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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

U.S. Policy Priorities in South and Central Asia

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs

New York, NY
September 23, 2011

4:30 P.M., EDT


MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for coming to the New York Foreign Press Center on a rainy afternoon, after an already long UNGA week. But we’re very excited to have Assistant Secretary of State Bob Blake here with us to discuss U.S. foreign policy priorities in South and Central Asia. He is the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia. And without further ado, I’ll turn it over to him.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, thank you very much, Ben. And all I can say is I really know who my friends are at 4:30 out on a rainy day. (Laughter.) So I thank you all for coming. I think we have some people in Washington, too, so welcome to all of you.

We’ve had a busy week here at the UN General Assembly. We’ve had a wide range of meetings from the Secretary to Deputy Secretary Burns and Under Secretary Sherman, Under Secretary Otero, myself – we’ve all had meetings with our South and Central Asian counterparts. And what I thought I would do is just tell you about some of the sort of current priorities that we’ve been working on this week and recently in the SCA Bureau. And then, of course, I’d be glad to answer your questions on any subject.

I think I’d point to three separate ones: One, the New Silk Road, second India, and third Central Asia. So let me take each one of those in quick turn. First, with respect to the New Silk Road, I think we’ve been focused on this very important New Silk Road ministerial that Secretary Clinton chaired with German Foreign Minister Westerwelle and also Afghan Foreign Minister Rassoul yesterday. I think all of you saw the backgrounder that two Senior Administration Officials did, so I won’t try to – I won’t repeat all of that.

Let me just take sort of a couple of summary points, which is that I think this international conference in Bonn is going to mark one decade since Afghanistan began its transition from Taliban rule. And so there are – for that important conference in December, our goal will be to have the international community reaffirm its support for Afghanistan and also to reaffirm the outcomes of the meetings, both yesterday and also that will take place in Istanbul, where we hope that there will be a regional declaration that envisions a secure, stable, prosperous Afghanistan inside of a secure, stable, prosperous region.

The Secretary, yesterday, spoke about the New Silk Road vision and how she had first outlined this in her speech in Chennai. Again, I think the goals of that are first to help Afghanistan’s efforts to try to attract private sector investment and create sustainable economic development, and thereby reduce Afghanistan’s reliance on assistance. Secondly, to create new trade and investment opportunities through enhanced regional integration between South and Central Asia, and then, of course, thereby support a stable and prosperous Afghanistan. So again, a lot of officials have spoken about this. I’m glad to take more questions on that if you’re interested.

On the India side, I think all of you recall that Secretary Clinton and External Affairs Minister Krishna chaired a very successful strategic dialogue in Delhi in July in which our two countries made very important progress to advance what President Obama has called one of our defining partnerships for the 21st century.

In addition to what I would say is our constant focus on trying to counter terrorism in India, I’d like to just highlight some recent efforts to try advance our burgeoning trade and investment relationship. Yesterday, we hosted another round of the U.S.-India CEO Forum at the U.S. Department of State, and that’s proven to be a really valuable venue for us to talk with the private sectors, the top CEOs of both the United States and India, to identify and take action on ways that we can enhance our economic partnership and, of course, create job opportunities for our citizens. I think it was a really collegial exchange and had a – made a lot of good progress on things like infrastructure and energy, clean water, and cold chain systems that we hope to develop.

Lastly, we also had a very important India Investment Forum here today that I spoke at. My remarks are on the record and you can refer to those, but again in partnership with the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and the Investment Forum here, Institutional Investment Forum here. They brought together a wide range of companies, both here and from India, to talk about new opportunities. And again, I think the interesting trend that I would point out is the growing envelope of Indian foreign direct investment into the United States, which is quite important for us, because it’s helping to create jobs at a very important time for us and our efforts now to try to stimulate that, through the efforts of Reta Jo Lewis, who has just spent – in early August spent more than a week there visiting seven different states in India to try to develop these state-to-state and city-to-city relationships, to really try to take advantage of the growing dynamism in many of the states of India, but also many of the states of the United States. So we feel that’s a good, and as yet, underexploited opportunity to try to do more between our two countries.

Lastly, on Central Asia, I think we’re making good progress to expand our partnership and engagement with the countries of Central Asia. One thing I would point to is that we had quite an important conference in July in Bishkek to try to promote women’s empowerment, and I think that’s part of, again, this New Silk Road vision and our sense that the New Silk Road potential is never going to reach its potential without strong participation by women. So we gathered Afghan and Central Asian women for this symposium. We had entrepreneurs there, officials, educators, civil society experts, all of whom shared experiences and best practices on how to expand women’s entrepreneurship in particular. And as a result of that, they have a really terrific network now that they have established, where they will continue to meet on a regular basis. We’ve given them some funds to continue these kinds of things. And I think there’s really a – quite an exciting scope of opportunity to do more in this area.

I’d also just like to thank the OSCE, the Aga Khan Development Network, Goldman Sachs and many, many others who were involved in this. And I think it’s – again, it does show that the opportunities that many people feel exist in this South and Central Asian region to work more with Afghanistan. It just reinforces the Secretary’s vision that she’s laid out for this New Silk Road.

Of course, the United States continues to work on all the important other issues on our agenda, continuing to expand the Northern Distribution Network to supply our troops in Afghanistan, to help to – our companies to expand their business and trade opportunities in Central Asia, to work on human rights, which is always an important priority for us in all the countries of Central Asia.

So I think that’s a pretty rich menu of things that I’ve talked about. And again, I’d like to open it up for questions both here and in Washington and on any of those subjects or anything else you’d like to talk about.

So thank you again for coming.

MODERATOR: Okay. First question.

QUESTION: Yes. Thank you (inaudible). Just – thank you very much. As Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called up on all the members to support that counterterrorism that – and he has also expressed the concern that no single country can actually – I should say that can manage itself alone on this terror threats. So in terms on that, what about that development on transnational security agreement in Southeast Asia, especially, as earlier last year we knew about the India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

And the second question is that –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Sorry. Let me take that first. I’m not sure exactly what you mean by transnational security. In Southeast Asia or South Asia?

QUESTION: In Southeast Asia. Yeah.


QUESTION: Yeah. It was in South Asia, but I’m talking in terms of those Southeast Asian part. What is the – your future views on that issue?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I can’t really comment on Southeast Asia, because that’s obviously Kurt Campbell’s responsibility. But in terms of South Asia, I think you mentioned Bangladesh. I think we’ve been very encouraged by the progress that’s taken place in counterterrorism cooperation between Bangladesh and India. As you know, Prime Minister Singh just had an important visit to Bangladesh, and they reaffirmed the important work that their two countries are doing together on that. And I think we were also encouraged by the progress they’ve made on other issues.

I think a lot of the press focused on the fact that they weren’t ultimately able to reach agreements on water and transit and so forth. But I guess what I would say is that the two countries have made more progress in the last year or two then they have in many, many years. And so even though they didn’t quite reach the finish line, they’ve still made a lot of very encouraging progress. And I think that’s exactly the kind of momentum we want to see with all the other countries and with India and Pakistan as well.

I mean, I think that one of the most important things that those two countries are now doing is to take concrete steps to try to expand trade between their two countries. And that, in itself, will do so much to create opportunities, particularly in Pakistan at this critical moment in Pakistan’s history. So the senior commerce officials will be meeting again soon, and they’ve said that they hope to make some important announcements in the next month or two.

MODERATOR: Next question. Would you identify your outlet as well?

QUESTION: Hi. I’m Yun Wu with People’s Daily of China. You mentioned New Silk Road.


QUESTION: Could you elaborate more on what the meaning – what is the meaning of the New Silk Road?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, the New Silk Road is really envisioned to be an elaborate and widespread network of all kinds of different trade and transit connections between South and Central Asia that would benefit not only those countries, but particularly Afghanistan and Pakistan. So we’ve talked, for example, about expanding transit trade between – particularly between Afghanistan and Pakistan and then extending that first to Central Asia and then ultimately to India as well, so that a Kazakh or an Uzbek truck could pass through all of those countries and down to the very important and emerging markets in India and Bangladesh and beyond.

We’ve also talked about the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, which is another very good example of the kind of networks that we’re trying to encourage, and we really commend the leadership of President Berdimuhamedov of Turkmenistan for achieving an intergovernmental agreement on this last December. And I think the countries are making good progress now towards a gas purchase agreement, which would be another important milestone in this. And then there are several others that would have to take place.

So those are the kind of projects that we think would not only benefit Central Asia, but also would have quite important side benefits for Afghanistan as well, to open up new markets for Afghanistan’s products and also to open up, for example, in the case of the TAPI pipeline, very important transit revenues for the Afghan economy at this critical time.

In terms of China, I would say that we think that China will have a very, very important role to play. China has been invited to the Istanbul conference, into the Bonn conference, and is an important neighbor of Afghanistan. And certainly we hope that China will not only attend those conferences but also do its part to help to build up the infrastructure inside Afghanistan, given China’s own very important interests in seeking access to some of the rare earth and other materials that are now in Afghanistan.

MODRATOR: Perhaps we can go to Washington. I think we have our friend Tejinder. Do you have a question?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Sorry, you’re on mute. There we go.

QUESTION: This is Tejinder Singh. Good to see you, Secretary, again. There’s one particular subject that has been conspicuous by its absence but very much present at the Department of Defense. It’s the connection that ISI has with the Haqqani network. And today, Pentagon spokesman George Little told us that the lines of communications are working. So will you like to tell us what exactly are the lines of communication from Department of State to address this subject, and if there is a deadline, if there is a kind of – what kind of work is going on?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I’m not exactly sure what he’s referring to. It could be one of two things. There could either be – the lines of communication sometimes refer to the supply routes for our supplies going through Pakistan into Afghanistan, and those are working. But I’d say on the other front, he’s probably talking also about the various lines of communication that we have with Pakistan.

As you know, Secretary Clinton earlier this week had a three and a half hour meeting with Pakistan Foreign Minister Khar. I think they covered the whole waterfront of important issues on our very important bilateral agenda with Pakistan. You know very well what we said about Pakistan, that relations with Pakistan are so important to us, also quite complicated for us. And I think Admiral Mullen’s recent comments speak for themselves. And all I would say on that is that the United States continues to speak with one voice about this, and all of us are urging Pakistan to address particularly the important terrorist challenge that it faces. And we want to continue to work with Pakistan to achieve that goal.

MODERATOR: Another question here. Matt.

QUESTION: Thanks. Matthew Pennington from AP. I’d like to follow up on something you said about the role of China --


QUESTION: -- possible role of China in Afghanistan, that because of their interest in sort of exploiting the natural resources that are in Afghanistan, they would have an interest. There are people who would sort of, I think, within the U.S., who would object to that and say that the U.S. is – would be doing the heavy lifting in providing security, fighting the Taliban to open the way for Chinese companies to come in and sort of exploit the aftermath. So how would you respond to those critics? And why do you think China is sort of well suited to help Afghanistan in developing its infrastructure?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, the way I’d answer that, Matt, is just by saying that China has made some quite important infrastructure investments all over Central Asia, and it’s helped to build pipelines and roads, and all of those have had a very important beneficial effect for the development of the region. And so I think we’d like to just see a similar effort in – to help this effort in Afghanistan. And as I said earlier, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to develop the infrastructure, develop the rail lines, to develop the roads, to develop all of the various power infrastructure.

China has a lot of expertise and experience in this, and I think that Afghanistan would benefit a great deal from Chinese investment. India already has done quite a lot in this area. You know they have approximately $2 billion that they’ve pledged to help build up capacity inside Afghanistan. And so we would welcome a similar effort by China. And I think, again, China’s already made some important investments in Afghanistan, and China certainly has – shares our interest in ensuring the successful transition that we’ve all talked about, as well as ensuring, I think, the success of this New Silk Road vision. So I think I’ll just leave it at that.

MODERATOR: All right. Perhaps back in Washington, Mr. Lalit, do you have a question?

QUESTION: Yeah. Thank you. First question: Do you think there will be a meeting between Secretary Clinton and Foreign Minister – Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna during the UNGA?

And secondly, since you are at the United Nations, New York, in the last year President had endorsed India as a permanent member of the Security Council. And two months later, India was elected as a nonpermanent member after 19 years. Now we’re at – to 10 months now, in – during which one month was India the chair – president of the UN Security Council.

How do you assess – what’s your judgment of India’s role in the UN Security Council? In between, there have been certain things which hasn’t matched between the U.S. and India, like India’s stand on Libya or Palestine. So can you give your entire understanding on those issues?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Sure, thank you. First of all, with respect to your question about the possibility of a meeting, we very much hope there will be a meeting between Secretary Clinton and External Affairs Minister Krishna, and we’re working hard to set that up, possibly for Monday, but I don’t have anything to announce for you yet on that.

Secondly, with respect to your question about India’s role in the UN Security Council, I think there has been an evolution in India’s voting record in the UN Security Council, but we – you’re right; we have had some differences. You pointed to Libya. I would agree with that. I would also say that we’ve had some differences on Syria. And that just underlines the need for us to redouble our efforts to work together, to reduce any misunderstanding, and to have the United States clearly explain what we’re trying to achieve. And I think, ultimately, all of us are trying to achieve the same objective in the Middle East, and it’s sometimes a question of tactics. But again, it just reinforces the importance of dialogue.

And I would say that the United States and India have worked through issues much more complicated than those in the past, and so I think that we should be able to manage those as well. And we’re certainly going to do our very best to do so.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Another question from the floor here.

QUESTION: Excuse me.


QUESTION: Could you discuss this question about --


QUESTION: -- about the U.S. endorsement for India to be a permanent member of the Security Council, do you think a country which has violated UN resolutions should be a permanent member of the Security Council?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I’m not sure which UN resolutions you’re referring to, but --

QUESTION: The resolutions on Kashmir.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, the United States, as you know, is on record – President Obama has endorsed India’s candidacy. This process is still ongoing to try to figure out the expansion of the Security Council, both permanent and nonpermanent members. And so that’s really up to India now to try to pursue that process. And of course, we’ll be cooperating with that, but we have many, many other priorities as well in the council right now, as you know, foremost among them all of these important Middle Eastern issues.

MODERATOR: All right. Perhaps back in Washington. Sir, if you could identify your outlet and your question.

QUESTION: Yes, sir. Thank you very much. Iftikar Hussain, I work for Voice of America, Urdu region service and Deewa radio, got two questions.

Number one: I’m not going to the statements by Admiral Mike Mullen, Leon Panetta, and the State Department, and also from the Defense Department, but we are hearing from Pakistan a crazy reaction on the relationship with the United States. The question is: What are the options with the United States to move forward with this important terror – war on terror ally?

And, sir, the second question is: Many people in the region and here in Washington believe that the Pakistan reaction and relationship tension comes at a very important time for the United States as it withdraws from Afghanistan. So do you think the Pakistani relationship tension would affect the United States efforts to leave a stable Afghanistan?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Let me address the first question first, which is just to say that – maybe to refer back to what Admiral Mullen said, which was that he, of course, talked about the importance of Pakistan addressing these various terrorist challenges and taking its responsibility seriously.

But he also talked about how what – to get directly to what you said, what matters now is to – is for us all to move forward and work together, and to help the Pakistani people and government to address their economic, their political, and their security challenges. And so that’s really what we’re trying to focus on now. But again, it’s very, very important that Pakistan take this terrorist challenge seriously and do everything that it can to stop all kinds of terrorism, be it the Haqqani network, the Lashkar e-Tayyiba, or other terrorist groups that may be operating from within Pakistan’s borders.

Sorry, could you repeat your second question?

QUESTION: Yes, sir. The question was that many people here in Washington and also in the region thinks that the Pakistani reactions and the tension in the relationship come at a very important time, when the United States is leaving Afghanistan, and wants Pakistan there to stabilize Afghanistan. So do you think it would affect the United States effort to leave a stable Afghanistan?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, again, I think that, first of all, the United States is not leaving Afghanistan. That’s – we’re a very strong supporter of the transition process that’s been laid out by NATO, that will culminate at the end of 2014. And we’re in the process now of negotiating a strategic partnership document with Afghanistan that will, among other things, determine what kind of residual military presence we will have after 2014. So again, I want to stress our continuing commitment to the people of Afghanistan even beyond 2014.

And in that regard, I think Pakistan shares our interests in that, and so we are going to be working very closely with them. And we’ve been very interested to include Pakistan on, for example, all the meetings with respect to the New Silk Road, and Pakistan will be a very valued partner as we go forward to Istanbul and to Bonn. And everything that we do in Afghanistan, we make an effort to work very closely with Pakistan to achieve those aims, and we intend to continue to do so.

MODERATOR: Any other questions from reporters here on the floor?

QUESTION: Yeah. I’ve got one.



QUESTION: About Sri Lanka?


QUESTION: I understand that the report that was conducted by some experts for Ban Ki-moon looking into allegations of war crimes and --


QUESTION: -- is being forwarded to the UN Human Rights Council.


QUESTION: Sri Lanka is due to release its report of its reconciliation commission later this year; I think it’s in November. If the outcome of that report doesn’t address the issues of accountability that you’re concerned about, would you support the Human Rights Council seeking a UN investigation into those allegations?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, Matt, I don’t want to try to speculate on what the outcome of that report is going to be. The Government of Sri Lanka has assured us that this is going to be a credible report and that it will not be a whitewash and that there will be measures taken with regard to accountability.

So let’s wait and see, and we’ll make a judgment once we’ve had a chance to see the report for ourselves, and once we’ve had a chance to talk to the Sri Lankans about the actions that they plan to take, not only to follow up on their lessons learned and reconciliation process, but also on some of the other important steps that they need to take on reconciliation, such as announcing a date for new provincial council elections in the north, and deploying more Tamil police to the north, and some of the other important issues that I think are really quite a focus of the people inside Sri Lanka.

And as you know, the Tamil National Alliance, the party that won the local council elections in the north recently, is engaged in important dialogue with the government on these issues of devolution and how – and what kind of powers would be devolved to the provinces. And we hope that that also – that that dialogue will culminate in agreement between those two – between the two parties.

So there’s a lot to be done, but again, we don’t want to try to prejudge the outcome of this process. And we – we’ll await that, and then we’ll make a judgment after that.

MODERATOR: All right. And one more from Washington. Last one, please. Sir, can you identify yourself and your questions?

QUESTION: Narayan Lakshman of The Hindu. I just have two questions: The first, again, going back to the New Silk Road, you mentioned that it’s to connect Central Asia to India and all the way possibly to Bangladesh, but obviously, one concern would be just the security of any commodities or other goods moving through this route. And part of that question relates to the security environment in Afghanistan, possibly in Pakistan as well.

So do you plan to involve all the constituents or stakeholders in the New Silk Road, including India, in giving them assurances that they could either be part of those security arrangements, or in some way have confidence that this plan would actually work? And as a related question, how does that mesh with the drawdown in Afghanistan?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, let me start with the second one first, because that – and then I can go into the more detailed question.

It meshes very well, because what we’re trying to do is to ensure both a successful security transition in which the Afghans gradually take responsibility for their own security by the end of 2014, but we’re also trying to ensure a successful economic transition as well. I think the Afghans want to have control over their own economic future. They don’t want to be reliant on foreign aid.

And so a very important part of helping them to get on their own two feet economically is to now draw on capital from the international multilateral development banks, from international donors, like the United States and India and others, and from private investors to try to create this infrastructure that I was talking about, that itself will be quite an important help and incentive for private sector investors to get more involved in Afghanistan, and thereby create sustainable private sector opportunities that, again, are the – really the key to long-term development. So that’s the ultimate goal there.

In terms of your question about security, again, our goal is to create the framework and create the environment and create the infrastructure for trade and energy and other kinds of goods to flow. It’ll be up to the individual traders to make a judgment about security and things like that. Obviously, we want to do what we can to help provide security. But I don’t want to imply that we’re going to have troops all along these roads or anything like that. They’ll have to make their own judgment.

And I would remind you that already, there’s quite a lot of trade going back and forth along these routes. It’s just that it takes a long time, and now, for example, an Afghan truck has to unload at Wagah and then reload on the other side, and it takes a long time, and it’s a cumbersome process. So the idea is that, eventually, they would be able to have – not have such a cumbersome process, and it would – you’d be able to have goods and people, ideally, move more freely. So that’s the ultimate vision.

QUESTION: Just to rephrase a little bit of that question again, specifically, I was just wondering if India would play any role in, say, training the Afghan security infrastructure? Because in a way, now, with the New Silk Road, its stake in this game is going to be much higher. And so do you see that happening?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, that’s getting into a level of specificity that we have not really talked about yet. I mean, we’re – at this stage, we’re really talking more – much more about the grand vision, and again, putting in place the infrastructure and other kinds of things that will be necessary to allow this private sector investment to occur.

And again, I’d like to just stress this is not something that new in that respect. There’s already quite a lot of important things that are being done by the countries themselves on this. I mentioned the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline. There’s also this vision for the CASA-1000 electricity transmission line from Kyrgyzstan to Tajikistan to Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are a whole number of other electricity transmission projects, rail projects, road projects that are already underway. So we’re trying to just accelerate that process, again, to support this important transition in Afghanistan.

MODERATOR: We have time for one last question.

QUESTION: Suresh Neupane. I write for a newspaper in Nepal.


QUESTION: I want to ask you a question about Nepal --


QUESTION: -- which is completely different from this Silk Road thing. (Laughter.) U.S. – United States has been supporting Nepal in terms of economy through USAID --


QUESTION: -- and that Nepal has always been thankful to the United States for that. But in terms of its political policy in Nepal, Nepal --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: It’s – what policy is that?

QUESTION: Your policy on Nepal, United States has still not removed the terrorist tag imposed on the – Nepal’s Maoists, who are in the government now. And apparently, the prime minister of Nepal now is the Maoist second in command, and who has come here to attend the UN – United Nations General Assembly.

Is there any, like, immediate plan or review of that terrorist tag imposed on them to remove that tag, or has – there any progress in terms of that? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, first of all, let me say that the United States welcomed the election of Prime Minister Bhattarai, and we’ve already had several meetings with him. And of course, we wish him well in the important task that he’s already – that he’s set out for himself and for his government to move the peace process forward, to draft a new constitution. And again, I think he himself is very eager to make progress on this and has set himself some pretty ambitious timetables, which again, I think is very appropriate and welcome, and we support that.

With respect to the Maoist terrorist designation, we have set out a number of criteria, that we hope the Maoists will meet, that will enable us to take another look at this, and ultimately perhaps remove them from this list. These include things like stopping the violent activities of the Young Communist League, renouncing terrorism, and some other steps that you’re familiar with. That whole process is taking place on a separate track – not with the government, but with the party. And we are continuing those conversations, and again, we’d like to see progress on all of those things, because we would be happy to remove, but it’s important for the Maoists themselves to make progress on these criteria.

So again, this dialogue is continuing, and we’ll see where it goes.

MODERATOR: Everyone, thank you very much.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you all so much. Nice to see you all.

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