Ambassador Gross: Good afternoon, everybody, and thank you for coming today. It’s a great honor to have today with us Assistant Secretary Robert Blake. As all of you know, Ambassador Blake has been here at the Regional Economic Cooperation Conference for Afghanistan which just was completed this afternoon. Ambassador Blake has been our Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia for the last three years, served as Ambassador in Sri Lanka, and also was our Deputy Chief of Mission in India. So he brings a wealth of experience to this area.
I could take up a lot more time giving you his background, his many honors and everything else, but let me just introduce and have Ambassador Blake start the press conference. Please welcome Ambassador Blake.
Assistant Secretary Blake: Thank you very much Ambassador Gross. Good afternoon everyone. It’s a real pleasure for me to be back here in Dushanbe which is always a beautiful and welcoming city, but particularly at this time of year.
Let me begin by thanking our Tajik hosts for their wonderful hospitality over the last few days. I’d also like to thank and commend the government of Tajikistan and the government of Afghanistan for co-chairing the most substantive and successful Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan to date.
During the past two days I’ve had the privilege of speaking with colleagues and counterparts from a number of different countries and multilateral organizations. I’ve also participated in a series of roundtables with prominent scholars, experts, and business professionals who are active in the region. In these discussions two themes kept resurfacing. First, recognition of Afghanistan’s progress towards stability, democratization and socioeconomic progress over the last ten years. And second, the increasing drive, particularly on the part of regional neighbors, to do what is necessary to support regional integration.
Every country in this region has an interest in a secure, stable and prosperous Afghanistan. Every country in the region also has an interest in improved economic ties that will open South and Central Asia to new markets and private sector investment. Over the past year there’s been a great deal of momentum building behind the idea of closer regional cooperation and economic connectivity. The fifth RECCA Conference has lived up to its billing as an opportunity to accelerate that momentum.
By highlighting and building consensus around a limited set of achievable projects and reform initiatives designed to unlock private investment in this region, participants in this conference have taken a powerful and promising step towards lasting cooperation, partnership and prosperity. For that I applaud not only conference participants for their hard work, but also congratulate the citizens of the region who will be beneficiaries of increased opportunity, improved livelihoods, and a more peaceful and stable future.
With that I’d be glad to take a few questions.
Question [BBC Persia]: Mr. Blake, we know that the United States and European countries likewise, you promote integration projects in the region between Central Asia and South Asia. How is it possible without Iran’s participation?
Assistant Secretary Blake: The question was about Iran’s participation. Let me just say that consistent with America’s sanctions on Iran, the United States is encouraging all of the countries of the region to avoid trade and other transactions with the government of Iran in order to pressure Iran to engage with the international community about its concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. We believe there are some very good alternatives.
For example, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-India Pipeline is one very good alternative to some of the other pipelines that are being considered and this is a pipeline, the TAPI Pipeline is one that enjoys our very strong support, and I think it’s significant that this pipeline is attracting greater momentum and again greater support from the four countries involved.
Question [TojNews Agency/Tajikistan]: During one of the sessions of RECCA, when Iran’s president was making a statement the whole U.S. delegation walked out the room. It raises lots of questions among Tajik journalists. Since the United States is a democratic country and one of the main principles of democracy is to listen to all opinions. How would you comment on the action of the U.S. delegation during the RECCA. To what extent the United States are ready to listen to Iran?
Assistant Secretary Blake: We were very disappointed that President Ahmadinejad exploited his opportunity to speak at the RECCA Conference which is a conference that’s supposed to focus on regional economic integration; that he exploited this opportunity to criticize the United States and its NATO partners and to make unfounded accusations about our policy in Afghanistan. So we decided to leave to protest those unfounded accusations because of course we wouldn’t have had an opportunity to respond to them.
Question [Reuters]: Mr. Blake my question is about the U.S. Airbase in Kyrgyzstan in Manas Airport. President Atambaev several times mentioned that he wants to stop the agreement in 2014. Are you going to continue negotiations with Kyrgyzstan to postpone this or you’re going to establish new bases somewhere in Central Asia?
Assistant Secretary Blake: First of all I’d like to say that we appreciate very much the fact that President Atambayev has agreed to continue the contract that we have through the middle of 2014. So Kyrgyzstan’s continued support for the Manas Transit Center and for our efforts in Afghanistan is very welcome.
In terms of what might happen after the contract expires, we have said many times that we’re prepared to engage with President Atambayev’s government at their convenience to discuss the future of the transit center and to try to reach an agreement on that. So I’m sure that we will have productive discussions but those productive discussions have not yet begun.
In terms of your question about other bases, we have no other plans to establish bases in the region, and indeed that itself is not a base. It’s a transit center where all of our personnel that are going into Afghanistan transit through there.
Question [Radio Liberty/Tajik Service]: In 2014 U.S. will be withdrawing troops from Afghanistan through NDN as well, and there are some opinions that the the U.S. will probably leave some of its equipment and weaponry in Central Asian countries. Do you know what Tajikistan will get from that?
Assistant Secretary Blake: As the gentleman said, as American units begin to rotate out of Afghanistan they will take much of their equipment with them. Some of that equipment will come back out through the Northern Distribution Network, through Central Asia. And some of the Central Asian states have expressed an interest in perhaps being eligible to acquire some of that equipment through what is called the Excess Defense Articles Process. So we would be glad to have them be part of that process, and we are, all of our defense attaches, the people who are responsible for military coordination in our embassies are in touch with their counterparts in Central Asia to describe for them that process. In every case the laws are different. There are in some cases restrictions on what kind of equipment we can transfer to the countries of Central Asia. So of course that equipment will be subject, the transfers will be subject to American law. But we’re certainly very happy to enter into those discussions subject to the requirements of American law.
Question [Voice of America/Afghan Service]: If Iran does not refrain from its nuclear program, what measures are going to be taken against it? What are the relations with this country going to be?
Assistant Secretary Blake: I’m not sure I understood the question. Can you repeat the question just in English for me?
Question: [Through Interpreter]. There were several [inaudible], and [inaudible]. What will the situation [inaudible]?
Assistant Secretary Blake: I don’t want to address hypothetical questions, but let me just answer your question in the following way. I think you all know that President Obama met recently in Seoul with the leaders of China and with Russia, and he discussed with them and with other leaders the challenges that are posed by Iran’s illicit nuclear program.
We and our partners agree that talks within the P5+1 structure must start soon in a sustained effort that can lead to what we hope will be a diplomatic solution. The EU High Representative is now engaged in talks with Iran to try to finalize the date and the location for such talks.
As our President has said many times, there is still time for a diplomatic solution, but that time is short.
Question [Deutsche Welle]: Recently Russia has initiated a new program in fighting the narcotics trafficking and has named it a Corporation for Supporting Development in Central Asia. Many experts think that it is a response to Central Asian Initiative on Counter-narcotics announced by the United States, which assumes to create training centers in Central Asia and invited trainers from the United States to train the local narcotics police. Don’t you think that the Central Asia countries will choose a development of economy instead of training centers for narcotics police and other law enforcement agencies.
Assistant Secretary Blake: The United States views the narcotics trade that goes between Afghanistan through Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and up to Russia and beyond as a threat that very much needs to be countered. It feeds narco-trafficking, it potentially helps provide income to terrorists, and it also provides income to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Therefore we are working productively with many of the countries of Central Asia to stop that drug trade through various kinds of cooperation. We very much appreciate the cooperation we’ve received from the government of Tajikistan and we want to continue to work on that with them.
We would also like to work with Russia. One of the most important areas of progress over the last several years while I’ve been in this job has been the growing cooperation and understanding between the United States and Russia with respect to Central Asia. So we would hope that this could be another area of cooperation between our two governments and we’ll continue to pursue such cooperation.
Question [Al-Jazeera/English]: I wanted to first ask whether, what exactly, specifically [inaudible] substantive that came out of this conference. And secondly, Tajikistan is expected to [join the] Russians [in the Customs Union]. Do you consider that a positive step forward in terms of the new Silk Road vision?
Assistant Secretary Blake: First with respect to the accomplishments of the RECCA conference, as I said in my opening remarks, I think this will be regarded as the most substantive and the most successful of the five RECCA conferences that have occurred thus far. The reason for that is that the government of Afghanistan and the government of Tajikistan spent a great deal of time preparing for this and developed a whole booklet of the priority projects and capacity building and economic reform initiatives that need to be undertaken to make possible the regional integration that everybody wants, but also to make possible the basis for private sector investment in this region.
You have all seen from the final declaration that was adopted by all of the participants in the conference today that there was a consensus around these 15 projects and I think that provides a very good basis for us as we look ahead to the very important conference on Afghanistan that will take place in Tokyo in July. And again, we very much appreciate the fact that there now is a regional consensus on what are the priority projects, what are the priority capacity building needs, and what are the priority reform initiatives that need to take place. So that gives a very good game plan and blueprint for what needs to be done.
In terms of the second question, first of all I’m not aware that Tajikistan has endorsed and expressed an interest in joining the Customs Union. On the contrary I think Tajikistan, to the best of my knowledge, is working very hard to accede to the World Trade Organization, something that the United States very strongly supports. Tajikistan would be one of several countries that is acceding to the WTO, joining Kyrgyzstan which is already a member, and Kazakhstan which also has ambitions to be a member.
As I’ve said many times and many others have said many times, we believe that the road to greater prosperity and greater security in all of this region is through open markets, and efforts that will be made to break down barriers to trade so that all of the countries can benefit from increased trade and investment. That’s certainly the focus of today’s conference that just ended, and that will certainly be the focus of America’s efforts going forward.
Question [Radio Liberty/Tajik Service]: The United States Delegation had a meeting with the Delegation of Pakistan. What topics were discussed during the meetings? Does it mean that the U.S. is going to use the territory of Pakistan to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan? Or use Pakistan for other purposes that it was planning to use?
Assistant Secretary Blake: I don’t want to get into the details of our diplomatic discussions with Pakistan or any other country, but let me just say as a general principle of that, the United States views Pakistan as being a very important part of this overall regional integration effort. Pakistan stands to be a great beneficiary of some of the projects that were endorsed today such as the CASA 1000 Electricity Transmission Project, but also the TAPI Gas Pipeline, and many many other road and rail projects.
I’ve heard from many interlocutors during my discussions over the last two days that they are very interested in seeing progress on all of these projects that I just mentioned because they think that Pakistan is itself a very important market for Central Asian products, but also a very important transit point for goods that would be going to India and beyond. So they very much applaud the progress that India and Pakistan have been making in their bilateral trade efforts, they very much applaud as we do, Pakistan’s decision to normalize trade relations with India and we think that all of those efforts will contribute a great deal to the goal of a safe, secure and prosperous Afghanistan within a safe, secure and prosperous region.
Question [CA-News Service]: Recently the United States released an intelligence report where they expect that in the new conflict in Central Asia could occur due to struggle for water in the region? Do you think that Afghanistan, once it is stabilized, can be involved in that struggle for water in the region? Or, in general do you trust this report and think that there is a threat of conflict for water in the region?
Assistant Secretary Blake: The sharing of water resources within Central Asia, but also between Central Asia and Afghanistan is a very important and a very sensitive issue. It affects not just water management and agriculture, but it also affects electricity. This is a subject that many of the countries in the region are discussing. It’s a subject that the UN has been very active in trying to develop a better dialogue between the Central Asians and the Afghans on this issue. The UN efforts are something we very very strongly support. And as the report that you alluded to suggested, it’s very important that all of these countries have a better dialogue and try to reach an agreement on how to share the dwindling water resources in this area. So the United States again will be doing everything we can to promote such dialogue, but also to support UN efforts to develop a common understanding about how these water resources should be shared.
Thank you all. It’s nice to see you all. Thank you.