Central Asia's Role in the Future of Afghanistan

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
The Conference on U.S and European Policy in Central Asia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Washington, DC
July 12, 2012

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Assistant Secretary Blake: Thank you very much, Martha, for that very nice introduction. Let me first say how pleased I am to join the Carnegie Endowment and Konrad Adenauer Foundation. We very much appreciate your support for this important conference. And I want to extend a particularly warm welcome to a lot of the people who have come from Central Asia for this conference. You’ve already met some of my colleagues, and we’re very glad to send a very warm welcome to all of you as well. A warm welcome as well to my good friends, all of the Ambassadors of Central Asia. I’m glad to see them sitting together. It’s a sign that the New Silk Road is really working. [Laughter.]

In all seriousness, I want to thank Martha in particular for everything that she has done, that you have done, Martha, to help bring Central Asia to the fore here in Washington. I often think Central Asia doesn’t get the attention that it deserves, and Martha’s been a real leader in sponsoring these kinds of conferences and inviting people like me to come on a fairly regular basis, which has been a really terrific opportunity for us to be able to explain what we’re doing, what we’re trying to achieve, in this critically important region to the United States.

Let me also thank Brookings as well, which has been a great partner for us and has kindly agreed to let us use this hall today.

Over the past two years, beginning with the NATO Summit in 2010 in Lisbon, continuing in Istanbul last fall, then in Bonn in December, Chicago in May, and now most recently in Tokyo, Afghanistan and its international partners have been making good progress toward a responsible end to the war and the transfer of full responsibility for security back to Afghanistan.

As Secretary Clinton and many of her counterparts in Tokyo emphasized, Afghanistan should be a peaceful, secure, stable, and prosperous nation living in a peaceful, secure, stable and prosperous region supported by enduring partnerships with the international community. Now, achieving that increased stability, security, and prosperity will only happen when the nations of this region -- based upon a firm commitment to the principles of non-interference and good-neighborly relations -- are able to put aside their differences and work together to build an integrated and economically prosperous region. The countries of Central Asia are playing an important role to help achieve these goals.

I’ll use the balance of my time today to discuss how we are intensifying our cooperation with Central Asia in the areas of security, counter-narcotics, economic development, and integration as well as social stability, in order to help achieve these wider strategic goals.

Let me start with security, which underpins progress in most of these other areas. Even after the deaths of Osama bin Laden and a large number of senior al-Qaeda leaders, we remain focused on our goal to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda and its affiliate organizations. The threat of terrorism and insurgent activity continues to be a major concern for our partners in the region. The United States remains dedicated to assisting them in their efforts to increase their counterterrorism capabilities, both bilaterally and through multilateral efforts such as the UN Counter Terrorism strategy that was facilitated by the UN Center for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia.

The mutual security interests of the United States and Central Asia are embodied in the desire to secure the vital trade and transit routes in the region. These routes have historically represented economic opportunity in the region, and growing trade relations continue to create jobs, raise the standard of living, and provide an alternative to insurgency. The United States and our Coalition partners have depended on some of these major trade routes to implement the Northern Distribution Network, or NDN, which has provided -- and will continue to provide, regardless of how the situation in Pakistan unfolds -- reliable transit routes for the delivery of critical non-lethal equipment and supplies to our troops in Afghanistan.

The United States remains committed to assisting Central Asia in securing these routes in order to ensure the continued success of the economies along the routes as well as the success of our efforts, of Coalition efforts in Afghanistan.

A cornerstone of our security efforts is the imperative to stop the drug trade because it helps fund terrorism; it impedes the emergence of legitimate livelihoods; and it ruins lives all along the supply chain from Afghanistan through Central Asia to Russia and China and beyond.

While we are continuing to work 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 U.S. Government has budgeted well over $100 million for counternarcotics programs in Central Asia, which include upgrades to border checkpoints, as well as building the capacity and professionalization of border guards, customs officials, counternarcotics services, and other law enforcement agencies.

Upgrades to border checkpoints will not only allow for the free flow of trade and customs collection, but for the interdiction of traffickers who are trying to move drugs, weapons, and humans through the region. Building the capacity and professionalization of border guards, customs officials, counternarcotics services, and other law enforcement will also help further our shared economic priorities in fostering regional economic integration as well as encouraging internal security policies that respect human rights and empower civilians.

At the same time, genuine cooperation on border security will also require our partners in the region to make a concerted effort to reduce corruption, which not only facilitates the drug trade, but saps the confidence of people in their leaders.

Many of our Central Asian partners have expressed their concerns about what will happen as the security transition is completed in Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and whether the U.S. will remain engaged. The answer to that question is an unambiguous yes.

Let me discuss three concrete and powerful signals that demonstrate that enduring support: the U.S.-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement, the commitments that were made by NATO Allies at the NATO Summit in Chicago, and the U.S. designation of Afghanistan as a major non-NATO ally. I’ll discuss each of these very briefly.

On May 2 President Obama and President Karzai signed the U.S.-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement which provides a long-term framework for relations between our countries through 2024.

The agreement makes clear that even as the U.S.-Afghan relationship evolves and normalizes over the course of the transition process, the United States will not abandon the Afghan people. Instead, we are deepening our cooperation on economic, security, and other issues, while building an enduring partnership to help strengthen Afghan sovereignty, stability, and prosperity.

Among its many benefits for Afghanistan and its neighbors, the Strategic Partnership Agreement includes a commitment to reinforce security and cooperation in the region. Under the strategic partnership we agreed to contribute to regional cooperation on a range of threats from narcotics trafficking and criminal networks to the common threats posed by international terrorists.

Turning to the NATO Summit that occurred on May 21, which included senior representatives from all five Central Asian countries, it marked a major contribution to the long-term security of Afghanistan and the entire region. In Chicago, the Alliance codified a mid-2013 milestone whereby the International Security Force for Afghanistan, ISAF, its main role will shift from combat to support focusing on training, advising, and assisting the Afghan National Security Forces, the ANSF. ISAF will remain fully combat capable and will undertake combat operations as required.

NATO also agreed to undertake a post-2014 NATO-led train, advise, assist mission in Afghanistan to continue developing Afghan capabilities to address the security situation within their own country.

Finally, NATO also announced an agreed vision for the post-2014 ANSF and committed importantly to providing sufficient funding for this force. The Afghan government for its part pledged to provide at least $500 million a year for the ANSF beginning in 2015, progressively increasing this amount over time and making it the second largest financial contributor for its own security forces.

And, while the summit was not a pledging conference, we were encouraged to see a large number of countries make significant financial commitments to sustain the ANSF after 2014. These commitments send a powerful signal to the Afghan people and to the region that Afghanistan will be able to maintain its own security after the transition and that the U.S. and other members of the international community will continue to support their efforts.

The third concrete sign of our enduring commitment to a robust peace-time security relationship between Afghanistan and the United States was President Obama’s designation on July 6 of Afghanistan as a major non-NATO ally. This provides a long-term framework for our security and defense cooperation and will support aligned defense planning, procurement, and training.

The complement to our long-term security and defense cooperation is the civilian effort to support Afghanistan’s economic transition and build on the development gains achieved there so far. At the Tokyo Conference on Afghanistan last weekend, the United States discussed with our Afghan, Central Asian, and other international partners ways to support Afghanistan’s efforts to continue reforms, reduce donor dependency, and transition toward a private sector driven, sustainable economy.

The Government of Japan announced during the conference that $16 billion in assistance will be available from the international community through 2015, sufficient to meet the World Bank estimated requirement for assistance. The United States will request from our Congress assistance for Afghanistan at or near the levels of the past decade through the year 2017.

Although this sustained economic support will help Afghanistan meet its fiscal needs, it will require intensive support and engagement from the region in order to achieve true economic strength and independence.

Beyond the headline-grabbing assistance figures, the Tokyo conference defined a new era of mutual accountability between donors and the Afghans in which the Afghans committed to significant reforms, from electoral to financial sector to business climate reforms in return for predictable and consistent civilian assistance.

In addition to their integral role in establishing and maintaining security in the region, the Central Asian states have played and will continue to play a major role in supporting economic development in the region. The Central Asian states have been involved in a wide range of projects to assist in Afghanistan’s development and strengthen bilateral and regional ties. These range from Uzbekistan’s and Turkmenistan’s supply of electricity to Afghanistan, to ongoing rail projects throughout most of the region, the progress on the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, Kazakhstan’s long-term university education program for Afghan students, and the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation east-west highway as well as other transport corridors.

Collectively these efforts illustrate the breadth of regional interest in creating a stable and prosperous Afghanistan at the heart of a stable and prosperous region. They also show the promise of continued economic cooperation in the region.

Secretary Clinton has spoken numerous times about a vision of a “New Silk Road” to strengthen regional economic integration and promote economic opportunity between South and Central Asia through two primary means.

First, through trade liberalization, which includes the reduction of non-tariff trade barriers, improved regulatory regimes, transparent border clearance procedures, and coordinated policies, all to accelerate the flow of goods, services, and people throughout the region.

Second, through energy and infrastructure, which includes roads, bridges, electrical transmission grids, railways and pipelines to connect goods, services, and people.

Roads, railways, electricity grids, and the others are all of critical importance, but in the end it will be investor-friendly policies, trade agreements, accelerated border crossing procedures, and transparent governance that will spur efficient, regional economic growth and unlock the vast potential in the markets of this region. Indeed, the World Bank has estimated that reducing regulatory barriers would add as much as two per cent per year to economic growth rates in South and Central Asia.

The region itself is focused on addressing such challenges. In March, I led the U.S. delegation to the Fifth Regional Economic Conference on Cooperation in Afghanistan, the so-called RECCA process, that took place in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. That RECCA meeting was an opportunity for the region to further advance regional consensus on projects and reform initiatives that can help unlock the region’s potential for private investment and increased economic growth. RECCA participants notably agreed to a broad series of regulatory reforms, cross-border economic initiatives, improved customs measures, and inter-regional transit agreements designed to promote regional economic integration.

Of equal importance, RECCA participants also agreed on the need to attract more private sector investment to the region.

The realities of the 21st century require cooperation and collaboration among states as never before. That is especially true in South and Central Asia, where regional trade accounts for less than 15 percent of total trade. But we believe prospects for regional economic cooperation among the countries of this region are better than they have been in years.

This vision of Central and South Asia reconnected along historical trade routes that have suffered from a century of war, mistrust, and hostility is shared by all of those seeking to develop economic stability and unlock the potential of the region.

While security and greater economic cooperation and integration will provide the foundation for strength and prosperity in Central Asia, lasting security and stability cannot be achieved without the development of democracy and respect for universally recognized human rights. The United States has been accused of sacrificing our core values on democracy and respect for human rights in order to increase the development of bilateral security relationships in the region.

This could not be farther from the truth. Our engagement with the five Central Asian states has consistently included frank and open discussions of the need for political liberalization, good governance, civil society capacity building, and human rights concerns and we will continue to advocate for credible and concrete action on these priorities.

As Secretary Clinton said at last month’s Global Counterterrorism Conference in Istanbul, “when nations violate human rights and undermine the rule of law, even in the pursuit of terrorists, it feeds radicalization, gives propaganda tools to the extremists, and ultimately undermines our common efforts.” We believe that limits on civil liberties and freedom are destabilizing for any nation, and we make a point of conveying that belief to our Central Asian partners during our frequent meetings and dialogues.

Importantly, the Secretary also acknowledged that the United States has not always had a perfect record when it comes to the use of such counterterrorism methods, opening the door for further honest discussions on the most effective ways to combat terrorism while still maintaining a healthy respect for fundamental human rights.

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

The ABC process has given seats at the table to virtually the entire United States Government, including the Departments of Defense, Energy, and Commerce, and of course the U.S. Trade Representative, to mention just a few of the most active participants. Each discussion results in a concrete work plan that outlines practical steps to advance U.S. and partner policy goals. This year, we have already held such consultations with the governments of Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan, and I look forward to traveling next month to Tashkent and Bishkek to participate in additional consultations this summer.

Let me conclude by recalling President Obama’s promise that as Afghanistan stands up, it will not stand alone. Afghanistan’s neighbors have an especially key role to play as it continues to develop the domestic institutions and international connections it will need to carry it into the future. The United States is committed to aiding Central Asia in playing its role, through security, economic, and technical assistance and collaboration on regional economic cooperation efforts, in addition to our support for civil society capacity building, and the advancement of democracy and human rights.

Ladies and gentlemen, we, our NATO Allies and partners such as the Central Asian states have come a long way since the Lisbon summit in 2010. To be sure, many challenges lie ahead. But recent successes such as the NATO Summit and the Tokyo Conference show the strong international resolve to support the transformation decade in Afghanistan from 2014 to 2024. Our Central Asian friends will be at the heart of those efforts, and we will be working closely with them.

Again, let me thank Carnegie, Brookings, and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation for their support for this important conference.

Question: Thanks. Alexandrous Peterson from the Woodrow Wilson Center. Thank you Ambassador Blake for your remarks. They’re very interesting.

I noticed, however, that the three main reasons you mentioned that the United States is going to stay involved in the region had to do with Afghanistan centrally. I wonder if you could maybe elaborate more on reasons that we might stay involved in the region that have essentially to do with the five Soviet Central Asian states, the strategic countries in the region like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan.

Assistant Secretary Blake: Obviously one of our primary motivations is, of course, to continue to support both the developments in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan, to support stabilization efforts there, and we see that both the regions of Central Asia and South Asia will have crucial roles to play in that regard.

The obligation of any government first and foremost is to provide for the security of its citizens. The some of the greatest security threat to our homeland emanates still from this region. So of course we’ll remain very strongly engaged.

But we also see that we have tremendous opportunities to work much more closely with the Central Asians. We see a great upside to a lot of our relations.

In the economic sphere we’ve been doing much more to try to develop trade, investment, and our companies see particularly promising opportunities in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, but also in the other countries of the region.

We also have a great interest in trying to promote this New Silk Road vision that I talked about. As I said earlier, intra-regional trade accounts for only about 15 percent of total trade right now. There’s a huge opportunity to do much more and that would be enormously beneficial, not only to the states in this region, but also to our own companies and to our own greater national interests for that whole region.

Lastly, of course, Central Asia is sandwiched between some of the most critical countries in the world for us right now -- China, Russia, Iran, Afghanistan. So naturally it’s extremely important that we maintain the high level of strategic engagement that we’ve had over the last three years.

I think that if you take away anything from my remarks today it is that the United States is going to remain engaged in Afghanistan, but also in Central Asia.

Question: [Inaudible]

Assistant Secretary Blake: Thank you very much for that important question.

I think as many of you know, Secretary Clinton and her counterparts, the Foreign Ministers of Afghanistan and Pakistan, participated on the margins of the Tokyo Conference in the first ministerial trilateral Core Group meeting. I think that was quite an important meeting because out of that emerged a joint statement that didn’t probably get the public attention that it deserved.

In that declaration all three talked about how it is extremely important that all three of our countries and the international community generally continue to support an Afghan political process of peace and reconciliation. This of course is a process that’s going to have to be led by the Afghans themselves.

They reiterated that such a process has got to be an inclusive process, and reiterated some of our red lines that all parties have to of course renounce violence, end all contacts with al-Qaida and abide by Afghanistan’s constitution.

And critically I think they reaffirmed the importance of multiple channels and contacts with the armed opposition.

So this obviously is a very, very important aspect of what we’re trying to get accomplished in Afghanistan, and I think the fact that the United States and Afghanistan and Pakistan came through and agreed on such an important statement is a promising signal for the future.

Question: Richard Whites, Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute.

A question about the status of the NDN. There’s been press comments about perhaps the Pentagon will be leading some of the non-lethal or perhaps even lethal weapons behind. Recently Uzbekistan withdrew from the CSTO and there’s speculation they’re eager to get more, have a greater American presence. The Pakistanis have sort of reopened the Ground Lines of Communication but there are a lot of problems there. I wasn’t sure if you could give us an update on how things are standing as we continue to flow material in, but then as we withdraw them out, what is the long term vision for the NDN’s communication?

Assistant Secretary Blake: There were a lot of different questions embedded in that question, so let me try to unpack those.

First of all with respect to the Ground Lines of Communication (GLOCs) in Pakistan, as you know, there has been an agreement now between the United States and Pakistan to reopen what we call the GLOCs. We obviously welcome that and I think we’re making good progress to implement that agreement and to actually begin the flow of goods back and forth across that border, so we’re encouraged by those developments.

That said, the Northern Distribution Network will remain a critically important transit route for our supplies going in and out of Afghanistan. I think a lot of people don’t realize that as many of our units begin to transition out of Afghanistan, their equipment also will be transiting out of Afghanistan. So the reverse transit of goods is an equally important priority that we are looking at right now. Again, I think the Central Asian routes through the Northern Distribution Network will remain a very critical part of our efforts there. It just, again, underlines the crucial importance of continuing to work with Central Asia and to helping them to do what they can to support that, which includes addressing some of their counter-terrorism concerns, which are certainly legitimate.

You mentioned the excess defense articles. That is a process that’s really just beginning now. As the United States begins to transit equipment out of Afghanistan, a lot of it will be left behind to help support the ANSF transition in Afghanistan, but some of it will come out and go back to the United States. Some of it also can stay and support the efforts of partners like our Central Asian friends.

But again, we’re really just beginning that process now and most of it, probably all of it, will be non-lethal assistance of one sort or another. And again, we’re beginning that process so I don’t have much more to say about that than that.

Question: Hello, sir. My name is Anchuma Napte and I’m with Voice of America TV [inaudible]. That is Afghanistan service, but so far is with radio and TV.

My question to you is how will United States coordinate or harmonize different commercial interests of different countries like United States, Russia, China vis-à-vis Afghanistan is concerned? And how will it make sure that these interests don’t conflict with each other, creating further conflict in Afghanistan?

Assistant Secretary Blake: First of all I wouldn’t say it’s the United States’ job to harmonize. We will continue to work very closely with Russia and with China and with Afghanistan and all the countries of the region to try to promote this integration vision. I think that all of us stand to benefit from this, but particularly the countries in the region for the reasons that I’ve already spoken of.

One of the things that we’ve done I think quite well over the last three years has been to scale up our strategic consultations with both Russia and China on what we’re doing in Central Asia. We don’t always see eye to eye on everything, but I think it’s been very helpful to have those kinds of detailed discussions both in Beijing and in Moscow and also here in the United States. We’re going to continue to do that. I think both of those countries do see opportunities to help to contribute to the New Silk Road vision that I talked about.

The Chinese call it historical trade routes. It doesn’t really matter what the term is. The point is to try to promote greater regional integration. The Central Asians, because they are so centrally located stand to be the great beneficiaries of this in terms of trade routes coming from Europe through Central Asia down to South Asia, from Russia and, of course, from China down through Central Asia and into Afghanistan and beyond.

So there is enormous work to be done but there is also, I mentioned these trade corridors. CAREC, the ADB effort is trying to promote. These are, I think, going to be quite important.

As you look at, for example, the China trade, right now many of its exports go by sea to Europe. They are now looking at a very serious way of working with Kazakhstan to promote direct corridors through Kazakhstan and beyond to Northern Europe. That will be of enormous benefit to Kazakhstan, but it will also help Chinese exporters and of course it will help overall trade. That’s one example.

There are other routes that will go through Uzbekistan to Turkey, and of course, the routes into Afghanistan itself. And all of these I think, again, represent a remarkable new opportunity.

So we don’t look at this as a zero sum game. We look at this as an opportunity for all countries to benefit.

Thank you.