On Thursday September 12, USAID Assistant Administrator for Asia, Nisha Desai Biswal, testified at her nomination hearing to replace Robert Blake as the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs. Much of Biswal’s testimony focused on the United States’ priority of integrating Afghanistan with the broader South Central Asia region, especially in light of the impending U.S. withdrawal from the region, a point echoed in Josh Kucera’s coverage of the hearing on the Bug Pit blog. During her testimony and the question and answer session, Biswal also touched on the region’s poor human rights record and U.S. efforts to promote these values. Below, please find key statements Biswal made about Central Asia during her nomination hearing and a brief analysis of the hearing at the end.
The Central Asia – Afghanistan connection:
- Biswal first praised the Central Asian states for their assistance in Afghanistan and stated, “all five Central Asian states have provided vital support for our mission in Afghanistan,” pointing to their participation in the Northern Distribution Network and Kazakhstan’s support for the Afghan Security Forces.
However, the majority of Biswal’s testimony dealt with economic issues, rather than security ones, impacting Afghanistan’s transition:
- Biswal noted, “While my direct responsibilities, if confirmed, would not include Afghanistan or Pakistan, one of the South and Central Asia Bureau’s top priorities will be to help connect Afghanistan to an increasingly stable and prosperous region.” She promised to continue “promoting U.S. policies that will make regional integration a reality, knitting together all the countries through a web of economic, energy, transit, trade, and people-to-people linkages.”
- Specifically with regards to Central Asia, Biswal stated in a Q&A with Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), “much work has already been done to promote trade and people to people linkages [with Afghanistan],” pointing to a railroad connecting Turkmenistan and Tajikistan through Afghanistan, Kazakhstan’s role in the Istanbul Process, and the fact that “The lights are in Kabul because of Uzbek power.”
- Biswal also argued, “As we move toward the transition these efforts are going to need to be stepped up,” mentioning that diplomatic work still needs to be done on important projects like the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) Pipeline and the CASA-1000 hydropower initiative.
Stronger Diplomatic Relations with the Central Asian States:
- In a follow up Q&A round with Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) during the hearing, Biswal said: “Because of [U.S.] engagement in Afghanistan, [it] has had an opportunity to establish deeper relationships with the countries of Central Asia.”
- This engagement has helped, according to Biswal, to discuss both economic and human rights concerns with the Central Asian countries: “Understanding that we have many concerns about many of these countries, I think it has been a positive that we’ve been able to engage in dialogue and discourse with all five Central Asian states, and that we have annual bilateral consultations and a strategic partnership with Kazakhstan, which allows us to talk about how the United States can engage with and support economic and development priorities of all of these countries and also engage in discourse over the areas in which we have disagreement and divergence.”
Human Rights Issues in Central Asia:
- In her spoken testimony, Biswal argued, “Across Central Asia, this administration has steadfastly championed core American and universal values such as religious freedoms and broader human rights and political freedoms as part of all of our bilateral engagements, a practice that I will strongly endorse and continue.”
- In her written testimony (PDF) Biswal further pledged, “If confirmed by the Senate, I will continue to use our broad engagement with countries throughout the region to underscore that, while we will continue to work with them to safeguard against the threats of terrorism and extremism, we believe that progress towards democracy and human rights, so that people have peaceful avenues for expressing dissent, is essential to achieving that goal.”
Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) challenged Biswal on this point, questioning whether U.S. policies in the broader South Central Asia region reflect U.S. interests as well as U.S. values. Senator Rubio also asked Biswal whether aid to certain countries in the region should be conditioned on their progress on human rights.
- Biswal first defended the administration and reiterated, “[The] administration has conducted bilateral dialogues and consolations with all of the countries that you have mentioned, and in these consultations human rights and religious freedoms have been at the top of these conversations.”
- Biswal further responded, “I don’t know if conditionality is the way to go, but targeting of that assistance to ensure it is reaching populations for whom we have the greatest concern [as opposed to benefiting the governments in the region] is something we have consistently sought to do and maybe should do more.”
While none of Ms. Biswal’s statements appear too surprising, there are a couple of noteworthy observations from the hearing. First, it is interesting that Ms. Biswal hardly discussed any security concerns in Central Asia – let alone U.S. security assistance programs in the region. While security assistance to the region has spiked in recent years, there is an expectation that this assistance will decrease as the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, and this hearing’s focus might indicate that the U.S. will pay less attention to security issues in Central Asia moving forward.
The second observation is that U.S. policy towards Central Asia is still dominated by a focus on Afghanistan, not so much in terms of security but in terms of strengthening Afghanistan’s economy. While the term “The New Silk Road” was only mentioned once in Biswal’s testimony, her statements seemed to re-emphasize the State Department’s hope for an economically prosperous and regionally integrated Afghanistan. The problem is that a number of observers doubt the feasibility of this vision. These doubts were most clearly expressed by Security Assistance Monitor blogger Josh Kucera, who testified in a briefing about the New Silk Road for the Helsinki Commission in July. In his remarks, Kucera stated:
But the problem is that very few existing regional integration projects involve Afghanistan, for the obvious reason, that it’s very unstable and has very poor infrastructure. There are very few pairs of countries that if you try to imagine, you know, the most advantageous way to get goods from one to the other that the route would pass through Afghanistan.
One of Kucera’s co-panelists, Craig Steffensen from the Asian Development Bank, while making some complimentary points about regional initiatives in the broader region, ultimately echoed Josh’s point. He stated: “The last time I looked, I think there was about 1 percent of trade going north-south [through Afghanistan] as there was going east to west [bypassing Afghanistan]… I think Josh mentioned it that a lot of countries would prefer, you know, not to pin their hopes on Afghanistan as a transport – trans-accorder at this point in time. And that’s exactly right.”
This uncertainly about the New Silk Road raises the question, though, whether the U.S. policy in Central Asia as expressed by Ms. Biswal is aimed at benefitting the five Central Asian States as much as it is aimed at trying to benefit Afghanistan?
Transparency and Accountability Intern Eddie Bejarano assisted with research to this post.