Meeting With American University of Central Asia Students
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Assistant Secretary Biswal: Let me start by saying how much I’ve looked forward to this all day. I think this is such a tremendous opportunity to be able to not only share with you my thoughts and ideas, but really to hear from you about what are the challenges and concerns that you’re facing, and what do you see as the major opportunities moving forward.
The United States has been a friend and partner of the Kyrgyz Republic since its independence. We want to continue to grow and strengthen and expand that relationship.
We also don’t see that relationship as being an exclusive relationship. We want Kyrgyzstan to have positive relationships and close relationships in the region, and we know you have important relationships with Russia, with China, with the countries of Central Asia, and we think you should also be able to have relationships with the United States, with the rest of Asia, with Europe, with whomever you wish. We don’t see that as zero sum, we don’t see that as exclusive or exclusionary. In fact in today’s world, it is an increasingly interdependent, interconnected world, and no region can afford to live in isolation.
If you think about where the future is, the countries of Asia and the economies of Asia are going to be the drivers of global growth in the decades to come. And the ability to connect with, to be part of, and partner with these countries and these economies is what’s going to drive prosperity and security globally. That’s a determination that my country has made. And as President Obama talked about the rebalance to Asia, he put it in those terms, that increasingly the prosperity and security of the United States is going to be influenced by its relationship with the societies of Asia.
So we see this as a win/win prospect and we want to make sure that you do as well. My coming here has really been about trying to continue to grow and expand that relationship. I know we’ve been well served by our excellent ambassador who’s been here for the past three years, and we will continue to move forward on that.
With that, I really look forward to just engaging with you. The relationship that we’ve had on the people-to-people and the educational front has been one of the most important. I know that we’ve sent 158 Fulbrighters to Kyrgyzstan and in turn, 145 Kyrgyzstani students and faculty Fulbrighters have come to the United States. That’s a great track record and it’s one that we want to grow and expand.
One of my favorite quotes that I like to use everywhere I go is from the late Senator Edward Kennedy. He said that the United States’ relations with a country are not just government-to-government, they are people-to-people, citizen-to-citizen, and friend-to-friend. This is an opportunity for me to really live that quote in this setting. So thank you for that.
With that, I will turn it back over to you for the Q&A portion.
Moderator: Thank you very much, Secretary Biswal. Questions?
Question: I noticed that during your swearing in speech you talked about people you are [attracted] to and talked about issues of your region, and ultimately a little about yourself. I’m sorry, I want to ask you more personally about who you are.
Assistant Secretary Biswal: Please.
Question: I wanted there to quote Secretary Kerry who said that “Nisha has [inaudible] every single one of those lessons,” meaning human rights, power of education, equal opportunities. My question is, what was the greatest lesson for you that you learned and that you always keep in mind in your diplomatic work?
Assistant Secretary Biswal: That’s a very good question. I’ll tell you the single biggest lesson that I’ve learned is perseverance. Perseverance means you live to fight another day. No matter how down you are, no matter how hopeless you may feel, you don’t know what’s around the corner. To persevere through adversity is to welcome opportunity. Sometimes it’s when you’re facing adversity when it’s hardest to be able to keep that in mind, but that’s when it’s the most important. So the life lesson that I carry with me every day is perseverance.
Question: Given the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, will Central Asia be of decreased importance to the United States?
Assistant Secretary Biswal: In fact I think Central Asia is of increasing importance to the United States. Let me tell you why.
As we look at an Asian landscape, as we say, that is becoming more and more important, the major opportunity that we see is an opportunity that connects the resource-rich, the energy-rich countries of Central Asia to the teeming markets of South Asia. As you think about a more integrated landscape across Asia, you see the opportunity for connectivity -- north and south, east and west. And you see an opportunity to take what is plentiful in one area and what is scarce in another area and connect it. And likewise, to take some of the entrepreneurship and innovation that is emerging in some of these South Asian countries -- ideas of frugal technologies that are allowing citizens to meet needs in new ways, in more cost-effective ways. There is a huge opportunity to expand these connections.
People get daunted by the challenges, and there are major challenges. Challenges of geography, challenges of security, challenges of politics. But those are short-term challenges, and these are long-term investments.
So I see that as we look for ways to expand stability, security and prosperity, that connectivity agenda becomes more and more important and our ability to help facilitate that connectivity becomes more and more important. So I see this as a region of increasing importance for the United States.
Question: I want to ask, do you have any specific projects about women and education in Afghanistan?
Assistant Secretary Biswal: Well USAID and the U.S. government are doing many things that I probably can’t catalog with justice here. But I know that advancing women’s political participation, women’s economic participation, and women’s access to all aspects of society and all aspects of services is a key goal of the United States in Afghanistan.
I would say we’ve made tremendous progress in the past decade towards those efforts including tremendous gains in access to education and literacy, gains in health, and gains in economic opportunity.
Question: Do you know if still the strategic convention between Afghanistan and U.S. is not signing, so what would be the relationship if this convention is not signed? Still U.S. will keep to support Afghanistan or no?
Assistant Secretary Biswal: The United States has made very clear that we have an enduring commitment to the Afghan people. The Bilateral Security Agreement, which is a framework agreement that allows the United States military and NATO troops to be able to continue to have an enduring presence to train and support the Afghan National Army, is an important document and an important agreement. It’s widely supported by the Afghan people. It has also been widely supported by all of the candidates who are running for president.
So we fully expect that as the elections proceed, that the BSA will come into effect and that the United States will then be able to have a more stable and durable security transition that allows the Afghan security forces to be able to have the full capacity and training and resources needed for them to take on that challenge.
Even beyond that, the economic and diplomatic engagement of the United States and commitment of the United States to the Afghan people remains and will continue.
Question: As I have read one of your interviews in Dawn Newspaper in which you have said India had and would continue to play a role in Afghanistan and rejected the suggestion that Pakistan and India needed to compete with each other for influence in Afghanistan. I wanted to know what do you mean by influence here? And which kind of influence?
Assistant Secretary Biswal: I don’t know that that quote is particularly an accurate quote, but let me tell you that both India and Pakistan are united in their desire to see a stable and secure Afghanistan. That is a point of convergence for both countries. And that is the point at which we wish to engage both countries. I think India has played an important role in providing economic assistance. They’ve committed over $2 billion, which is an extraordinary sum. It’s the largest commitment that India has made to any country. And we know that Pakistan is playing a very important role. We’re working very closely with both countries to ensure that both the concerns that they may have are addressed and discussed, but also that at the end of the day both countries are acting in a manner that advances the security, the stability of the Afghan people.
Question: I was wondering about Afghanistan, Central Asia, and U.S. approach towards this. So in the post 2014, would the United States facilitate cooperation between Central Asia and Afghanistan? Central Asia leaders see Afghanistan as a dual-sided issue. They see it as an opportunity for the resources and stuff, but also they see it as a way that could bring instability.
So what would the U.S. do or will it do or can it do to facilitate this cooperation between Afghanistan and Central Asia states?
Assistant Secretary Biswal: Thank you. These are all really good questions. They make sure that I’m on my toes here. [Laughter].
We’ve been doing a lot already and will continue to do, to build that connectivity between the countries of Central Asia, within this region, and the connectivity with Afghanistan. We have the New Silk Road initiative, which is really focused on how do we help create trade connections, how do we create people-to-people connections, how do we create infrastructure connections and energy connections. Each of the countries of Central Asia already is doing a lot. There’s electricity that’s flowing from Uzbekistan to Kabul. There’s road and rail links that have been built that connect Turkmenistan to Afghanistan into Tajikistan. There is support that’s being provided, certainly the support that the Kyrgyz Republic provided through the Transit Center at Manas has been critical to the efforts to help improve the stability and security. But also the access to education, the access to training and capacity building. Kazakhstan has provided invaluable support to training of the Afghan Security Forces as well as to the Afghan Civil Service. Every single country in Central Asia has had its relationships and its own support that it has provided.
And likewise, trade and commerce between Afghanistan and Central Asia is increasing. It’s not without its challenges. I will say that this is a region of the world that trades less with each other than any other region in the world. You have a lot of trade that goes out of Central Asia, but very little trade within Central Asia between the countries of Central Asia. That’s something that’s going to have to change. It’s going to have to change because if you want to create the connectivity to South Asia or to Europe or to China, it’s going to have to be a landscape that knows how to go across boundaries -- customs, infrastructure, border controls. There needs to be harmonization so that you don’t have to move off of one rail gauge and into anther rail gauge and lose another week I transit. You can’t have efficient, cost-effective trade happening if you don’t harmonize.
That’s a lot of what we’ve been focusing on is helping create harmonization, helping create the infrastructure -- hard and soft -- that allows that.
And the people-to-people part is extremely important as well. Opportunities for entrepreneurs in all the countries of the region to be able to meet, to be able to make connections, and to be able to do business. Opportunities for civil society organizations. Opportunities for educational partnerships. So there’s an awful lot that’s happening in this space and it will continue to happen and it’s something that the United States has placed a very high premium on.
There’s also a lot of working together on mitigating some of the negative aspects. The counter-narcotics efforts and the counter-terrorism efforts, and the mitigating on issues of health and infectious diseases and trafficking in persons.
So there’s a lot that is being done and a lot that will continue to be done.
Question: I know your primary focus is on South and Central Asia, but I wonder just your personal opinion and as a representative of United States, where do you see Ukraine in ten years? What is your position and your view for Ukraine in ten years? And when Crimea now has, Russian efforts [inaudible] now Russia, but I just wonder about your position.
Assistant Secretary Biswal: First of all, the position of the United States has been very clear that we have felt that Russian actions in Ukraine were in violation of international norms and international rules. That fundamentally the United States supports the sovereignty, the territorial integrity, and the independence of the Ukraine. And the ability for the Ukrainian people to make choices and make determinations for themselves in terms of the relationships that they want to have and the trade and the commerce that they want to engage in.
I fundamentally believe that the era of blocs and exclusive spheres of influence is at an end. We are at a point in history where increasingly there are interconnected relationships that go in multiple directions. We are not in a unipolar nor in a bipolar world. We are in a multipolar world where countries will need to have relationships across a broad spectrum. We welcome that. We think that is as it should be. That will increase the stability and the security and the prosperity of us all, frankly. And we see that Ukraine is firmly seeking to follow that path. To have not an exclusive relationship with the West or an exclusive relationship with its very powerful neighbor, but to be able to manage and balance that. That should be welcomed and supported. That’s certainly the U.S. posture. Even though I’m not responsible for that region of the world, I can say very confidently that that is not only what we want to see with Ukraine, but that is what we want to see with all the countries of Central Asia as well.
Question: I wanted to ask you about specific projects, which aim to facilitate progress in Kyrgyzstan. For instance, according to your [inaudible] United States you mentioned that there are [inaudible] working to bring [inaudible] from Tajikistan to Pakistan and Afghanistan. There was no mention of the projects which [inaudible] Tajikistan. I wonder if there are other projects or programs which will help Tajikistan to develop in some way.
Assistant Secretary Biswal: Yeah. We have a very significant assistance program in Tajikistan that is geared towards helping to improve the food security and the agricultural productivity of Tajikistan, working in areas of disaster response and disaster mitigation, working on health programs. A wide range of programs that are seeking to improve the security and the prosperity of the Tajik people, as well as the CASA program, which is important not only for Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in the sense that it brings revenues for surplus summer hydro power, but it also improves the regional prospects because it takes that surplus hydro and brings it to the energy deficit countries of Afghanistan and Pakistan. So that kind of connectivity, again, invests the region on a more positive basis in each other’s success.
Question: My question is how do you see the future of Afghanistan, since there is a kind of concern about all people, that they are very much afraid of a civil war. How do you see this?
Assistant Secretary Biswal: I understand the anxiety. It’s a natural point in the transition, the political transition and the security transition for there to be a tremendous amount of anxiety. On the other hand, I think that over the past decade there’s been an awful lot that’s been done to invest the Afghan people in a governance and in an economy and a society that offers a tremendous amount of opportunity.
I think that despite the troubling violence that we’ve seen in the past week, ten days, that we’re very hopeful that an election process will unfold that will by and large reflect the will of the Afghan people. We feel very comfortable with the candidates that have come forward and the vision that they have expressed that there’s reason for optimism.
I understand all of the reason for concern, but there’s also reason for optimism. There’s an awful lot of commitment in the Afghan people. What we want to do is really support those commitments and those desires and aspirations of the Afghan people. So we continue to be bullish that things will move forward in a positive direction in Afghanistan.
I hope that answers your question.
Question: There are lots of conspiracy theories going on around everywhere, not just Central Asia. One of those has been that --
Assistant Secretary Biswal: By the way, we have conspiracy theories in our own country as well. [Laughter].
Question: One of them was recently, Ms. Nuland plan to [inaudible], and Ms. Biswal is just in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and trying to open some more trouble around the perimeter of Moscow. So that connection, [inaudible] some of those conspiracies. You just met with President Atambayev. If you could just say whether you were satisfied, whether [inaudible].
Assistant Secretary Biswal: It was a very substantive meeting and I’m very satisfied that we had a very full and candid conversation, and all conversations amongst friends should be very candid conversations.
Look, we understand that there are sensitivities that the countries of Central Asia are feeling, and pressures that they’re feeling. We certainly don’t want to exacerbate or add to tensions or pressures.
What I started off here saying is the United States does not seek exclusive or exclusionary relationships either with this country or any of the countries in the region. What we seek to do is support our friends and partners in their sovereignty, in their independence, and in their territorial integrity. What we want to do is support the international norms and the international rules. And not have boundaries redrawn by force or aggression.
We are not in a world where that ought to be countenanced, and the actions that we have taken have been very measured, very calibrated, to register our strong concern and our strong objection to actions that we think violate international norms. But we have also said very clearly that what we seek is de-escalation of tensions and diplomacy and direct engagement between the government of the Ukraine and Russia to resolve the concerns that have been expressed on both sides. That is the means by which these issues ought to be adjudicated. Not on the point of guns, not through military aggression.
We’ve also said that we’ve shared our perspectives very widely. We respect that all the countries of the region are going to navigate their own space, make their own determinations, and will make their statements. We’re very encouraged that none of the countries of Central Asia opposed the UN General Assembly Resolution that was offered last week. We’re very encouraged that we’ve heard very strong statements on sovereignty and territorial integrity and independence from within this region. And we also recognize that there are important relationships. We respect those relationships. We’ve not asked any country to choose, we’ve not asked any country to make any tough decisions in that sense, and we will continue to engage on the basis of respect, of friendship and partnership.
Question: Given that Russian influence is increasing in Central Asia as a result of Customs Union and the closure of the transit center and other factors, how do you think the U.S. is going to be strengthened its position in the region? And what will be the [inaudible]?
Assistant Secretary Biswal: We’re not a resident power or a proximate power. What we have is a close friendship and partnership. We will continue to engage on that basis. We’re not seeking to have any permanent bases or any permanent presence. What we are seeking is relationships with countries who we value as friends and partners that are on the basis of mutual respect and mutual understanding and advancing mutual goals and objectives. We see a region that can only be enhanced and strengthened through a multi-vector approach to foreign policy, to trade. And it’s for the countries of the region to then balance these forces and to make sure that the relationships and the commitments that you engage in are in your best interest and are advancing your long-term goals and objectives, and are not excluding you from other relationships that stand to benefit your countries. Those are decisions and choices that the people and the governments of this region have to make. The United States is not imposing any choices on anyone. If others are imposing choices, then you have to ask why.
Question: My question is about Turkmenistan. Recently you have visited Turkmenistan and as it was mentioned during your visit you focused on the [inaudible] cooperation, regional security issues [inaudible] in human rights. So have you managed to discuss human rights and are you satisfied with your visit in Turkmenistan?
Assistant Secretary Biswal: Discussion on human rights is an integral part of every conversation I have with every country across the SCA region. It’s not specific or solely on Turkmenistan, but Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. But also as I engage in Bangladesh, as I engage in India, as I engage in Sri Lanka and Nepal and Maldives and Bhutan, it is part and parcel of the engagement that the United States has.
We try to engage on the basis of respect and understanding, but also in the belief that as governments become more accountable and more transparent to their citizens, that they are advancing more stable, more secure, and more prosperous outcomes for their people.
So we had a very strong conversation in our bilateral consultations with Turkmenistan on these issues. We think that there are some areas where we see progress and some areas where a lot more needs to be done.
We don’t claim any perfection for ourselves as a country. We continue to perfect our own democracy every day. We continue to challenge ourselves on the things that we think we do right and the things that we do wrong and we have a very vigorous public debate in my country that brings full accounting on the government when perhaps decisions are made that don’t reflect to the American public their views and their values.
So we share our own experiences and our lessons learned with other countries that we have relationships with, and we certainly did that in Turkmenistan. We do that across the region, across the board.
Moderator: Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. I know you have some other engagements.
Assistant Secretary Biswal: You all asked really good questions. I feel like I can go before the press corps with more confidence because I’ve withstood all the barrage of questions here. [Laughter].
Moderator: Thank you very much.