Jim Carafano: Good morning, welcome to The Heritage Foundation. No, we’re not next door to a dentist. They’re doing some construction on the building and the construction moves on, so they may stop, they may not stop. Just pretend it’s not there or pretend you’re at the dentist.
I’m Jim Carafano. I oversee all the foreign national security policy here at The Heritage Foundation. Thank you for coming. I’m going to not be here very long and turn it over to the panel. It’s just a real testament in many ways to the discipline and focus of this administration and how it’s dealt with foreign and national security policy really since the early days of the administration and the publication of the National Security Strategy.
America is a global power with global interests and responsibilities. There are three really important parts of the world that knit the world together for the United States and the Transatlantic community: Western Europe, the Greater Middle East, and Asia and the Indo-Pacific. Why this discussion today is super important is there are areas that are really kind of the ball joints or the connecting tissue to the great global connection, and Central Asia is certainly one of them and certainly an area that is truly deserving of attention in U.S. policy.
What America wants is what I think many people in the region would want. We want this to be a region of peace and stability and we want it to be a collection of sovereign nations who are responsible and accountable and looking to the prosperity and freedoms and security of their own people.
We commend the administration. I commend Luke who’s done a lot of pioneering research in this area. So to hear about the next steps that the administration is planning on taking in Central Asia is really great. It’s great to have it at The Heritage Foundation. So please join me in applause and welcoming our panel, and I’ll turn it over to Luke Coffey.
Moderator: Thanks, Jim, for those welcoming remarks and that introduction. I want to echo Jim’s welcome to everyone here at The Heritage Foundation and also thanks to the administration for coming here today for the launch of this important strategy in what is a very important region of the world.
When you look at a map the Central Asian republics are right in the heart of the Eurasian land mass and by definition, really, anything that’s at the heart of something is important. We’re starting to wake up to this I think in Washington, DC more and more.
When you look at all the challenges and opportunities that are in this one region alone that America’s facing, whether it’s a resurgent Russia, an emboldened China, an Iran increasing its reach outside of its borders, energy issues, energy security issues facing Europe, obviously Afghanistan. Or you look at some of the opportunities with trade and promoting economic freedom and good governance. Central Asia is a region that we cannot afford to ignore.
So that being said we have a wonderful panel of experts here today from the administration. I will introduce them one at a time right before they speak instead of going down the line and introducing all of them. Also, I will keep my introductions brief. Most of you in the audience if you’re here today on Central Asia you probably know the faces that are up here, and plenty of information about their distinguished careers can be found of course online.
I will ask each panelist to speak for five to ten minutes and then we will open it up to a question and answer session. And I will ask that whenever we get to that part of the program you keep your questions to the point and pithy and not use it as a platform to deliver a keynote address. I’ve been guilty of that in the past myself, that’s why I feel comfortable saying that.
Our first speaker today is Lisa Curtis. Lisa is the Deputy Assistant to the President and Senior Director for South and Central Asia at the National Security Council. Lisa is also a friend and former colleague of mine here at The Heritage Foundation. She joined the administration from The Heritage Foundation. And before joining Heritage in 2006 she worked for 16 years for the U.S. government in various capacities focused on South Asia.
With that, I’ll turn it over to you, Lisa.
DAP Lisa Curtis: It’s certainly a pleasure to be back here at The Heritage Foundation. It feels a little bit like being at home. I would like to thank Jim Carafano and Luke Coffey for inviting me here today as well as my colleagues, Ambassador Wells and Gloria Steele. It’s a real pleasure to be here. I would also like to acknowledge Ambassador Vahabov who is here with us from Uzbekistan. The Ambassador to Uzbekistan.
We’re here today to talk about the administration’s strategy to advanced United States national security interests in Central Asia. So this strategy has really been under development for the past year, and it was shepherded by NSC Director for Central Asia Dr. Eric Rudenshiold who happens to be here with us today and who I’m sure many of you know.
The NSC served in a coordinating role to facilitate a holistic approach to developing a strategy across the various U.S. government departments and agencies. So I will provide a brief overview of the strategy and I’ll leave it to my colleagues from State and USAID to talk more about the nuts and bolts and the details and the implementation of the strategy.
So recognizing that important shifts have occurred in the region in the last several years, we decided it was time to update our approach and vision to this vital region. Some of the changes that have brought us new challenges as well as opportunities include shifts in leadership dynamics that have given rise to new opportunities for intra-regional cooperation. Renewed threats from extremist ideologies and terrorist organizations, namely the impact of the ISIS phenomena, the foreign fighter phenomena, and then repatriating those foreign fighters to their home countries. That presents challenges as well as opportunities. Third is the deepening Chinese influence in the region, which also presents some challenges as well as opportunities. Fourthly, we see opportunities for Central Asia to support our Afghanistan peace efforts.
But also many things remain the same in the region and here we can point to continued robust Russian influence in all spheres, political, economic, military, with all the countries. Public health threats. We’ve seen TB in the past. Now we have the Coronavirus that we’re grappling with, and Central Asia is very much a partner that we want to work with in containing this virus.
The challenges surrounding trafficking in persons, migration, as well as the need to improve human rights and democratic institutions. These are all things that we have faced for many years. They continue to be very important.
I think our strategy is notable in that it’s a long-term policy. The document takes us through 2025 and this reflects the historical openings that we see, but also the enduring opportunities for United States-Central Asia partnership. And let me be clear, we see Central Asia as a geostrategic region of importance in its own right. We separate this from our involvement in surrounding countries, particularly Afghanistan.
So first and foremost, we see the new strategy as reemphasizing an enduring, guiding principle, which is strong U.S. support for the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of all of the Central Asian nations, both individually and as a group.
We believe that with consistent U.S. engagement on economics, energy, democracy, governance issues, the Central Asian nations will function as a regional block of cooperative partners and increase their ability to pursue their own national objectives. Again, we want to ensure the nations of Central Asia have the freedom to choose from a variety of options and partners in pursuing their own national objectives.
Second, we want to help reduce terrorist threats and build capacity for addressing these challenges. We want to ensure that Central Asia does not become a hotbed of extremist ideologies and that they can maintain secure borders.
Third, we’re focused on promoting economic connectivity, improving the region’s connections to the global economy which will enable the nations to avoid becoming overly dependent on any one country.
We also want to promote connectivity between Central Asia and Afghanistan. And this includes in energy infrastructure and trade initiatives. We have been deeply appreciative of the support that we have gotten for U.S. peace efforts in Afghanistan, noting that Uzbekistan held a historical conference in 2018 bringing together the different Afghan factions. So we appreciate that support that we have received and are confident we can continue to count on that.
Fourth, we will redouble efforts to promote rule of law and respect for religious freedom, human rights. We will continue to champion those values that we hold near and dear. And we would like to see the Central Asian states increasingly provide for meaningful input by their citizenry and to provide for inclusive political systems including regular elections.
Lastly, we will seek to promote United States investment in and development of the Central Asia nations. We’ll encourage market opportunities for both United States and Central Asian entrepreneurs, and we’ll support conditions that are conducive to local and American investment as we create opportunities for employment and prosperity for the countries of Central Asia.
Ultimately, we seek a business environment that is open, fair, and attractive to U.S. investors and that supports each country’s development goals.
We are pleased that the Central Asian nations see value in the C5+1 process, which of course brings the United States and the leaders of all five countries together for common discussion and action. In fact, Secretary Pompeo was in Tashkent this week to host a C5+1. I’m sure you’re going to hear more about that from Ambassador Wells who accompanied him on that visit.
We’re also happy and encouraged that the Central Asian countries are coming together on their own accord to discuss regional cooperation, which simply would not have happened five years ago. This development I think is encouraging and it’s remarkable to see some of these changes that are taking place in this dynamic region.
I would just like to end my remarks by raising an urgent issue that this administration has been focused on and it impacts the Central Asia region. This is the Chinese government’s repressive treatment of Uighurs and other religious minorities in Xinjiang Province. We’re calling on Beijing to end the campaign of repression and to immediately release the over one million individuals who are being arbitrarily detained. And we stand by the Central Asian nations that face pressure to deny refuge to those fleeing this religious persecution. It is these countries’ sovereign right to help those who ask for assistance, and it’s also a fundamental obligation of all law-abiding nations to refrain from returning asylum seekers to face certain persecution or punishment.
That concludes my remarks and I turn the floor over to my esteemed colleagues. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you, Lisa.
That was a very important point you made there by what’s happening in China. Thanks for being so clear on that.
Our next speaker is Ambassador Alice Wells. She is the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs at the State Department. She is a career foreign service officer. She has served in postings all around the world including as Ambassador to Jordan, and she’s also served in senior level positions in the U.S. government back here in DC, including as a Special Assistant to the President for Russia and Central Asia in the White House in 2012 and 2013.
As Lisa pointed out, Ambassador Wells was on the trip with Secretary Pompeo, almost straight off the plane, so she can give us a good update, I’m sure on what’s happening in that region. Thank you.
Ambassador Alice Wells: It’s a great audience. Thank you for turning out today. I also see several Ambassadors to the region, so it’s with a great deal of humility that I offer up these remarks and I look forward to their contributions.
I did return yesterday from Central Asia with Secretary Pompeo. And the trip really offered not only a chance to advance our bilateral agenda with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan but to convene another ministerial meeting of the C5+1, which is that framework mechanism that allows us to engage with all of the Central Asian countries on a single platform to discuss common interests and mutual objectives.
I would note that this is the second meeting of the C5+1 at the ministerial level in the last six months, and it also provided an opportunity for the Secretary to brief his counterparts on the outlines of our Central Asia strategy.
I would emphasize what Lisa emphasized and that is since the independence of the Central Asian states 28 years ago, the United States has been steadfast in our commitment to the independence sovereignty and territorial integrity of these states. It’s basically the holy trinity of U.S. policy to Central Asia, and certainly the Secretary had a chance to reiterate that. And to back this commitment the United States government, the private sector and multilateral development banks have provided over $90 billion of assistance in the past 28 years to support infrastructure development, economic growth, peace and security, democratic reform, as well as humanitarian aid during times of crisis.
And as Lisa described, there have been changes in the region that made it necessary and obvious for us to develop a new Central Asia strategy to replace the one that was approved in 2015. That includes the very important transition we’ve seen in Uzbekistan where President Mirziyoyev has brought some visionary leadership both to his domestic reforms as well as to his stance towards Uzbekistan’s neighbors. It was driven by what has been the very stable political transition underway in Kazakhstan. And the strategy obviously builds on the opportunities of advancing a negotiated political settlement in Afghanistan.
This strategy also very, very importantly capitalizes on the trust and the interest to pursue mutual interests that have been nurtured over the last couple of years by the Central Asian states themselves. We’ve simply seen a sea change in attitude towards a regional identity.
The Central Asian heads of state convened without the presence of any major powers for the first time in at least a decade in 2018, and then they repeated that session last year. A very important step.
So the C5+1 platform, which the United States has long championed, has really emerged I think as a critical, valuable diplomatic tool and an organizing principle for us in the region.
I think the principle point you should take away from this new strategy is what is not new. In other words, our new strategy reflects the fundamental continuity with previous strategies going all the way back to our support for these newly independent states in 1991 and ’92. This continuity is built on the simple fact that the independence and successful growth and development of these countries contributes to U.S. foreign policy and national security.
Lisa gave you the beyond the sovereignty, territorial and independence, the five areas of focus in the strategy and I’m going to drill down on each of them a little bit.
So first, on reducing terrorist threats. We work with our Central Asian partners on a variety of counterterrorism efforts including Joint Terrorism Task Force; workshops and trainings focused on countering violent extremism and combating online radicalization; supporting the repatriation, rehabilitation, and reintegration of foreign terrorist fighters. And I think we have to acknowledge that Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan are really leading the world in taking responsibility for their citizens on these battlefields.
We’re also working with our Central Asian partners to strengthen border security, which is a critical concern of the nations. We’ve invested over $90 million toward the effort. We’ve conducted training activities for over 2600 border officers. We’ve established 13 operational border posts. It’s an area of intense engagement.
The second line of effort is regional connectivity, and we really applaud the advances that have taken place in enhancing regional economic activity including government-to-government, people-to-people relationships. So what we’re trying to do is to help standardize and simplify visa and customs processes, eliminate non-tariff trade barriers through our Trade and Investment Framework Agreement, while also convening business people to create new opportunities for trade and entrepreneurship, including the annual Central Asia Trade Forum, which resulted in more than $56 million worth of signed letters of intent in 2018.
We’re going to continue to support strengthening the region’s transit corridors. One initiative was the Lapis Lazuli Corridor, which was initiated in December of 2018 that provides a transit route for Afghan goods such as cotton, sesame seed, and minerals through Turkmenistan and on to the European market. We’re hoping to build a Central Asia regional electricity market. We’re providing ongoing support for the very important CASA-1000 1300 megawatt transmission line that can bring surplus hydroelectricity from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to Afghanistan and Pakistan where over 80 million people still lack access to electricity.
Our public diplomacy programs are bringing people together to create networks of skilled professionals. We’re able to rely on now an alumni network of 40,000 students and professionals who have participated in programs. We’re working to promote cultural heritage tourism across the region by training museum curators. And I think most demonstrative of our long term commitment has been our investments in the brightest and hardest working students in the region including by providing scholarships to the only American accredited university, the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek.
Our third line of effort obviously is an important one with the stabilization of Afghanistan. And I remember being so struck when President Ghani visited Uzbekistan for the very first time and said Afghanistan is a Central Asian state. And it’s that principle that we’re trying to really build the linkages around. So we applaud Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan for the rail and electricity lines. We welcome the regional scholarships and technical assistance including the emergence of Termez as an entrepot for trade and training. The Joint Border Security Academy in Dushanbe. The targeted support that’s being offered by Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan for Afghan women’s empowerment.
The fourth area line of effort is trade and development reforms. This is critical. Since independence the United States private sector has very, very conservatively invested over $31 billion in commercial ventures in the region generating thousands of local jobs, building human capacity and fundamentally upholding the very highest standards; labor, environmental and debt sustainability.
To further expand that American private investment we’re working with each Central Asian country to improve their ability to attract foreign investors from American companies and multinational corporations. We’re supporting programs aimed at implementing market based and public education reforms. We’ve offered to provide independent experts who can help countries assess the sustainability of infrastructure projects. We’re looking to the newly established Development Finance Corporation to provide critical assistance through lending, insurance, and investment products. And we’re very pleased to have just concluded an Open Skies Agreement with Kazakhstan that will create opportunities not just for airlines but for multiple industries in both of our countries.
Finally, the fifth line of effort is rule of law and human rights. We’re going to continue to champion our values. That means respect for rule of law in each country as well as universal respect for human rights, which are essential not just for lasting stability but frankly, as the Secretary underscored during his visit, they are critical for achieving our goals of increasing trade and foreign investment.
Countries will take business risks but they don’t want to take political risk. So how do we demonstrate the stability and the long-term sustainability of our programs in the region? So we look to support civil society. We look to support countries’ concrete steps to combat trafficking in persons, to promote religious freedom, and to stand up for the rights as Lisa detailed for the oppressed ethnic Kazakhs, Uighurs, and Kyrgyz in Chinese detention prisons. It was an extremely moving gathering when the Secretary met with the ethnic Kazakhs whose family members were being, frankly, tortured, detained, and brutalized in a detention system that too much of the world has sought to ignore.
I think we’ve seen very important steps by Uzbekistan to better protect human rights and fundamental freedoms, which helps I think to strengthen these freedoms everywhere in Central Asia. In Kazakhstan the Secretary welcomed President Tokayev’s December 20 announcement of his first package of reforms to increase space for the rights of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, and we look forward to the implementation.
So in conclusion, I would say that effective implementation of the strategy will ensure that Central Asia is a stable and secure region that is deepening engagement with the United States. We absolutely see that we are in an era of new possibilities. We look forward to decades of deep, substantive cooperation with Central Asian countries that are not only resilient but are also free to pursue political, economic and security interests on their own terms and with partners of their own choosing.
Thank you very much.
Moderator: Thank you, Ambassador Wells. And I agree, when I saw those photos of Secretary Pompeo meeting with those family members, they were very powerful photos and a stark reminder of what’s happening.
Our next and final speaker is Gloria Steele. She’s the Acting Assistant Administrator in the Bureau for Asia at the United States Agency for International Development, or as we commonly say, USAID.
She’s had a very distinguished and long term career focusing on issues, development issues, economic issues in Asia, and in her current portfolio, her current role she’s responsible for 30 countries in Asia with a budget more than a billion dollars. So she’s going to give us kind of the development side of things I suspect today. Thank you.
Ms. Gloria Steele: Thank you, Luke. Thank you for hosting the launch of the new Central Asia Strategy and I’d like to thank all of you for joining us here today.
For over 25 years USAID has been working with countries in Central Asia to help promote development, stability and cooperation among the countries. And more recently, cooperation and integration with Afghanistan.
Central Asia’s success is critical to the success and prosperity and stability of the United States. I think development plays a very critical role in making this happen.
Alice talked about what is not new, and in fact what we’re going to do in implementing this strategy is to take lessons learned and build upon programs that we have done in the past, and scale them up where appropriate.
So how will USAID help to implement the Central Asia Strategy?
The first, actually, is to strengthen institutions that characterize true democracy. It is foundational to the stability and for development of Central Asia and it also is very important to promoting and attracting investments in the region. That’s because these institutions are important for good governance. They’re important for transparency. They safeguard sovereignty and independence. And they develop resilience to extremist ideology based upon the rule of law and respect for human rights, which really is important for stability. And as I have said earlier, all of these are important for further development and for attracting investments in the region.
To help strengthen state sovereignty and independence we stand firmly with civil society and independent media to protect civic space, foster media freedom, and improve access to credible information. We will help to counter disinformation in the sensitive regions surrounded by powers vying for influence.
For example, in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan we are working to strengthen independent media outlets, promote media literacy, and ensure access to quality information.
In the Kyrgyz Republic our partnership has helped the country evolve from dependence on donors to near complete independence in managing their own elections. We look forward to supporting independent domestic election monitoring in the parliamentary elections this coming fall.
By supporting civic and democratic engagement with the youth we are helping to build resilience and challenge extremist ideology. USAID commits itself to promoting religious freedom and to working with faith-based organizations. In doing so we aim to encourage tolerance and pluralistic societies where hopefully we will be able to prevent or combat extremist ideologies from taking root.
Rule of law and human rights are bolstered by swift, transparent and fair judicial systems. So in Uzbekistan our programs have worked in the rule of law and have cut average length of court cases in half, reducing backlog in cases while building confidence in the judicial system.
Moving forward, USAID will expand this programming to cover economic and administrative courts to create a legal environment that is conducive for investments in the country.
We will also work with civil society and government, continue to work in this region to combat the scourge of human trafficking. Both Lisa and Alice have talked about this, and this is a very important issue that we focus on. By enhancing cooperation between source, transit, and destination countries we will hope to target the root causes of trafficking while identifying successful evidence-based practices that can help us combat human trafficking.
The next is promoting U.S. investment and development in Central Asia. To promote investments and development in the region we are working with partner countries to improve the business regulatory environment, ensure contract enforcement for instance by strengthening the rule of law, and supporting adherence to international trade and business standards.
Integration throughout Central Asia including Afghanistan is crucial for U.S. investment. That’s why for nine years USAID has hosted the Central Asia Trade Forum, one of the region’s largest annual connectivity events that promote regional trade and facilitate participation by U.S. businesses. In 2018 the Forum in Tashkent resulted in more than $56 million worth of signed letters of intent. With our most recent forum in Kazakhstan we know the forum will continue to link Central Asia with the global markets and we hope to continue this work.
In addition, since 2015 USAID has facilitated more than $400 million worth of letters of intent to conduct business between Uzbekistan’s entrepreneurs and foreign markets with millions in business contracts already completed. This translates to roughly 100 to 1 return on investment with $100 in new trade created for every U.S. dollar invested.
Beyond enabling enterprise development, we are also working to develop human capacity by improving access to health and education, both of which are critical to sustain inclusive development and growth as well as the self-reliance of these countries.
Investments in health systems are key to averting major health shocks that drain countries’ economies, and we see this now, all the concern about Coronavirus. And they are also critical for promoting economic growth. We are working with host governments to rebuild the shattered post-Soviet health systems and address challenges like TB. In the Kyrgyz Republic our programs have cut treatment times for TB patients in half since 2017, and in partnership with Uzbekistan’s national TB program the incidence rate of TB has also been reduced by half.
Equally important, investments in relevant and high–quality education will lift drug development in these countries and that is really important. It is important at the household level, it is important at the national level, and it will be important regionally in Central Asia.
In Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic our nationwide education programs have significantly improved reading proficiency and learning outcomes. In Uzbekistan we are building upon English language instruction to provide alternatives to the Russian language.
Regionally, Central Asia will continue to depend on energy and water access to sustain their economies and fuel growth. USAID is supporting the secretariats of CASA-1000 that will facilitate, as Alice has said, the export of surplus hydropower from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to Afghanistan. This cooperation will not only provide energy, which is really important for the growth of industry, but it will create jobs and increase incomes and promote economic growth in the region.
While USAID supports transnational water and energy programs, we are also trying to increase cross-border trade and connectivity at the national and community level. That’s why USAID has supported the establishment of 13 small basing councils at boundary rivers to support representatives from local governments and communities in sharing these important water resources. These councils create fair rules and procedures for water use and prevent conflict.
We know that strengthening democratic institutions, promoting economic cooperation and investing in people will lead to a more secure, stable and prosperous Central Asia.
Looking ahead, we really look forward to cooperating with the countries, working with the countries in Central Asia and cooperating with other agencies in the U.S. government and in the private sector to implement the new Central Asia Strategy. We think it is important for the future. It is important for their prosperity and for the stability as it is important for us.
Thank you very much.
Moderator: Thank you.
That was a great way to round out the discussion and open it up to the question and answer session. As the moderator, I’m going to ask the first question to kick us off.
I wanted to focus a little bit on Afghanistan. I love hearing this recognition now that Afghanistan is a Central Asian country. Culturally, linguistically, historically, economically and geographically in many ways it is a Central Asian, at least half of it’s in Central Asia. I remember when I served in Afghanistan in 2005 how important and how much time I spent at Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan or Karshi-Khanabad in Uzbekistan and how even throughout that campaign, even today we rely so much on the Central Asian republics for refueling and air traffic rights and rail links and road links and everything else. So I think it’s great that we’re recognizing this besides seeing the Afghan campaign solely through the lens of Pakistan and somewhat India.
So what can you say specifically about what the U.S. is doing to bring Afghanistan and Central Asia closer together in the economic sense? We talked about the fact that this is happening, but are there any specifics you can share?
Ambassador Wells: Through our Trade and Investment Framework Agreement, for instance, we’ve worked to bring Afghanistan in as an observer country. We’d like for them to become a member of the TIFA. That’s something we’re working towards so that we can create and support a 100 million person market.
We’ve also been in discussions with the border states of Afghanistan to talk about setting up trilateral bodies that can ensure that cross-border programs for economic and humanitarian and political assistance go forward and that we sustain momentum behind them.
And then through our own development, USAID, as well as through the multilateral banks we’re very much encouraging the infrastructure lash-up of the region, which is critical.
Now a lot of this is going to depend on security. It’s going to depend on the Taliban and other terrorist forces not attacking or undermining these important projects. And so here I think we need to do a shout out for the Central Asian countries’ support for the peace process as Ambassador Khalilzad works to implement the President’s instructions to seek a significant and lasting reduction in violence that would unlock and allow all Afghans to come to a negotiating table. The Central Asian states have been very forward leaning, from Uzbekistan’s hosting of a peace conference in 2018 to the individual actions these countries have taken to help in some instances double or triple trade with Afghanistan as well as build out the people-to-people and government partnerships.
Ms. Steele: Just one specific example which both Alice and I have talked about which is the support to CASA-1000 that exports surplus hydropower from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to Afghanistan. And this is a really important way of promoting economic growth in the three countries.
DAP Curtis: I think why we have seen such support to the Afghanistan peace process from the Central Asian nations is because they know what happens in Afghanistan directly impacts their own security. As Ambassador Wells mentioned, Ambassador Khalilzad, our Senior Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation has very much made it part of his writ to engage with the Central Asian states on his negotiations with the Taliban, with the Afghans, and he’s made several trips to Central Asia. I was with him in December in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. More recently he’s become more focused in Doha, of course, and in Afghanistan and Pakistan but he has very much recognized the role Central Asia can play and needs to play in facilitating this peace process.
And in particular what we hear from the Central Asians is concern about ISIS Khorasan, ISIS-K. We have made progress against ISIS-K in recent months in Nangarhar Province, pushing them back. They still have capabilities, so there’s still concern from the Central Asians.
So I think that this will be an area that we continue to engage on, offer to increase our cooperation on border security, information sharing to reign in these terrorist threats, because what happens in Afghanistan can easily flow across the borders into Central Asia. I think Central Asia has just as much if not more of an interest in seeing a stable, peaceful Afghanistan as the U.S. and its coalition partners.
We’re going to open it up now. Mohammed caught my attention first in the front here. So bring the microphone down.
Audience: Mohammed Tahir from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
A couple of you mentioned about the kind of encouraging in a way Central Asian authorities to stand up against Chinese repression of ethnic minorities in China with connections to Central Asia like Kazakhs and others. What is that exactly you want from Central Asian authorities to do? And what is that United States is like kind of helping Central Asians to stand up, is the word that you used, Ambassador Wells, against Chinese repression. Is there anything that United States is offering them to stand up against China?
Ambassador Wells: As a matter of principle we urge all countries, not just Central Asian countries, to speak out against human rights abuses that are evident against Muslims in all of China but certainly in Xinjiang. And the countries of Central Asia, several of the countries of Central Asia have deep first-hand knowledge of those abuses given the direct impact it has on their own populations who have loved ones, family members, that are swept up in these detention centers.
We appreciate steps by Central Asian states to ensure that no ethnic Kazakh, Uighur, Kyrgyz is refouled to China, that the human rights of individuals who reach Central Asia are observed. And we also appreciate I think what countries like Kazakhstan can do to promote the free and safe travel of compatriots, ethnic compatriots across the border.
Audience: Thank you so much. I’m Navbahor Imamova from Voice of America. Thank you.
I have two questions to all of you. Number one, what was the main message on Afghanistan to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan? What are they doing specifically to support your current efforts in Afghanistan, military wise? And as far as we know, both governments don’t want you to leave Afghanistan or have their positions changed? What did you hear from them?
Secondly, to what extent did you discuss the registration of U.S. organizations in Uzbekistan? NGOs specifically. We know that several of them are trying to apply, are trying to get in. What did you hear back from the Uzbek administration on them?
Moderator: Can we turn up the microphones a bit?
I think the first question, correct me if I’m wrong, was what are your messages on Afghanistan to the region.
Audience: [Off mike].
Moderator: The registration of U.S. organizations. Thank you.
Ambassador Wells: In terms of Afghanistan, I think it’s important to note that our approach to Afghanistan is conditions based. That our ability to achieve peace in Afghanistan is ultimately based on the Taliban’s willingness to repudiate terrorism and to eliminate the prospect of Afghanistan being used as a platform for terrorism against our friends and against the United States. So this is very much a methodical approach. It’s an approach that we have ongoing consultations with the countries of the region. As Lisa mentioned, that Ambassador Khalilzad, Secretary Pompeo, other senior officials engage at all levels to explain and to keep Central Asian countries apprised, but also to solicit the assistance of Central Asia in the areas that we briefed. We see Central Asia as providing critical ballast to a peace, that Afghanistan effectively needs to be stitched back into the neighborhood through economic ties, education ties, the trade, the historic, the interconnectivity that that region enjoyed needs to be resuscitated.
So this is a comprehensive approach. I think you heard the variety of programs that Gloria briefed on and the diplomatic messages that we provide.
In Uzbekistan where we very much welcomed the opening up of the government to us, to the neighborhood, last year we announced about $100 million in assistance to the government of Uzbekistan. Implementers for our assistance programs tend to be civil society organizations, non-governmental organizations, and so we have worked with and encouraged the registration of these organizations who can help ensure that our education programs, food programs, technical assistance programs, educational scholarship programs move forward. We’re pleased to see that recently there have been steps to register several of these organizations and we encourage the speedy registration of others.
Moderator: Ambassador Hoagland, he’s going to be too modest to say, but he was actually involved in the drafting I think of the last strategy.
Audience: Thanks. My name is Dick Hoagland. I’m former State Department and currently with the Caspian Policy Center.
A quick question. Each of the countries in Central Asia to one degree or another follows a multi-vector foreign policy to balance the big four — Russia, China, the United States and European Union. Of course the European Union are our partners. Russia and China vie for influence increasingly in old fashioned ways, new ways. Do you see, especially Lisa and Alice, do you see any way that the United States can down in the trenches actually work with Russia and China for the good of Central Asia? Or are we just totally stovepiped?
DAP Curtis: Thank you, Ambassador Hoagland. It’s great to see you. Thanks for taking the time to come here. Of course we’re building on the shoulders of giants developing our strategy, and thanks for all your work on the region.
I would just note that the EU did launch its own Central Asia Strategy in I think June, June 2019, focused on many of the same things. Capacity building, promoting democracy, good governance. Connectivity is a big issue for them as well. So we consult with our EU counterparts quite a bit, and I think we’re driving in the same direction and looking for opportunities where we can cooperate on the region. We both see it as critical.
Again, coming back to the idea of providing options, alternatives, ways to increase trade options, getting the energy out to the west as well as the east so that these countries have these opportunities.
In terms of working with Russia and China, it’s an interesting thought. Of course we see competition. As I stated in my remarks, Russia has always had a tremendous amount of influence in this region. We don’t expect that to change. We’re not trying to match that. We just want to be present. We want to provide alternatives for the countries. We want to continue to protect as much as we can their ability to remain sovereign, independent nations as we’ve always done since they gained independence over 25 years ago.
In China, look, China’s providing infrastructure, assistance, much needed development assistance. But the only thing that we are concerned about is that this infrastructure financing remains transparent. That we don’t see countries getting over-indebted and thus losing their sovereignty. So that is the kind of thing we’re concerned about.
I’m sure you’ve seen the launch of the Blue Dot Network. This is a sort of clearinghouse, if you will. It’s very new. We launched it with the Australians and the Japanese last November. We’re now fleshing it out. But it’s essentially a way to ensure that nominated infrastructure projects are using transparent financing, that they involve the private sector, that they’re following environmental standards, that they’re benefiting the people and the regions that they are supposed to be benefiting. And if they reach these standards they’ll be given a Blue Dot or a certification if you will, a Michelin star of approval. We think this is a good way to continue to encourage private sector involvement in infrastructure development, transparency, providing alternatives so that countries have choices in how they’re going to meet their development needs.
I think that’s all I’ll say on the issue. Thank you.
Ambassador Wells: I would just add, there seems to be, on the surface it would be obvious that there are areas of overlapping interest, whether it’s counter-narcotics or trafficking or health issues or counterterrorism. But it really does remain to be seen, the willingness of other countries in the region to actually cooperate against a backdrop of incredible disinformation campaigns.
I think that we have a very, our brand is clear. Sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity. And you contrast that to Crimea. Or you contrast that to predatory debt. And we occupy a very unique and actually very beneficial pole for the Central Asian states.
Audience: Hello. My name is Katherine Putz. I’m an editor with The Diplomat covering Central Asia.
My question is on sort of the inter-related issues of religious freedom and counter-extremism efforts.
Is there anything in the strategy to confront some of the complexities between those two policies? In that regional governments often have a habit of sacrificing sort of religious freedom in the name of security. Is there any efforts within the strategy and the implementation of the strategy to sort of pick those two things apart and deal with them separately at the same time? Thank you.
Ambassador Wells: We support, we want every country to have healthy security policies and to protect their borders and to protect their people, but that shouldn’t be conflated with a mandate to suppress natural religious activity.
So in our engagements with countries of the region we’ve developed and are in the process of developing road maps. Like what are policies that make sense in terms of registration and the support for people’s natural desire to express and participate in religious life.
The Secretary had an outstanding meeting in Uzbekistan with leaders of the religious communities — both majority as well as minority religious communities. I think there’s great, first off there’s progress and we welcome that progress. We’d like to see more. There were I think eight non-majority religious churches registered last year. I think there are 20 more seeking registration. But these are practical steps that are steps that will ultimately make the societies of Central Asia more durable and resilient, in our view.
DAP Curtis: Can I just add something quickly? I’ve been saying this for the last few years since I’ve been in this position whenever I engage with leaders of Central Asia. Providing an environment of religious freedom and allowing people to freely worship as they choose actually decreases the chances of people getting attracted to extremist ideologies. So it seems counterintuitive but it’s something that I think is absolutely true and that we continue to explain and promote in our dialogue.
Audience: Thank you very much. My name is Baktio Safara, Central Asia Consulting.
I have a suggestion, maybe a recommendation to people who wrote the policy to add that maybe seventh column or six plus on leadership. What’s happening in the region is a very crisis, deep crisis on leadership. Because after the collapse of the Soviet Union it’s been 30 years and most of the countries turning to family enterprises. So I would just add something into leadership, because all of them have positional leadership which is very unhealthy and it’s actually hurting everyone in the region. Thank you.
Audience: Thank you. My name’s Deirdre. I’m a foreign policy reporter with USA Today.
Can you talk about the Trump administration’s counter-narcotics strategy in Afghanistan? I didn’t hear anyone list that as a focus of the strategy. There are concerns among lawmakers in both parties that the administration doesn’t really have a strategy, even though the drug trade funds the Taliban and other terrorist groups. Thank you.
DAP Curtis: The counter-narcotics issue is an extremely important issue in Afghanistan. The problem has been there for a long time. The U.S. government has invested billions of dollars over the last several years. So it is certainly something that we recognize does, like you say, fund the Taliban to some extent so we have tried to get at that issue and cut off some of that ability to fund that.
I think one of the most successful programs that we’ve engaged in has been alternative livelihoods. That’s been something that we’ve invested a lot in. There’s been some progress in some parts of the country on this.
But frankly speaking, this is a major comprehensive problem that is intertwined with the criminal networks, corruption, shortfalls in the legal system. It’s a very complicated issue, and I think we try to get at it from our numerous programs, maybe Gloria can talk about this a little bit more than I can, but I know that we do try to provide help with the legal system and training and fill in those gaps, try to fill in those gaps. There’s a military component to this, tracking down some of the kingpins. We’ve tried that. We’ve been involved in those efforts.
I would just simply say this is a massive, complicated problem and it’s going to have to be resolved in conjunction with addressing the security issues, the insurgency issues, and it’s not something that you’re going to be able to solve on its own. It’s caught up in the other complicated problems of the region and it’s going to take regional support.
These drugs do travel through the neighboring countries so they’re going to have to become part of this resolution as well.
Ambassador Wells: I would just say the Central Asia component, obviously we’re very focused on border security. We have extensive programs through our International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Bureau that work on container security, et cetera. But I would say in echoing Lisa’s assessment, we’ve done I think remarkable, substantial work in Afghanistan in building specialized investigative units and law enforcement units focused on counter-narcotics, but the fundamental fact is that 85 percent of opium production takes place in areas that are controlled or contested by the Taliban. So fundamentally you’re going to have to address the security issue through a peace process that allows you then to tackle the root causes and to expand programs like income substitution.
Ms. Steele: I’d like to add that this is, as Lisa said earlier, this requires, this issue is very complex and requires efforts in various areas. It’s an economic issue, it’s a rule of law issue. It’s an issue related to bad governance, corruption. And of course looking at the issue of extremism and you know, it is a source of funding for extremist groups.
So being able to find the root causes of extremism will be necessary also in addressing this particular issue of narcotics.
Audience: Hi. I’m Dr. Candace Campbell from Progress Humanity, an NGO.
My question is do we have a strategy, or what have we been doing to develop clinical practitioners in terms of acute and chronic health care, which I understand if there’s no hydroelectric power that’s going to be a problem, but I’m just wondering what they’re doing to treat the people of the region.
Ms. Steele: As I mentioned earlier, a key component of our program is improving access to quality health care. We are working on improving health systems. Although I talked only about tuberculosis in addressing that, what our programs do are address all the systems that make health care better in these countries. So we provide technical assistance, capacity building and then give access to equipment and other services that these countries need.
This is actually true, I mentioned earlier, it is very critical not only as a health concern but also as an economic concern, and an equality concern for the countries. So this is an area that we put a lot of focus in.
Audience: Good morning. Mark David] Miller. I headed the Trade Council for Kyrgyzstan a number of years ago.
My question is regarding CASA-1000 which I’ve heard several times today and several times in the last year. I didn’t hear that phrase for more than a decade. For those living in New York City it reminds me of the 2nd Avenue subway project.
CASA-1000 seems to be gaining momentum and seems to be scheduled to go on-line in a reasonable amount of time and I think it’s going to be a game-changer in the region. What do you feel, this is to anybody on the panel. What do you feel was different today that allowed CASA-1000 to go through as opposed to 15 years ago? And do you see other projects like CASA-1000 that could be game-changers that have been sitting basically in somebody’s desk drawer for a number of years that due to a better political climate in the region, that could go on-line in the next few years to also improve the lot of the region? Thank you.
Ms. Steele: I think one of the big differences is the openness, truly regional interconnectivity. Connecting Central Asia with Afghanistan, and a commitment to doing that.
I think it’s a very important thing and we are continuing to look at different programs in water as well as in business trade to connect the countries in Central Asia and between Central Asia and Afghanistan. A similar concept.
Audience: My name is Kami Butt with the Pakistan Spectator.
Ms. Curtis, you said in your paper and in your talk that you are trying to keep Afghanistan a little separate. Is that really possible given Afghanistan has a large Uzbek-Tajik-Hazara community that are very much relevant in the context of Central Asia?
And Ms. Wells, my question is about BRI, Belt Road Initiative, in the context of Pakistani seaport Gwadar and China’s view of overtaking like it did in Sri Lanka. Given that Pakistan, I mean in Muslim and India, are out-performing in many socio-economic indicators to their Pakistani brethren shows that Pakistan is really has become, it’s very difficult to sustain itself.
So given Pakistan is getting so much loan in different programs, are you feeling that China might take Gwadar at some point because Pakistan would be unable to repay its debt? And if that happens, do you think we should try to improve our relationship with Iran because that is the best option if we lose Gwadar and if we lose Pakistan in that context. Thank you very much.
DAP Curtis: Thank you.
I think maybe you misunderstood what I said. In my remarks what I said was Central Asia is a region of geostrategic importance in and of itself, regardless of the surrounding countries. That doesn’t mean that one of our goals is not to integrate Afghanistan with Central Asia economically and facilitate some of those linkages and their connectivity. My point was merely to say that even if Afghanistan were to miraculously become stable and peaceful, we would still very much have a focus on Central Asia because of all the reasons that we’ve discussed today. So we see it as a very important region strategically to the U.S. in its own right.
Ambassador Wells: On Belt and Road or on CPEC, our message is the same whether we’re engaging with Tajikistan or Pakistan or Sri Lanka, Cambodia. It’s that investment infrastructure is critical. We understand countries need it. The estimate in the Indo-Pacific region of $27 trillion in infrastructure investment required means that no one country is going to be able to be the answer to development. Instead, countries are going to benefit most if they create the regulatory environment that attracts and unlocks Western capital and private sector investment, where we excel at and where American firms have been tremendous drivers of economic growth and modernization.
I say that coming from Kazakhstan where you have the tremendous example of what partnership with Chevron, Shell, ExxonMobil has provided. It’s provided over 90 percent employment for Kazakhstani nationals. It’s fueled the economy. It’s an engine of modernization. That’s what we’d like our partners to benefit from.
So this is not a punitive message when we discuss concerns over debt sustainability. WE want to be able to help and assist countries to be able to tap the most sustainable high standard infrastructure investment that will pay dividends for them as well as for shareholders.
Moderator: We have time for one final question. Okay, we’ll do them together. If you make them short we can wrap it up nicely.
Audience: Alex Sanchez, Jane’s Defence.
Can you talk about the State Department’s Global Peace Operations Initiative which the U.S. has helped train successfully troops to participate in United Nations peace operations. Was it discussed on Secretary Pompeo’s trip to the region recently? Are there any plans to expand it to other countries in Central Asia? Thank you.
Audience: Thank you. Todd Prince from Radio Free Europe.
What are you doing to fight money laundering that is depriving the region of investment? And considering the state of civil society transparency in Uzbekistan, how confident are you that privatization in Uzbekistan will be done in a transparent manner and not lead to the creation of a small group of oligarchs as we’ve seen in other post-Soviet states?
Ambassador Wells: I frankly don’t have the data points on peacekeeping at my fingertips, but we do encourage and invest in the capacity of countries, and I believe Kazakhstan has recently been involved in peacekeeping. But I will provide information, follow-up to you directly.
It’s an area that helps build the capacities and skills of militaries. It’s a public good. And across the region we’ve been very supportive of peacekeeping operations. It wasn’t specifically on the Secretary’s agenda this trip, but it’s an important issue that we raise, nonetheless.
When it comes to money laundering and privatization, all I can say is that President Mirziyoyev has rhetorically set a very high bar for what he wants to achieve in reforming and transforming the Uzbekistan economy. That won’t happen if it’s crony capitalism or privatization deals gone wrong. So what we are hearing from the government of Uzbekistan is an intense desire and interest in continued technical assistance, whether it’s from the United States, the UN, the EU, to develop their capabilities to not only to privatize but also to again, attract new foreign direct investment in their country.
We see interest by major American companies in Uzbekistan and in the region. We’re encouraging that. And the fact that Secretary Ross led business delegations to both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan is a real, a very important signal of our interest in ensuring that American companies, including now through the new Development Finance Corporation, have a role to play.
DAP Curtis: I was just going to add, Alice is right. Shortly after the historic visit of the First President Nazarbayev to the White House in January 2018, Kazakhstan did agree to send for the first time a peacekeeping mission to Africa. So we were very appreciative of that. But that’s all I’m aware of in the region in terms of peacekeeping.
Moderator: That concludes today’s program. Please join me in thanking our panelists. Thank you everyone for coming and thank you for coming here today to talk about this important strategy. Thank you.