Remarks at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies Policy Conference on Islam in Eurasia

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Kennan Institute, Wilson Center
Washington, DC
June 7, 2013

Good afternoon. I would like to thank the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies for the invitation to speak here today. I am delighted to be here with so many friends and colleagues, and I am especially pleased to have the opportunity to speak with you about our policy priorities in Central Asia as we enter a critical and dynamic phase in our relationship with this important part of the world.

It’s a particularly relevant time to talk about Islam and Central Asia. This is a time of change in the region. Just two days ago, Secretary of Defense Hagel and his NATO counterparts met in Brussels to plan a new NATO mission after 2014, to train, advise, and assist Afghan forces. The process of Afghans assuming full responsibility for security is already well under way.

We’re also helping Afghanistan transition economically – to more private sector- and trade-led growth and less dependence on aid. And of course there’s also a political transition going on, as Afghanistan’s electoral institutions prepare for the critical 2014 presidential and provincial council elections. Credible and inclusive elections will be an important milestone for Afghanistan’s political transition. Amidst all of that change, there is understandably some anxiety in the region, particularly about the impact of our troop drawdown on regional security.

Despite the real gains in stability in Afghanistan, the Afghan National Security Forces’ enhanced capabilities, and the absence of major recent terrorist incidents in the Central Asian states, there continues to be a shared concern in the region that a reduction in the international force presence in Afghanistan will lead violent extremist groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan to focus their attention once again on Central Asia. There is also some fear across the region that Central Asian facilitation of the Northern Distribution Network – increasingly important for our shipments out of Afghanistan – could invite terrorist retribution.

Some observers have gone farther, predicting dark scenarios of Central Asia falling to extremist Islamic groups coming out of Afghanistan, as the United States loses interest in the region after 2014. These concerns are misplaced for a number of important reasons.

First, the United States is not pulling out of the region. On the contrary, we are committed to an enduring partnership with Afghanistan and its people in the years ahead. As the President said, "As Afghans stand up, they will not stand alone." And a very important part of that is continuing to engage with Afghanistan’s neighbors in Central Asia and elsewhere – as Deputy Secretary of State Burns and I did just over a month ago in Almaty – to work toward our common goal of a secure, stable, and prosperous Afghanistan integrated into its region.

A second and important factor is the nature of Islam in Central Asia. Islam has a long and peaceful tradition in Central Asia. Islam has been a central feature of the cultural life of the region for more than a millennium. As the hub of the Silk Road, Central Asian cities flourished as bastions of Islamic learning and scientific thought, making enormous contributions to science and culture. Those of you who have had the privilege of traveling in Central Asia, as I have, know the grandeur of the Registan in Samarkand and the quiet beauty of the madrassahs and caravanserai of Bukhara. Today we pay homage to those traditions by cooperating with governments and civil society across the region to support the preservation of the region’s historically significant Islamic heritage.

As this audience knows well, since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the people of the region have rediscovered their Islamic heritage and rekindled beliefs and practices that were lost or obscured during the Soviet era. But many controls and restrictions on freedom of religion persist, a risk I will return to later.

A small number of people, however, have turned to radicalism and violence. We know that several Islamist militant groups with ties to Central Asia have spent much of the last decade operating from Pakistan and Afghanistan, and claimed credit for attacks on Afghan and Coalition forces or targets inside the region. Groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan are likely to continue to operate in northern Afghanistan, while looking for opportunities to expand their currently limited presence in Central Asia.

These groups, however, number in the tens or hundreds, not thousands, and do not pose an imminent threat to Central Asian states. Their violent ideology is overwhelmingly rejected by the populations of Central Asia. And while counterterrorism capabilities are uneven across the region, they have generally been sufficient to prevent groups from establishing secure operational bases in any of the Central Asian states.

But the limited threat currently posed by Islamic militancy in Central Asia and the failure of radical ideology to take root, are no reason for complacency. Central Asian states face real security challenges not only from violent extremists but also from cross-border threats such as drug trafficking and from organized crime.

Our security assistance aims to strengthen the ability of the Central Asian states to address a broad range of such threats. In 2012, the United States provided approximately $215 million of security assistance to the countries of Central Asia through a combination of Department of State, Department of Defense, and Department of Energy programs. The bulk of this assistance is focused on strengthening border security and increasing the capabilities of law enforcement agencies to counter transnational criminal activity, including terrorism, narcotics trafficking, trafficking in persons and non-proliferation.

Turning to some of our specific priorities, the Antiterrorism Assistance program is active in four of the five Central Asian countries and supports stronger border control and investigative capabilities. We are engaged in talks with the fifth country, Uzbekistan, to re-launch that program there as well. Through the Central Asia Regional Strategic Initiative, we encourage greater counterterrorism cooperation in the border areas of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, while the FBI provides tools such as the Automated Fingerprint Information System to Uzbekistan.

Our interest in combating terrorism and other cross-border threats is shared by others, so we are engaging with other countries that are active in Central Asia to cooperate on regional security and stability. I have made it a personal priority to expand our consultations with Russia and China on Central Asia. Since 2006, over 2000 counternarcotics officers from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and all five Central Asian states have received training through a NATO-Russia joint project called the NATO-Russia Council Counternarcotics Training Project.

In Dushanbe, the United States and Russia both play leading roles in managing the OSCE Border Management Staff College, which provides specialized training for senior management of border security agencies from across Central Asia, the wider OSCE region, and Afghanistan. I just visited the College in February and came away impressed with its contributions to strengthening border security across the region.

The Central Asian states share many of our security objectives in the region, and they have been good partners in this cooperation. But they also face a broad range of challenges that, as in many other societies, could fuel radicalism over time if left unaddressed. As they have sought to reduce their countries’ vulnerability to perceived terrorist threats, they have at times failed to distinguish clearly between the right to peaceful worship and the need to combat religious extremism. Some have used the threat of extremism as a reason to repress political opposition, media freedom and civil society.

We know that in most cases in Central Asia, the principal threats are not from violent extremist groups, but rather internal: growing restrictions on the exercise of a range of democratic freedoms and lack of economic opportunity. Non-religious factors, such as denial of political rights and civil liberties; significant restrictions on the ability of civil society to organize, receive funding and operate; corruption; transnational crime; limitations on freedom of expression and conscience; weak rule of law and leadership succession questions, are more likely to trigger the kind of protracted instability that could threaten the security and interests of the Central Asian states themselves, and of United States and our allies.

Tajikistan, for example, has circumscribed the role of Islamist groups in society and in some cases has imposed restrictions on religious freedom, including banning women from attending mosque and imposing restrictions on wearing the hijab in school. Law enforcement and judicial bodies in Uzbekistan have continued to use charges of terrorism and alleged extremist ties not only as grounds to arrest, prosecute, and convict suspected terrorists, but also to suppress legitimate expression of political or religious beliefs. The government of Kazakhstan has cited the threat of violent extremism to justify recent limitations on political opposition and media outlets.

When governments in the region employ methods to counter radicalization and violent extremism that are inconsistent with respect for the fundamental rights of citizens and the rule of law, they undermine long-term stability rather than strengthen it. Freedom of expression and an active civil society, far from being threats, are valuable feedback mechanisms that can help governments be more responsive and pressure-release valves that provide societies with peaceful means to air grievances.

Likewise, weak the rule of law and pervasive corruption have a corrosive effect on the Central Asian states, undermining the confidence of people in their governments and their ability to attract the investments necessary to spur broad-based economic growth. And the tendency to blame neighbors and outsiders for problems within one’s own borders hinders the kind of cooperation needed to address transnational challenges – and seize new opportunities.

To address these challenges, our engagement with Central Asia goes beyond the security assistance I outlined, to also encourage meaningful, sustainable progress on human rights and democratic reforms; and advocate for the New Silk Road vision of greater regional economic cooperation and integration. To achieve these objectives, we use a combination of diplomatic engagement and bilateral and multilateral assistance.

On the diplomatic front, the annual consultations that we hold with each of the five Central Asian countries form the cornerstone of our bilateral relationships. They provide us a venue to not only review the full range of priorities in our relations with senior government officials, but also to deepen our engagement with civil society and build stronger economic ties. In these engagements, we consistently underscore the importance of protecting fundamental civil and political liberties, including the rights of ethnic, religious, and other minorities. We urge governments across the region to ensure space for civil society, the media, political activists, and religious actors to operate freely and peacefully, so that they can contribute to the advancement of their countries. And we stress to our Central Asian partners that these issues, like our security cooperation, are integral aspects of the bilateral relationship, and that lack of progress in one area hinders our ability to move forward in others.

We are clear-eyed about these issues, and progress is, quite frankly, slow and halting. The instinctive reaction in the region to upcoming leadership successions and elections is to tighten control. And Russia’s recent efforts to curb the activities of independent NGOs have also found their echo in Central Asia. But we also have seen some positive results in our engagement. During the last round of our Annual Bilateral Consultations in Tashkent, for example, the government of Uzbekistan, for the first time, held a Civil Society Forum with independent civil society. I was heartened by the frankness of the dialogue, and we want to continue and expand on it.

Our engagement on these issues also takes the form of assistance programs designed to improve compliance with international human rights standards and principles of government accountability and transparency. In FY 2012, we provided $26.6 million in support of such efforts.

In addition, in Kyrgyzstan, we are supporting security sector reform, which, along with assistance efforts in the judicial sector, is helping to strengthen the rule of law and bring about a fairer and more transparent justice system. In Tajikistan, we have a very successful community policing program that is working at the grassroots level, building trust between law enforcement, local government, civil society, and the community, to address local problems related to crime and security. Such programs help stabilize communities in vulnerable areas like Rasht Valley and Khorugh, while encouraging policing methods consistent with respect for human rights and the rule of law.

We are also exploring how to tailor projects to counter violent extremism, to offer positive alternatives to local communities that are most at risk. These programs have proven effective in other parts of the world and are designed to reduce the vulnerability of targeted or at-risk segments of the population to the appeal of violent extremism. We see this as a promising avenue for helping our Central Asian partners strengthen their defenses against the threat of terrorism and violent extremism, while at the same time encouraging a respect for fundamental rights of citizens that is essential to the long-term stability of the region.

That long-term stability requires not just defenses against threats but also a positive vision for the future. That’s why we have championed so strongly the New Silk Road vision of greater regional economic cooperation and integration. Increased connectivity and trade between Central Asia and Afghanistan, South Asia, and Europe will help forge the physical, cultural, and commercial links that can be the building blocks for a more stable, secure and prosperous future in the region. This is especially true for Afghanistan, where an important economic transition is underway and where increased economic integration with the wider region can also support efforts to improve security and bring a political end to the war in Afghanistan.

To take just one example, the proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline, or TAPI, would connect the vast gas reserves of Turkmenistan with the hungry energy markets of South Asia, while providing much-needed revenue to Afghanistan. While we have a long way to go, TAPI is closer to reality today than many would have thought possible even two years ago.

And trade liberalization, the "software side" if you will, is no less important than physical infrastructure like TAPI. And here, too, we see encouraging signs. Kyrgyzstan was the first Central Asian state to join the WTO, and Tajikistan became a member earlier this year. Afghanistan and Kazakhstan are well along in their accession processes, and Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have shown renewed interest in WTO, which we strongly support, because we believe that transparent and inclusive trade regimes benefit everyone and increase economic opportunity for the people of Central Asia.

Let me conclude by stressing that while it can be slow and challenging to accomplish far-reaching change, I am optimistic about the future of the region and our engagement with the governments and people of Central Asia. Islam will clearly feature as an important dimension of Central Asia’s development, and one to which we must give due attention. Your conference will add to our understanding of these important currents.

But the core issues ahead for Central Asia remain squarely centered on the need for continued progress in political and economic reform where we will continue to work together. As the transitions in Afghanistan continue, we will continue to work with our Central Asian partners to tackle the shared challenges posed by transnational criminal activity, to develop more open societies, and to bring about more connectivity and economic opportunity in the region. This region, at the crossroads of East and West, surrounded by some of the most dynamic economies in the world today, is much too important for us to walk away from.

And with that, I welcome your questions and look forward to a good discussion.���������