Interview With Al Jazeera

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Almaty, Kazakhstan
April 26, 2013

Al Jazeera: Ambassador Blake, thank you for talking to Al Jazeera.

When we last met, it was 12 months ago in Dushanbe, in Tajikistan. You were talking to me then about the New Silk Road and those kinds of initiatives that would help Afghanistan reintegrate into the region.

What positives have actually come about since those 12 months and what are you hoping to get out specifically from these talks?

Assistant Secretary Blake: Thank you first of all for the opportunity to join you today.

As you say, I think what was important last year in Dushanbe was the fact that there was a regional consensus in favor of integration. But now we really need to see actual concrete progress. So I think what you’ve seen today in this Heart of Asia Conference is agreement by all the countries of the region, not just the direct region, but Turkey, Russia, China, India, on six very practical confidence-building measures on things like infrastructure, on trade, on things like counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism, all of which will have action plans devoted to them so there can really be concrete action going forward.

Al Jazeera: But the main thing, of course, is security. You talk about this opportunity for long term security, through stabilization programs, through that reintegration process. But it’s a bit of a catch-22 situation. You can’t have investment come in until they’ve got security. Let’s give an example. The TAPI Pipeline. There are issues about demand and whether it’s really necessary, but at the same time the countries that have signed up to it -- Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India -- in principle they signed up but the project has been going on for 20 years. Nothing yet has actually started happening on the ground.

Assistant Secretary Blake: I guess I’d flip your question and say that yes, it has been going on for 20 years, but it’s really notable that the progress that’s been achieved has been in the last year. That’s because, first of all, there’s a very important market now in India; and secondly, there’s a real will on the part of all these countries to make this happen. So you’re seeing very practical agreements on things like gas sales purchase agreements. Now there are efforts underway to actually identify who is going to lead this consortium and build the pipeline.

That’s one example.

Another one is something called the CASA 1000 Project. The Central Asia South Asia electricity transmission project. Again, there’s a lot of forward progress on that and multilateral development banks are lining up all the financing for that. It’s a $900 million project.

So I think there really is concrete progress being made.

Another example are the rail lines. Kazakhstan today announced that they are, with Turkmenistan, going to build a rail line south to Afghanistan. Likewise, there’s a rail line going from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Tajikistan.

There are many many concrete facts on the ground that are now being created that show there really is regional ownership of this.

Al Jazeera: Thank you very much, Ambassador Blake.

Just a final thought really, key to all of this is that security issue and respecting Afghanistan’s sovereignty. There are still problems, of course, or consideration that a lot of the countries have their own interests when it comes to Afghanistan. That’s something as well that the organizers here want to emphasize needs to be resolved so that there’s a unified approach to Afghanistan. There will be a declaration after these talks end and then expected more talks as the clock ticks down towards that 2014 drawdown date.