Remarks at the Jamestown Foundation

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Washington, DC
November 14, 2011

Thank you very much for that introduction, Ambassador Ordway. And thanks to the Jamestown Foundation for allowing me the chance to speak with you this afternoon. I would especially like to thank Glen Howard for the gracious invitation.

The past few months have been an incredibly busy period for those of us involved in advancing U.S. interests in South and Central Asia; starting with the U.N. General Assembly in New York, followed by Secretary Clinton’s trip to Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Istanbul Conference on Afghanistan and Regional Security at the beginning of this month, and the recently concluded SAARC summit in the Maldives. As we meet today, some of my colleagues are in Astana at the International Contact Group meeting, and the Bonn Conference is coming up very quickly. So my time here with you today provides an excellent opportunity to reflect on all of those events, and to talk with you about a number of promising developments in the region.

As Secretary Clinton first outlined in her February 18th, 2011 speech at the Asia Society in New York City, a secure, stable and prosperous Afghanistan requires a secure, stable and prosperous region.

All of Afghanistan’s neighbors and near-neighbors stand to benefit from an end to the insurgency, a political solution, and a transition to a sustainable economy in Afghanistan. And, of course, during her speech in Chennai, India in July of this year, Secretary Clinton laid out her vision of the New Silk Road.

This vision is deeply rooted in history. For centuries, a sprawling network crisscrossed Asia—connecting East and West, North and South. These routes linked the various areas of what is now Central and South Asia, providing a mechanism for the transit of goods, peoples, and ideas. In short, it was this dense network that made these places a crossroads for traders from so many disparate parts of the world.

The vision of a New Silk Road represents both an expansion and, to an important degree, a reworking of the original model. It builds upon that rich history and, in a frank acknowledgement of geographic reality, envisions ways in which a new network might facilitate an absolutely necessary job, that of embedding Afghanistan more firmly into its neighborhood and strengthening the web of economic and transit connections running throughout the region.

While improving roads, bridges, pipelines, and rail lines with available resources is important to facilitate economic linkages, the New Silk Road vision is not just about building new infrastructure. We must also seek to reduce barriers to the efficient exchange of goods across borders, open markets, and promote private sector investment in the region.

We see the New Silk Road vision as an integral part of supporting Afghanistan and its greater region. For if Afghanistan is firmly integrated into the economic life of the region, it will be better able to attract private investment, continue to develop and benefit from its vast mineral resources, and provide increasing economic opportunity for its people, men and women alike.

One recent helpful initiative was the recent Afghan and German effort to promote investment in Afghanistan’s mining sector at a meeting in Brussels on October 26 with private sector firms, including significant participation from the United States.

There are a number of upcoming high level engagements in the region, including the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation Ministerial on November 22 in Tajikistan, to support and develop this vision.

The support of the private sector must be a critical component of any effort that aims to develop the markets that will form the bedrock of regional economic cooperation. Cotton and other materials from Central Asia can be turned into garments in factories in South Asia, which can then be sent to Central Asia and around the world.

Central Asia can also export its surplus energy supplies to feed hungry energy markets in South Asia to continue to power economic growth. Already Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India are making steady progress on the TAPI gas pipeline.

Regional collaboration does not need to and certainly should not end with those specific areas—new and different markets are certain to arise; regional entrepreneurs are likely to define and develop those markets, with the end result being greater economic opportunity for all, including women. In today’s world, you cannot build a modern economy when you exclude half of your human capital from participating in the economic life of the country.

In July, the U.S. hosted the Central Asia and Afghanistan Women’s Economic Symposium in Kyrgyzstan, which brought together women leaders from throughout the region and Afghanistan to discuss critical economic challenges.

The success of the New Silk Road absolutely requires the full and active inclusion of all the region’s citizens, including women and girls. As business and civil society leaders in the region, women have the potential to be key drivers of economic and political progress and can play a critical role in advancing many of the reforms and initiatives we have mentioned.

This vision of the New Silk Road is not confined to one country. It is a regional vision, where a stable and peaceful Afghanistan is firmly embedded in a stable and peaceful region. In signing onto the Istanbul Process on Regional Security and Cooperation for a Secure and Stable Afghanistan on November 2nd, the region took an important step forward in its support of this vision.

The outcome in Istanbul is part of a series of connected diplomatic efforts to support Afghanistan as it begins to take full responsibility for its security by the end of 2014. The conference in Istanbul was organized by the region, for the region.

Istanbul marked the first time this grouping of countries—Afghanistan’s neighbors and near neighbors—came together to speak with one voice to assure Afghanistan of their support for Afghan-led reconciliation and transition to Afghan national security forces. The United States, as well as several of our European allies and the Japanese, attended as supporters of the region’s efforts.

The Bonn conference in December, and the NATO summit in Chicago in May provide opportunities for the international community to become more specific and clearer over time about their support to Afghanistan ahead of transition. We see the International Afghanistan Conference in Bonn as an opportunity for the international community to welcome the Istanbul declaration and to reiterate its commitment to Afghanistan after 2014.

For the United States, that means reiterating President Obama’s commitment to a long-term relationship that extends beyond the security transition that will be completed by the end of 2014.

The Afghan government will chair the Bonn conference, illustrating its sovereignty and improved capacity to manage its own affairs and advocate for its best interests. The Afghan delegation itself, made up of all members of Afghan society, including women, will showcase the democratic progress Afghanistan has made over the past decade.

Bonn also provides an opportunity to review how the international community can work together with Afghanistan to create a brighter political and economic future for Afghanistan. The Afghans will talk about their progress in pursuing their priorities, including their efforts to achieve a political solution to the conflict. As in London, Kabul and Lisbon last year, we expect the international community to continue to offer broad support to an Afghan-led reconciliation process.

Bonn will also provide an important chance for the Afghan government to discuss its vision for sustained economic growth and reduced dependence on foreign assistance, and the important and difficult policy choices it will take to realize those goals. This growth will be led by private sector investment and increased regional economic integration that are made possible by continued legal and regulatory reforms that Afghans are currently undertaking. It involves building on the last decade of international assistance, and developing a sustainable plan for Afghanistan’s economic development to support transition.

The goal is for countries throughout the region, as well as other international partners, to help Afghanistan move from aid to trade. One key part of that trade will be to further open markets between India and Pakistan.

We have been encouraged by the positive recent steps taken by the Governments of India and Pakistan to initiate closer trade and commercial ties. We welcome Pakistan’s cabinet decision to unanimously approve the path to normalize trade relations with India, and that Prime Ministers Singh and Gilani reaffirmed this opening of a new chapter in their relations when they met on the margins of the SAARC Summit last week.

It is our hope that this process of normalization in both directions, will lead to expanded economic opportunity and stability for the people of both countries. We look forward to seeing further progress, including when the Indian and Pakistani Commerce Secretaries meet this week.

Increased economic linkages between India and Pakistan and the rest of the region, will create a natural foundation for a stronger relationship and yield dividends for citizens from both countries and the greater region. The economic potential of a more open and integrated South Asia—home to one-fifth of the world’s population—is virtually unlimited.

We also welcome the historic transit trade agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and encourage its full implementation. More recently, we were encouraged by the announcement in August of agreement in principle on the Afghan-Tajik-Kyrgyz Cross-Border Transit Agreement. Future bilateral agreements and outreach efforts will help accelerate the integration of South and Central Asia.

As we work to create these economic and people-to-people linkages, we must be mindful that the road ahead will be tough. Challenges remain, including:

· instability, violence and extremism that spill across borders, too much trafficking, too little trade and too many people living in poverty;

· less than equal rights for women, especially in employment and business circles;

· countries acting in ways that exacerbate rather than work to solve problems.

It will take a concerted effort from the Afghans, regional partners and the international community to put past rivalries behind them and seize the enormous opportunity afforded by greater integration to bring many of these plans to fruition.

In Istanbul, Deputy Secretary Burns compared the current state of Central and South Asia to that of Southeast Asia a few years ago. Southeast Asia was also the site of entrenched poverty, deep divisions and ongoing conflict. But the countries resolved their differences, opened their markets and created regional institutions to preserve peace and security.

There are still great challenges in that region, but by and large, the people of Southeast Asia now live in peace and security in one of the fastest growing regions in the world. We should not doubt that, despite the challenges that we face, the same is possible for Afghanistan, and for Central Asia and South Asia.

We understand that the vision of the New Silk Road is a long-term vision, and that many challenges lay ahead in transforming this vision to a reality. Afghanistan must make the transition from an economy based on donor assistance to a sustainable economy. The international community must support the important steps Afghanistan and the countries in the region must take to do this. Despite these concerns, I am hopeful that Afghan integration into the greater region, and the region’s integration with the global economy, will yield tremendous benefits for the people of the region.

As security and stability are restored throughout the region, as linkages are created across borders and trade from north to south and east to west increases, a rising tide of economic growth can lift all countries of the region.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today. I look forward to your questions.