Interview with Asia Plus

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Washington, DC
February 11, 2011

QUESTION: Mr. Blake, you mentioned recently that U.S. administration has five main priorities in Central Asia -- [stabilization] in Afghanistan, energy issues, political liberalization and human rights, economic reforms, and efficient governance. How would you assess your progress in these five directions, and what are the main challenges you face in the region?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: That’s a big question.

I’d say we’re making good progress in several of the areas, and there are other areas where we need to see more progress. I think we feel that we’ve made very good progress in expanding our engagement with all of the governments of Central Asia. As you know, we’ve established a series of annual bilateral consultations with each of the countries to discuss in detail the full range of bilateral priorities and to set concrete targets to make progress in each of those areas. I will be going out in fact next week to Turkmenistan first, to have our six month review with them, and then to Uzbekistan after that for our first annual bilateral consultations in Tashkent.

Overall, I would assess that we’re making good progress in the cooperation that we’ve received from each of the Central Asian countries on Afghanistan. Each of them are providing help in various ways. Some of it’s humanitarian assistance, some of it’s assistance with the Northern Distribution Network. Others are helping with scholarships as Kazakhstan is doing. So I think we’re making good progress there and we’ll continue to work very closely with them.

On the economic front, the relations between our countries are still relatively under-developed with the exception of Kazakhstan where American companies have a very significant and growing presence. So that’s an area where I think we’d like to do more and we hope to be able to expand trade and investment between the United States and Central Asia.

On the very important piece that you mentioned about political and religious freedoms, again, there needs to be much more progress in that area. I think we’re very concerned about the decline in some cases of political freedoms in several countries.

We very much welcomed the elections last year, the first free parliamentary elections that took place in Kyrgyzstan and we’ll continue to support the democratic developments that are taking place in that country.

But in other countries like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, I think there needs to be greater progress towards providing political space for their people and responding to the aspirations of their people. So these are things that we are helping those countries with and have a very good dialogue with those countries on.

QUESTION: In Rice University in Texas in January, you mentioned that your bureau’s most important priority is supporting stabilization efforts in Afghanistan.


QUESTION: Meanwhile, many experts believe that lack of political and economic reforms and the growth of extremism, booming corruption and drug trafficking in Central Asian countries marginalized. For example, today about 98 percent of all supplies through Northern Distribution Network going to Afghanistan runs through Uzbekistan which actually is not the most liberal country in the region. Don’t you think that ignoring these threats may create new problems for the United States?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: First of all I wouldn’t say that we’re ignoring those threats. Those are very much on the front burner of our agenda with each of these countries, and as I said earlier, I think all leaders around the world and all the people around the world have been following with great interest events that are unfolding now in Egypt and the events that took place in Tunisia.

I think that one of the things that our Secretary of State Clinton has spoken about is that governments who deny their people freedom and opportunity are governments who will open the door to instability. I think she’s been very clear in saying that many of those governments have not opened up political and economic space in their countries, and therefore have not really responded to the legitimate concerns of their people. That’s why they face instability. I think that the countries of Central Asia also need to be mindful of that and also need to be mindful of the need to open up political space, to continue to open up their economies so that they can provide job opportunities, to continue to ensure that they have the best possible education so that their young people are prepared and equipped to compete in the world, and to address issues like corruption which have a very corrosive effect on societies and on the faith of the people in their institutions and in their leaders. So these are very much part of our dialogue with each of these countries.

QUESTION: You mentioned events in Tunisia and Egypt. Do you think that such events could take place in Central Asian region?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I hate to make comparisons because countries are always so different from each other, but I do think that all of the leaders around the world need to look at the situation in Egypt, and many countries could benefit from some of those lessons. I think I’ve just described some of the areas where I think more openness is needed. So I very much hope that people will take a hard look at what’s going on there and how they themselves can respond to the aspirations of their people in their countries.

QUESTION: Mr. Blake, this week during a session of Tajikistan Security Council President Emomali Rahmon stated that religious extremism is growing in some parts of Tajikistan with the help of foreign patrons. He also criticized [mosques] for spreading extremism.


QUESTION: What do you think about this? Who really spreads extremism in the region, and how local governments can deal with these threats?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: First of all I think we are concerned about threats that are emanating from extremists, particularly in the border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. I think there is some evidence that some of those terrorists are crossing over into countries like Tajikistan and perhaps further into Central Asia. So there’s very much a risk that these countries face from such extremists. The United States is working very closely with these countries, with Tajikistan, with Uzbekistan, with other countries, to help them to address the threats they face through cooperation on things like border security, counter-narcotics, and counter-terrorism programs which I think are very important and something we’re very much committed to.

But as I say, I think the governments also need to be very mindful of the need to provide more political space for their people and more religious space. More opportunities for peaceful worship, I think, are very important. It’s very dangerous for any government to drive religious expression underground because I think if people are forced to practice their faith in secrecy, they’re more likely to be exposed to radical thinkers and to ideologies that may be considerably more dangerous and therefore it’s very much in any country’s interest to allow, again, peaceful freedom of worship.

QUESTION: Last November at the hearing at Congress you mentioned that U.S. policy in Tajikistan is to support Tajik government in maintaining stability and creating the conditions for economic and democratic development. Could you specify how exactly do you cooperate with Tajik government in these fields?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: In the field of democracy and so forth?

QUESTION: Democracy, economic development.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think first of all we do this through our dialogue with our friends in the Tajik government. As I said, we make a point of talking about some of these issues that I just raised about the need to provide more political space, more religious freedom, and to allow, for example, freedom of expression, freedom of the press.

We were very concerned, for example, about the recent attack on the Islamic Revival Party official, Mr. Saifullozoda. Again, this is a party that is I think not a terrorist organization, but a party that’s committed to peaceful activities, so it’s important that they continue to be allowed to operate.

But as in all of the countries in Central Asia, we provide support to civil society, and we continue to work with the government as well, to provide more political opportunities and to, for example, work with parliaments, work with the human rights ombudsmen in many countries, and things like that. So all of those activities are a very very important part of helping countries to open up their political systems and provide opportunities for civil society, which I think are a very important part of enhancing stability and again, responding to those aspirations that I referred to previously.

QUESTION: What is your opinion about a recent publication in Time Magazine which cited President of Tajikistan in the top ten autocrats in trouble? Do you think this assessment is correct, and dark clouds over the future for Rahmon’s government?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Unlike Time Magazine, the United States government is not in the business of doing ratings of our friends.

Let me just say that the United States considers Tajikistan a very important friend of ours. Tajikistan, as I said, has been a very valuable partner in the International Security and Assistance Force in Afghanistan. We very much appreciate the opportunity that they provide to allow the transit of NATO supplies going into Afghanistan. We have also cooperated in a number of other ways over the years. I think we’ve provided more than $900 million of various kinds of assistance to Tajikistan since its independence in 1992. Sorry, since we established diplomatic relations in 1992. And we’re helping in things like education and health care, development of civil society. We’re also helping them to confront some of the terrorist organizations that they face, and also to deal with some of the criminal organizations that operate inside Tajikistan.

But we also feel that Tajikistan is a country that faces many challenges now. It’s a country that has a great deal of poverty. It’s fortunate that many young Tajiks have the opportunity to work outside of the country so they do have some outlet and do have economic opportunities that they pursue in Russia and Kazakhstan and elsewhere. Their remittances provide a very important source of income for the country.

But again, I think it’s important for the government to face up to the challenges that it does confront and to again open up the political space to allow more religious freedom, and to address corruption that many people do feel exists in Tajikistan. I think steps like that, all of those would really help to improve the support of the people for their government. So these are all things that we talk to our friends in the government about very candidly, but also things that we are helping in various kinds of assistance programs to help them address.

QUESTION: By the way, President Obama explaining to start his [drawdown] of U.S. troops this summer from Afghanistan. In this connection many people in the region and particularly in Tajikistan have concerns that instability will spread from Afghanistan to our region. What do you think can be done to prevent that scenario? And by the way, how many troops he is planning to withdraw this year?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t think the President or General Petraeus have yet made any final decisions about the number of troops that will be withdrawn this year. But let me just say this. The pace and the scope of the withdrawal of American troops will very much be determined by conditions on the ground in Afghanistan, and will be also conditioned on the progress that NATO makes in training up the Afghan National Security Forces so that they can gradually assume responsibility for the security of Afghanistan.

As you know at the Lisbon Summit, the NATO Summit that took place in Lisbon late last year, all of the countries of NATO and Afghanistan agreed on a transition plan, the goal of which is to transfer authority for security to Afghan forces by the end of 2014. But I think we’ve also reassured our friends in Tajikistan and elsewhere that the United States will continue to have forces in Afghanistan who will continue to work on counter-terrorism, will continue to train the Afghan National Security Forces, and that we do not intend to leave Afghanistan and certainly do not want to allow conditions to develop that would give rise, again, to Taliban or other forces that could threaten either the United States or threaten friends like Tajikistan.

QUESTION: Do you have some special programs for security issues for Tajikistan?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We do. We have quite extensive cooperation in that area on things like border security. We also try as much as possible to get cooperation between Afghanistan forces and Tajik forces, because obviously cooperation between them is very important. Just as we work on encouraging Afghan and Pakistani cooperation as well for the same reason. So that’s an important part of our cooperation with Tajikistan.

QUESTION: Could you please say a few words on the problem of drug trafficking in the region and what the United States is planning to do or doing to deal with this problem?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: This is a very significant issue for several reasons. First of all because it’s a significant problem in Afghanistan, but also because a fairly significant --About 30 percent of the narcotics that leave Afghanistan go through Central Asia to Russia and beyond. They have, again, a very harmful effect on the societies of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Russia. So I think all of those countries are committed to working more closely together and with the United States and with Afghanistan to address this problem and to cooperate. So we’re talking with each of them about this and we’re also talking with the UN Office of Drugs and Crime in Vienna because we think they have a very important role to play in this. So this will be a very high priority for this year for us and I think for all of these countries, to try to do more to help these countries to address this problem.

QUESTION: As far as I know the volume of drugs produced in Afghanistan remains to grow, is growing. Is it true?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: You said drug use or drug --

QUESTION: Production of drugs.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Actually I think there’s been quite a lot of progress in that area. As you know, the overall focus of efforts now is less about eradication of drugs and more about providing alternative to farmers so that they can grow other kinds of agricultural products. We have made a quite significant effort to significantly improve the agricultural sector inside Afghanistan and to provide much greater opportunities for Afghan farmers and enable Afghanistan to become again the quite strong agricultural economy that it once was before all of the fighting started.

QUESTION: You mentioned once that there is no longer any great gain in the region, and that the United States is not in competition for influence in the region with any other countries. But two days ago the U.S. CENTCOM Commander, General Mattis paid a sudden visit to Dushanbe, and just after that it was reported that Russian Defense Minister General Serdyukov is going to visit Dushanbe next week. Perhaps it’s coincidence, but how do you think Washington and Moscow could cooperate more effectively on security issues in Central Asia, in Afghanistan?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: First of all, I repeat what I said earlier. There is not a great game underway. If the Russian Defense Minister is visiting after General Mattis’ visit, I would say that’s coincidence. The United States has made a great effort to coordinate much more closely with our Russian friends on the situation in Afghanistan, and I think we’ve been very pleased at the level of coordination, the level of cooperation. Indeed, we’re talking more about ways that we can cooperate together in Central Asia because we have so many common interests. And I mentioned earlier the counter-narcotics. I think that’s a very promising area. But we’re also working together on things like health cooperation to combat polio. As you know there was an outbreak last year in Tajikistan and other countries.

So I’d say this has been an area of real progress and something we want to try to continue to build on. I meet frequently with Deputy Foreign Minister Karasin who is responsible for that area of the world. Again, we have very good and candid and friendly conversations about the situation in Central Asia. I must say, we have quite similar views and assessments of the situation and also of what needs to be done about it.

QUESTION: Do you think Russia could be more active to cooperate with the United States in Afghanistan?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: No. I think on the contrary, I think Russia’s been very helpful in Afghanistan. We welcome the cooperation that they’ve provided.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Blake. Actually my questions are finished.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: It’s a pleasure to talk to you. Congratulations to Asia Plus for having somebody here. I’m really glad that you will help to explain a little bit what the United States is doing in Central Asia and what an important region it is for the United States. Thanks again for your time.