Until the Trump Administration appoints a new Assistant Secretary of State, Ambassador Alice Wells, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs, will remain Washington's point person for the region. From the Clinton to the Trump Administrations, Washington has claimed to have consistent strategic goals. Yet dramatic changes are afoot, especially in Uzbekistan, which has launched a reform process and improved relations with its neighbors. Has this changed Washington assumptions, strategies, and policies? Shouldn't it? Navbahor Imamova of the Voice of America's Uzbek Service talks to Ambassador Wells about the Administration's goals for Uzbekistan, Central Asia, and the wider region.
In her current position, Ambassador Wells oversees US relations with Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Ambassador Wells, so nice to have you with us this morning. Thank you for being here.
Ambassador Alice Wells, PDAS: Thank you for the invitation.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: We looked forward to talking to you for a while, because you've been traveling to Central Asia. You've been busy, specifically with Uzbekistan. I want to get to your recent trip to Tashkent and talk about the reforms that are taking place in Uzbekistan.
But before that, I have watched your work for many years. You are a professional diplomat whose career has spanned several administrations, both Republican and Democratic, and I've covered Central Asia for as long as you've been working on the region. So, between you and I, we've probably heard the same sets of policy themes - support of sovereignty, security, promotion of democratic reforms, economic development… What has changed with the arrival of the Trump administration? What's new in terms of the policy towards Central Asia today?
Ambassador Alice Wells, PDAS: I think a couple of factors. I mean, first, you're right. For the last, since 2000, or excuse me, since 1991, we have always strongly spoken out in favor of the sovereignty, the territorial integrity, and the independence of the Central Asian states. But I think that we have two new dimensions to the relationship, and one of them is because, I think, of President Mirziyoyev, that we're now looking at the possibilities for intraregional cooperation and how to tap the power of all of the Central Asian states, to increase the economic dynamism, the ability for the states of Central Asia to organize around themes of energy, environment, trade, in support of their own economic development as well as in support of Afghanistan's long term stability and security. And so President Mirziyoyev's own stance on opening up, on reaching out to neighbors, on settling border disputes and longstanding disputes has been a real factor, I think, in changing everyone's assessment of what is possible in Central Asia.
Second, obviously, is the President's South Asia strategy, which he announced in August. And it was a very important announcement, because the president said we're not leaving, that we are committed to the stability and security of Afghanistan, which is absolutely important for Uzbekistan and for Afghanistan's neighbors. And we're not going to put ourselves in an artificial timeframe. We'll stay as long as it takes for Afghanistan to be able to achieve a negotiated political solution with the Taliban. And I think that message was deeply reassuring to most in the region. I think one of the fruits of that strategy was the recent visit we saw by President Ghani, the first Afghan president to visit Tashkent and the host of memorandums and agreements that were signed, and Afghanistan's statement, President Ghani's statement, that Afghanistan is a Central Asian nation. So we're now able, I think, to conceive of the region not just as a series of important bilateral relationships, but as a region that has a very important agenda in opening up, and I think assisting the international community's much broader effort to stabilize Afghanistan and bring peace.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: For Tashkent, the upcoming talks [on Afghanistan] are a big deal.
Ambassador Alice Wells, PDAS: Yes.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: They're looking forward to it, and we believe that really high level officials are going to come from the neighboring countries, including foreign ministers and others. Is Secretary Tillerson going to Central Asia?
Ambassador Alice Wells, PDAS: I can't confirm our attendance yet, level of attendance yet at the conference. But I absolutely agree with your assessment of the conference, that Uzbekistan has a historic role when it comes to supporting stability in Afghanistan, a historic role in driving diplomacy in the region. We see the Tashkent conference as a return to the international stage in some way.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Tashkent's return.
Ambassador Alice Wells, PDAS: Right, under President Mirziyoyev, and a real opportunity for the region to embrace what we think is going to come out of next week's Kabul Process, a pan-Afghan call for peace, pan-Afghan affirmation that peace is the answer in Afghanistan. And so to be able to gather in Tashkent, and to have the regional powers and important global powers there to be able to take that proclamation and to endorse it, and to look at how the region can support it is very important.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And with everything that's going on in Afghanistan, how hopeful are you about the outcome? What would this conference give you other than, let's see, sitting down and talking?
Ambassador Alice Wells, PDAS: I'm confident that the conference is going to help push forward regional efforts to enforce what has been our most important message to the Taliban, that the door is open. There is a path to peace and stability with dignity for those members of the Taliban who are prepared to reject violence, end their ties with terrorists, and to accept the constitution and its provisions for minorities and women. And I've been in this job position now for about 8 months, and I can assure you that really every country in the region, the United States, the Afghan government, we're committed to ultimately a peaceful resolution.
And so when we see the bombings that took place, the May 31st bombing, which was so catastrophic in Kabul, and the January 27th bombing in Kabul, I think the international community has to focus attention on who is rejecting peace. And right now, it's the Taliban. And our efforts have to be, I think, directed at isolating the Taliban from the mainstream, yet showing the way forward, that we have not ruled out peace with the Taliban. We've not ruled out reconciliation. But at this stage, we're not seeing actions by the Taliban that indicate their interest in a political settlement. And so the onus really has to be put on the Taliban.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: The pressure is on Taliban.
Ambassador Alice Wells, PDAS: Yes.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Lots of expectations… Obviously Central Asians are very concerned with what has been happening in Afghanistan. And also they're very hopeful. But at the same time, you know that they want strong bilateral ties with the United States. And the United States has always professed to want to have strong bilateral ties. But America still looks at Central Asia through the prism of Afghanistan. A lot is about Afghanistan in Central Asia when it concerns the United States. Or is that the wrong assessment?
Ambassador Alice Wells, PDAS: I think it's a mischaracterization. Obviously, Afghanistan is important. It's important to us, it's our longest running war. It's important to Uzbekistan, which shares a border with Afghanistan. But I think our relationship has always been focused on how do we build out the relationship? How do we build the economic ballast in the relationship? How do build people to people ties? How do we help reform initiatives? Initially, this was about a country's very tricky evolution from a Soviet republic to an independent state. 27 years later, I think we're in a different position. It's about building out the institutions of democracy. And so, we very much want to see President Mirziyoyev succeed in his stated reforms. I mean, the convertibility of currency eliminated what had been an obstacle to a lot of interest by American and other multinational industry. So how do we promote business? How do we help Uzbekistan enter the WTO, which it now states as a goal? How do we provide technical capacity so that your ministries are capable of implementing the vision that's been laid out by the president?
I read through the president's four hour address, and it's really sweeping. It's not just one area that is being focused on. The president has a comprehensive vision for the nation. And I think that's very appealing to us and to others of the international community who have long thought that we've never been able to achieve the potential in the bilateral relationship that we sought.
Uzbekistan is an important regional country. It has a rich history, and a rich history of experience to bring to bear. So I think you're going find us working on all elements of the relationship, whether it's under a strategic dialogue format. You saw the president speak in December, where they affirmed the need to move forward in the relationship. You saw our deputies, our Secretary Tillerson back in September at the UN General Assembly was meeting with the Foreign Ministers of Central Asia. Our Deputy Secretary did so in January. I think you're going see an increased tempo of visits, because we all recognize the opportunity that's being presented.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Do you have a plan to capitalize on that opportunity? Because for the longest time, what we heard from Washington was that “we want to see change in Uzbekistan, and those changes should come from within.”
Ambassador Alice Wells, PDAS: Right.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And now many see that happening, and you obviously see that happening too.
Ambassador Alice Wells, PDAS: Right. And I think you make an important point. This is an Uzbek plan. This is not some, no one, the international community is not giving dictation. The international community is observing with great both excitement and approval of this ambitious reform program. And we want to be of assistance. And when I was in Tashkent and had the opportunity to meet with the Foreign Minister, the Defense Minister, your special representative for Afghanistan, the Senator Safoyev and his colleague, as well as Civil Society and international organizations. I heard everyone talking about the opportunities. And often, when you get a vision that's laid down, it's going to be the implementation of the vision that's the hardest. And here I think not just the United States, but the UN, World Bank, IMF, there are lots of organizations that can help President Mirziyoyev and his team get to where they want to go, and to open Uzbekistan up.
The prisoner releases, the steps that have been taken to eliminate forced labor, the openings that we've seen on media, the calls for reform of the judiciary. All of those, I think, are deeply reassuring, for instance, to an American business community that has long been looking at how to get into the Uzbekistan market. So there are, I think there are lots of opportunities here, and I would say lots of goodwill on our part to try to take advantage of the new Uzbekistan that we see.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Based on everything that you know about the reform agenda in Uzbekistan, where do you want these reforms to lead? This question actually comes from Uzbek experts, policy makers. They wonder about what the U.S. wants to see.
Ambassador Alice Wells, PDAS: We would like to see an Uzbekistan that's open to the region and the world. For, I think, many years, Uzbekistan rejected the notion of deeper regional ties. We saw, and much of this was natural I think. After the Soviet Union, there was almost an instinctive moving away from Soviet era cooperative mechanisms that ultimately made sense, whether it was cooperation on energy, cooperation on water. And so now, with I think, with the new opening in Uzbekistan, how do we look for the most efficient, the greatest efficiencies, the greatest business ties, the kind of cooperation that is going to increase the living standards and the prosperity of Uzbeks, offer opportunities for investors, both Uzbek and foreign, to participate, and to capitalize on Uzbekistan's skills. I mean, its understanding of the region, what it can bring to the diplomatic table in helping to forge regional peace. And the immediate initiatives under President Mirziyoyev, to settle borders, to resolve disputes with neighbors, to open up, to create air links. All of those send an extremely positive message to the community and create new opportunities not just for business, but I think for regional stability at large.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Many see the United States as an observer, not necessarily as an active player in Central Asia. They say that well, Russia has economic and political leverage. China is bringing billions of dollars. And I'm sure you have heard this before. And this economic investment could translate into political leverage eventually. But what is U.S. bringing, they say. What is U.S. doing that will affect the lives of people in real terms?
Ambassador Alice Wells, PDAS: Right. I think that it is a good thing that America does not have a boundary, a land boundary with Uzbekistan. We don't have a stake in your territory. We're not seeking to cast our influence over you. Instead, America has always stood for the principles of Uzbekistan and the countries of the former Soviet Union to be free, to be sovereign, to have their territory respected, the integrity of its territory respected. And that is useful to Uzbekistan as it navigates its relations. We do not see a relationship with the United States coming at the expense of any other relationship that Uzbekistan enjoys. Uzbekistan, as a landlocked country has to have a multi-vector foreign policy, has to build relations with its neighbors and take advantage of opportunities that emerge. And we understand that.
I think, because we're not located in the region, we're a rather benign force when it comes to partnering for reform and economic development. But to say that we're not engaged in the region I think is a complete mischaracterization. We are engaged in the longest running war that America has participated in. We have lost lives, and material losses next door in Afghanistan. The region has been a preoccupation of the last four or five presidents. So very much Central Asia features. And so you've seen not just the phone call between your president and President Trump, but the recent visit of President Nazarbayev, the high level engagements by Secretary Tillerson. Central Asia matters, as a region, and as an important country in Central Asia, Uzbekistan will be critical to any regional effort at increasing stability and prosperity.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: This has been an unconventional administration in many ways. Should we expect any unconventional approaches to the region in the near future?
Ambassador Alice Wells, PDAS: (Laughs) I think, but there's much about our interests in Central Asia that are conventional. Again, our interest in a stable and secure Central Asia that's growing and prospering. And so those long time honored security interests of the United States are going to remain constant. We are always looking for new ways to engage, and I think we live in a new world today, social media, with both the good and the bad, the ability to connect people to people in ways that we could not have imagined before. But also the dark side of that connection, the ability of evil groups to recruit through internet and the rise of violent extremism, unnihilist organizations that have attracted young people from around the world, including Central Asia. So we have to deal with everything that's being thrown at us by our changing times. And that's another very important area for cooperation between our countries.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Speaking of that, we see the relationship sour with Pakistan, and when there's conversation about this in Washington, Central Asia comes up as the best alternative in terms of supply routes. And we know that the Northern Distribution Network never fully stopped functioning. Should we expect any new deals, or maybe agreements or initiatives in the near future?
Ambassador Alice Wells, PDAS: I think we're always looking to maintain our trade relations and our transport relations with countries of the region. But I would say when it comes to Pakistan, we see Pakistan as a very important part of the solution to stability in Afghanistan. And the goal of the South Asia strategy is to work with Pakistan to see that its interests are reflected and met at a negotiating table at the same time that we're able to push or entice or facilitate the Taliban's own participation in a negotiation. So I wouldn't read our current relationship with Pakistan as suggesting that we want to walk away from that relationship. To the contrary, we very much want to have a partnership with Pakistan against all violent extremist organizations.
I think Central Asia and the Central Asian leaders and the Uzbek leadership have always opposed violent extremism. They've been very concerned about the prospect or the possibility of terrorist organizations taking root. There are obvious areas overlapping interest that we have in sharing information and better understanding the phenomenon, because as we defeat, for instance, ISIS in Iraq and Syria, none of us can afford for the remnants of those organizations to take root elsewhere. We have to be on guard. We have to have the information sharing arrangements in place and the law enforcement relationships in place to be able to counter it. But more than that, we have to understand the phenomenon, and I think come to a better understanding of why young people in particular have been attracted to these violent unnihilistic creeds.
So, this is something that we share, and that the global community shares. And under our own C5+1 program in the region, counter terrorism and countering violent extremism is an important pillar.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Speaking of U.S. interests and the mutual interests, obviously, we saw how the relationship with Kyrgyzstan suffered under the Russian influence. And I know you're a Russia expert. You've spent a lot of time focusing on Russia. What kind of tools or mechanisms, levers, do you have to protect your interests in the region?
Ambassador Alice Wells, PDAS: I think we, again, our relationship with the Kyrgyz Republic, the United States has always stood for the Kyrgyz Republic's independence and territorial integrity and has invested significantly in trying to assist the Kyrgyz government increase its own capacity, to work with civil society and media, to increase those institutions that are the guarantors of democracy. I think we all recognize that the Kyrgyz Republic has managed democratic transitions. It's made important progress in its own political evolution. And certainly we desire a productive and constructive relationship with the Kyrgyz Republic. At one point, we had the Manas air base, which was an important contribution to the northern distribution network. But even without the air base, I think we see the Kyrgyz Republic's contribution to the region as being essential.
When we talk about, again, energy sharing and energy cooperation, it's all five countries of the region working together that are going to maximize the potential of any one individual country. And I know Uzbekistan sort of feels this intimately with the situation of the enclaves and the borders. You can't, even as you build your own institutions, your relations with your neighbors are important. So we would like to help facilitate those relations. And again, I think what we bring most to the table is the fact that we aren't living in your neighborhood.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So U.S. wants to, will continue to be a unique player as far as-
Ambassador Alice Wells, PDAS: I think so.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: ... as far as Washington is concerned. Going back to Uzbekistan, there are some great expectations from the United States. I'm sure you heard many of those when you were there. And I know that Ambassador Spratlen in Tashkent constantly engages both political and non-governmental parts of Uzbekistan. What are some of the things that stand out for you that makes you think of new ways of doing things? Because in many ways, this is such a unique opportunity, right, such a unique opening.
Ambassador Alice Wells, PDAS: I think on the economic side, there are clear possibilities for us to increase our engagement. American companies are extremely interested with the currency convertibility it's now possible for them to repatriate profits, so I think you're going to see continued interest in growing the trade relationship. But I think really most untapped is people to people and developing the ties between our countries. And some of those are business ties. But I'm talking about students, about professionals, about training programs, about non-governmental organizations. I think in Uzbekistan we still have a very formalized way of communicating with one another. That stems from the Soviet Union days even. So moving to a relationship that's built more on shared interest, on trust, as we build up trust between our countries that we can work together and work together effectively. I think we're going to see a real blossoming of personal relations between our countries, and those are such important bridges of understanding and of reinforcement of the goals that we seek to achieve. And there, we have a lot of catching up to do.
But I attended at the National Library a class, for instance, an English language class that we were sponsoring. The students are terrific, and they so much are part of this international world, Uzbek nationalists, but looking to make ties with their neighbors and with the global community. And we need to tap that energy and dynamism and idealism of the younger generation in both of our societies.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: I can totally imagine after this interview, we'll be getting a lot of questions from our audiences, "Oh, are we going to have new exchange programs? Are some of those programs that closed down coming back?" Because there is a lot of enthusiasm when it comes to education, studying in America.
Ambassador Alice Wells, PDAS: I would say reach out to the American Embassy, to our public affairs section and our education counseling section. But we very much want to restore some of the programs we used to do, to look for new areas where we can work together in creating partnerships. We've had programs, our international visitor program, where we take, it's not just students, we take government officials on thematic visits to the United States to see how we do it here, or how we do it wrong here. You can learn from a good experience and from a bad experience. But I've never, I've always felt that diplomacy is most successful when you have a common understanding and a common bond. And I'm always struck by how a glimpse into one another's society, so whether it's American students coming to Uzbekistan, American diplomats coming to Uzbekistan, American businessmen coming, suddenly the possibilities become clearer, and the excitement is generated to do more.
And so I think today we're seeing a lot more excitement. People are very interested in what's happening in Uzbekistan, and so how do we tap that? How do we build on it? Because certainly, from the Department of State perspective, we're very excited about the opportunities. And I think over the next year, this is a real window for us to climb through, and we, I know we have good partners in Tashkent to work with.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: We see Uzbekistan, specifically the president challenging himself. And now what you're describing is you see yourself being challenged by this.
Ambassador Alice Wells, PDAS: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Absolutely. I don't want to underestimate ... I appreciate that reform is difficult, that much of the agenda that President Mirziyoyev has laid out is hard. It requires a lot of change and capacity building and changing mindsets. But I think the goodwill is there, and certainly the goodwill from the international community. When I met with representatives of the World Bank and the UN, everyone is really focused on how do we be partners, and this is an Uzbek project, an Uzbek experiment, but you have lots of partners and friends.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Thank you so much for talking to us.
Ambassador Alice Wells, PDAS: Thank you.