Press Briefing in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, by State’s Biswal

Well, once again, thank you very much for coming so late in the evening. I’m really delighted to be here in Uzbekistan. This is my first visit as Assistant Secretary, and I want to thank the Government and people of Uzbekistan for the warm hospitality. And I thank our most excellent Ambassador, Ambassador George Krol, for his service to our country and for his efforts strengthening relationships between the United States and Uzbekistan.

We’ve just wrapped up two days of productive discussions as part of our Annual Bilateral Consultations; these are our fifth Annual Bilateral Consultations. And we can see how much the partnership has matured and grown since the first consultations in 2009.

I was accompanied by a delegation of 22 U.S. government officials representing seven U.S. government agencies. And I also just concluded a very productive meeting with His Excellency President Islam Karimov. Our discussions underscored the strength of our bilateral relationship and growing partnership with Uzbekistan on a wide range of regional and global issues.

As I said during my interaction with students of the University of World Economy and Diplomacy earlier today, this is a dynamic moment in Central Asia and across the Asian landscape broadly. We are facing tremendous challenges such as the threat of extremist organizations like ISIL. We have a shared interest in supporting a political, economic, and security transition in Afghanistan.

This is also a moment of tremendous opportunity as we see Asian economies increasingly being the drivers of economic growth and opportunity to create the connectivity that will allow this region to benefit from the growth in Asia and more broadly. And, a landlocked country at the heart of Asia, a region with the rich history that stands at the crossroad of civilization, Uzbekistan stands to gain much from a more integrated region and it is already playing a key role and contributing to the infrastructure and architecture of a more connected future.

I came to Uzbekistan from being in South Asia, where I attended the summit of the SAARC member states. The countries of South Asia are also very focused on the issues of regional integration and connectivity, both within South Asia and between South Asia and Central Asia, and South-East Asia.

The United States is working with the countries of the region to explore ways where we can support the efforts towards connectivity. The point I made both to the SAARC leaders and here in Uzbekistan is that enduring peace and prosperity will take more than just economic connectivity. It requires a transparent and accountable government, environmentally sustainable growth strategies, and inclusive political and economic systems. That’s where the United States works with Uzbekistan and other countries to facilitate the development of good governance, advance the rule of law, transparency, respect for human rights, as these are the foundations for the long-term political, economic, and social stability.

We also discussed specific ways to work together to increase trade and economic development, deepen our security cooperation, and broaden our people-to-people ties.

We also participated in a joint U.S.-Government of Uzbekistan sponsored civil society forum on prisons, where we were able to have a candid conversation on the important role that civil society can play in improving the transparency of how prisons are administered, and how such systems involving civil society can help improve conditions of detainees. We were deeply appreciative of the very respectful, constructive, and candid discussions.

I also met with other senior government leaders, including First Deputy Prime Minister Azimov, Chairman Safaev, and other members of Parliament, Minister of Foreign Economic Relations Ganiev, and of course, my counterpart, Foreign Minister Kamilov. This was an opportunity to underscore that the United States has and will continue to support Uzbekistan, and a leadership that Uzbekistan has provided in the region, because a strong, independent, and vibrant Uzbekistan will not only strengthen [the] security and prosperity of the Uzbek people, it will also enhance the stability and the security of the broader Central Asian region, and the security and prosperity of the American people. The United States may be distant geographically but our partnership grows closer together every day and I’m committed to find more areas of shared interest between our countries and our two peoples.

On a personal note, I would like say that my chief regret is that I was not able to get to Samarkand and Bukhara on this trip, and so I will need to come back in the near future so that I can fulfill my dreams of making it to the ancient cities. You’ve been very patient and I am happy to answer any questions that you may have.

Question: My question is related to the cooperation in the area of security. Experts say that next year, the year 2015, is going to be a “hot” year, and my question is how the U.S. can help Uzbekistan, which you described as the key country of the region, to ensure its own security, the security of Uzbekistan, whether it is by providing military equipment or weaponry which is left from the Afghanistan campaign, or in any other ways? And if you can provide any specific figures that would be even better. Thank you.

Assistant Secretary Biswal: Thank you for your question. Let me first say that with respect to the transition in Afghanistan, the principal way to address the security of Uzbekistan and the region is to support Afghanistan in its sovereignty, and stability, and security, and that this is a priority area of focus for the U.S., and one in which is we are working with our Uzbekistan partners. We are also deepening our partnership with Uzbekistan with respect to our own bilateral security relationship, and exploring ways that we can support Uzbekistan in ensuring it has the capabilities to fight terrorism and secure its borders.

Question: You partially answered the question I was going to ask. You indicated strong sides of the country. Could you please tell us what is the strength of Uzbekistan?

Assistant Secretary Biswal: I had a chance to discuss this with students at the University of World Economy and Diplomacy earlier today. Certainly, Uzbekistan’s geographic location can be a source of tremendous strength, because of its centrality and ability to connect in multiple different ways with many major economies. It is also a land that is blessed with an abundance of natural resources. But the biggest strength of Uzbekistan is its human capital. The population of 30 million, with so many who are under 30, is the untapped productive capital of the country. By investing in them, one creates the opportunity and pathway to the future. It was a real pleasure for me to be able to interact with the students and hear their thoughts, and answer their questions. And we look forward to new and additional works, to work cooperatively with the Government of Uzbekistan in providing English language and other educational opportunities for increasing numbers of Uzbekistani students.

Question: On the eve of your trip to Uzbekistan, eight U.S. Senators addressed the Government of Uzbekistan to release Uzbek journalists and human rights activists. Also, HRW issued a similar statement to release a concrete journalist in prison. Do you think the Annual Bilateral Consultations should be used as a tool in urging the Government of Uzbekistan to release the journalists? Have you discussed these issues, and if not, could you comment on that issue?

Assistant Secretary Biswal: Thank you for that question, very important question, and let me reiterate that we engage on these issues and on those specific cases that you referenced, we raise them with the government not only during our bilateral consultations, but we raise them at every opportunity. We have a consistent policy around the world with respect to human rights and we make that a part of every conversation, every dialogue, and every relationship, and Uzbekistan is no different. We are aware that Uzbekistan has a program of amnesty, and we do hope and believe that these particular cases would be appropriate on the humanitarian grounds to receive such amnesties. Furthermore, members of our delegation have met with the families of a number of these individuals. So this will be an ongoing area of engagement for us.

Question: My question is that recently President Obama announced that American military will stay in Afghanistan and widen its presence in Afghanistan. Is it right or not? It was announced by media. Do you have such a decree of President Obama?

Assistant Secretary Biswal: What I believe that President has indicated is that now that we have a political transition in place in Afghanistan, and we have a BSA that has been signed and ratified by Afghanistan, that he will work with the commanders on the ground with respect to specific adaptations and accommodations that may be needed for the military in terms of the timetable and the mandate to enable them to work effectively with the Afghan forces on ensuring the security transition happens in a way that is durable and sustainable, that is in keeping with the overall policy, but there is a degree of flexibility on the pace of the withdrawal and on the mandates of troops during that stage.

Question: Very ambiguous answer. Can you tell me whether American presence in Afghanistan will be widened or not as media told?

Assistant Secretary Biswal: We are not increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan. We will be adaptive on the pace of the withdrawal and the decrease to reflect the understanding of the conditions on the ground and discussions between the military and Afghan security forces. So what the President has conveyed is that while the timetable for withdrawal is largely unchanged, there is a flexibility in terms of the pace and in terms of the mandate during that time to allow the commanders on the ground and the Afghan security forces and the Afghan government to be able to make certain determinations to ensure that this is done in a way that allows for durable security transitions. That flexibility is what he has communicated that he is giving the troops on the ground the flexibility to shape this transition to meet the conditions on the ground. Okay? The reason why it’s not giving you a specific is because when you give flexibility, you are not giving a specific, you are saying I’m giving you the authority to be able to help shape this in ways that will help create most secure transitions. I don’t know if the language that I’m using is easily translatable, so we can provide an answer in writing.

Question: Do you think that your visit will facilitate to boosting our bilateral relations and what areas are seen as prospective in order to further develop our bilateral relations?

Assistant Secretary Biswal: It is very much our intention that this visit and ABCs will be a source of strengthening and deepening relations between the U.S. and Uzbekistan. We have seen since 2009 how much this relationship has grown, matured, and expanded. We started with only the Foreign Minister and the Ambassador meeting with my predecessor and with Ambassador Krol when he was a DAS, the four of them met for two hours. Now we have 22 people on each side meeting over two days on the broad range of issues and areas of cooperation between our two countries. We hope to see increasing engagement on the economic and trade sphere. We hope to see increasing people-to-people ties, especially for educational opportunities. We have a strong and growing security partnership. We are working together to combat common threats such as narcotics trafficking, counterterrorism. We are also looking to move beyond the government-to-government executive branch to also bring a greater awareness of understanding and exchanges between our two parliaments. And as we look at this increasingly integrated and connected Asia, we also seek to connect Uzbek entrepreneurs and businesses with opportunities and partners across the region. So we look forward to an ambitious agenda for U.S.-Uzbekistan relations that we move forward, and many more opportunities to come back to Tashkent.

Assistant Secretary Biswal: One last question.

Sharofiddin Tulaganov: Can your visit be seen as a preparation for a higher level visit of U.S. officials to Uzbekistan? In past years, none of the top U.S. government officials like President or Vice President visited Uzbekistan.

Assistant Secretary Biswal: Well… Last year we had some sixty different delegations of the U.S. government that came here according to the number that the Foreign Minister gave us. Those delegations came here on different issues, on different occasions, including Deputy Secretary Bill Burns, including the commander of our Central Command General Austin, including many other configurations of delegations from our Business and Commerce Department, Trade Agency, the Defense Department, USAID, etc. We look forward to intensifying and elevating that engagement. While I am not aware of any current plans for travel of the highest level of leadership, I know that when I return I will be making the case for higher levels of engagement with Uzbekistan and with the region.

Question: Can you please clarify, you mentioned 60 delegations visited Uzbekistan last year, meaning year 2013?

Assistant Secretary Biswal: This number includes year 2014.

Question: Okay, so it means December 2013 through December 2014.

Assistant Secretary Biswal: Thank you so much. I really appreciate your time for coming out so late in the evening. And I really enjoyed our dialogue and your questions.