Clinton’s Central Asia Mission


U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has just wrapped up her first official visit to Tajikistan, part of a trip that also took her to Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Libya. The Central Asian segment of her tour was aimed at securing these countries’ support for U.S. efforts to establish a benign environment for its troop drawdown in Afghanistan. It was a useful start, but there’s a long way to go.

Part of Clinton’s efforts were aimed at the renewal of the Obama administration’s sometimes lagging attempts to encourage Afghanistan’s neighbors to make a greater effort toward integrating that country into the regional economy, as well as reduce barriers to trade between them.

Tajikistan is perhaps better positioned than most to benefit from such integration. About a quarter of Afghanistan’s population consists of ethnic Tajiks, and the two countries share a 1,330-kilometre border. The two countries are seeking financing and other support to develop road, railroad, communications, and other connections between the two sides of their joint border. Tajikistan also lies between Afghanistan and the Indian Ocean, and would become a natural commercial conduit for the land-based segment of Afghanistan’s maritime trade.

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Another objective of Clinton’s visit was to expand the flow of Western military supplies entering Afghanistan through the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), which involves Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia and other former Soviet republics. Although the United States has traditionally relied on delivering most supplies through Pakistan, tensions between Washington and Islamabad threaten to disrupt that distribution network at any time. Pakistani authorities, for their part, have closed the border crossings in the past in response to U.S actions they found objectionable.

The volume of goods flowing through the NDN has steadily increased, and the administration is trying to raise this volume still further. U.S. officials are also seeking permission for the transit to flow in reverse, which will allow the United States and NATO to withdraw their military forces through the former Soviet republics rather than through Pakistan, where they would be more vulnerable to retaliation by the Taliban and its Pakistani allies.

But Clinton also sought to curb a revival of Islamist extremism in Tajikistan, which experienced a vicious sectarian war in the 1990s, by pressing its government to show greater tolerance towards moderate expressions of religion, women’s rights, and other long suppressed freedoms. "We understand completely the concerns by both the Government and citizens here in Tajikistan to avoid the scourge of violent extremism," Clinton said at a news conference. "So we would hope that there would be a re-thinking of any restrictions going forward because we think they can increase sympathy for extremist views, which would in turn threaten the stability and security of the country."

Clinton’s messages to Tajikistan was welcome, but the Obama administration needs to make a more sustained effort to promote regional economic and security integration as U.S. and NATO troops withdraw from the region in order to avoid leaving a terrible mess behind. The crises in the Middle East and North Africa, preceded by last year’s wave of civil strife in Kyrgyzstan, have intensified international concern about Central Asia’s security at a time when the region has become an increasingly important transit route through which NATO supplies reach the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

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