Also see Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Blanc's statement.
Chairman Kaine, Ranking Member Risch, it's a particular honor for me to be here today, given my work on the committee from 2009 to 2013. So thank you for holding this timely hearing and inviting me to testify. I will summarize my remarks, but ask that my written testimony -- along with an op-ed I just published on this topic -- be submitted into the official record.
I will focus today on our efforts to promote regional economic connectivity between Central and South Asia through an initiative that we call the New Silk Road. As you know, Afghanistan has made tremendous strides over the past 12 years. As a result of that progress, the region now has the opportunity to establish a new set of economic, security and political relationships. This in turn will also support sustainable security and stability in Afghanistan. And I want to underscore that none of this would be made possible without the significant investments made possible in Afghanistan, thanks to the support from the U.S. Congress.
There's no doubt that regional connectivity between Central and South Asia is difficult. This will take many years; it is the least economically integrated region in the world, and geopolitical tensions abound. Barriers to trade remain high, and many economic reforms are needed. Progress ultimately will depend on countries themselves deciding that it is in their interests to work together to adopt global best practices.
But despite these many challenges, it is telling that Afghanistan and its neighbors are championing certain aspects of this initiative. They're creating new North-South connects to complement vibrant East- West connections across Eurasia, including those pursued by Russia and China. By supporting their ability to make their own economic choices, we underscore longstanding U.S. support for the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of states in the region.
Under the leadership of Secretary Kerry, our New Silk Road initiative focuses on four areas. The first is creating a regional energy market, bringing surplus energy from Central Asia to energy- dependent South Asia; the second is improving trade and transport routes across the region; the third is streamlining customs and border procedures to reduce the costs of doing business; and the fourth is connecting people and businesses across new regional markets.
By no means is the United States doing all of this alone. In fact, we work in direct partnership with countries in the region, international financial institutions aid agencies, and others. And our programs complement and support regional priorities such as the Istanbul process.
Let me turn briefly to the first area, energy, where no sector represents a greater win-win across the region. With a population of more than 1.6 billion people, South Asia's demand for energy is growing. At the same time, Central Asia is a repository of vast energy resources including oil, gas and hydropower. To help create a regional energy market, the United States is supporting multiple projects, including CASA-1000, TUTAP and TAPI.
The World Bank's CASA-1000 project is an electricity transmission line that will enable Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to supply 1,300 megawatts of surplus summer hydropower to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Asian Development Bank's TUTAP electricity project will facilitate the export of electricity from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to Afghanistan and eventually Pakistan. These projects have the power to be transformational. For the first time, Central Asia's vast energy resources will be supplied to an energy-dependent South Asia. And the fact that some of this is clean energy is even more compelling.
The United States also supports the Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India natural gas pipeline -- which you mentioned, Senator Kaine -- known as TAPI. If ultimately brought to fruition, this project would be a game changer for the Indian subcontinent.
One the second area, trade and transport, we're focused on improving the legal and regulatory frameworks and removing impediments to trade and investments. Bringing states into multilateral trade institutions and getting neighbors to work together are critical steps for cooperation.
On the third area, customs and borders, vibrant markets require functioning transit-trade corridors. We are working with regional partners to reduce border wait times, increase cooperation at key checkpoints and crossings, and prevent the transit of illegal and dangerous material. Our goal is to support open, but secure borders, throughout the region. Already, trade is picking up as a result. In the last five years alone, the volume of intraregional trade in Central Asia has increased by 49 percent. The average cost of crossing borders dropped15 percent in the last three years. And thanks to U.S. technical assistance, trade is now moving across Afghan borders faster, down from eight days in 2009 to three-and-a-half hours in 2013.
But ultimately, regional connectivity is about our fourth area, connecting people and businesses. We have funded the studies of hundreds of Central Asian and Afghan students across Central Asia in an effort to build the next generation of leaders, including women. Our women's symposiums in Central and South Asia have brought together women entrepreneurs, private sector partners and government officials to advance opportunities for women.
And we're making real progress connecting our businesses through regional trade forums such as the one we held in Islamabad two weeks ago and others in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Bangladesh.
With our support, for instance, over 250 Kazakhstani, Uzbekistani and Afghan businesses gathered in Afghanistan in February where they signed over $8 million in letters of intent for commercial sales.
In conclusion, let me reiterate that while we'll continue to face challenges on connecting this region, our New Silk Road initiative is a powerful vision for how Central and South Asia can fully participate in a 21st-century global economy and benefit from gains to trade. It also honors the considerable investments Americans have made for over a decade in Afghanistan and the broader region by supporting security and stability for a more prosperous region.