they are not seeking some sort of nuclear weapons program.

Question: So at the moment you are actually sort of blocking off Iran in terms of its role to play…

A/S Blake: I think we’re trying to take as practical a perspective as we can. We are not encouraging investment in Iran certainly, but at the same time we understand that countries like India have a practical need to work through Iran. India, if it wants to get equipment into Afghanistan now, cannot do so directly through Pakistan because transit through Pakistan is not now permitted by the Pakistanis. So they must go through Iran to get their equipment in. India, as you know, has a $2 billion assistance program in Afghanistan, which is extremely important and then on top of that this $10 billion Hagigak iron ore investment, so certainly they are going to need to get their equipment, their personnel and others in some way via road and so they must do that through Iran. We certainly understand that and do not object to that.

Question: But you have those competing interests of course and then the Russians with their Eurasian community, they have their own kind of idea of regional integration.

A/S Blake: The Russians have their own idea but again I think the Russians share our interest in ensuring that this is going to be a safe, secure and prosperous region. They have no interest in seeing this become a more radicalized area without economic opportunity that could potentially threaten their own interest, so they’ve been very helpful in the development of the NDN, we’ve worked very closely with them for the last 3 years and we’ll continue to do so. The Eurasian Union, frankly is more an idea that is on paper so far, we haven’t really seen much practical progress towards that.

Question: The Customs Union is a start isn’t it?

A/S Blake: That’s right the Customs Union has started but again all of these countries have an interest in seeing not just relations with Russia but they want to keep all of their markets open and all of their opportunities open and we see countries like Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan who are also joining the WTO, so they very much see their future as a web of opportunities not just with Russian but with markets to the south like India, the West, the United States and Europe, and elsewhere and certainly we are going to be encouraging that. The future of this region is going to be secured by open trading opportunities not by customs unions, that close those off.

Question: Tantalizing prospect. Thank you.

A/S Blake: Thank you.

Post interview question:

A/S Blake: …what the priorities are and then hopefully the international community can help with the financing of those when we all meet in Tokyo in July.

Question: Can you give me an idea what sort of agreements you are hoping might get signed here?

A/S Blake: Well I don’t think anything is going to be signed here it’s going to be more articulating this broad vision and then again Tokyo will be the real pledging conference where they begin to talk about who is going to help and not just on these things but sort of the longer term future of Afghanistan…Sort of post 2014 and again this whole idea of the Transformation Decade after 2014 to help kind of push back against this idea that somehow the United States and other members of the international community are leaving Afghanistan in 2014 and that is certainly not the case. We want to show that we remain very much committed to

Question: And that of course is on track with 2014.

A/S Blake: It is.

Question: Thank you so much.

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