Special Briefing via Telephone

For Immediate Release
May 20, 2020

Special Briefing via Telephone

Ambassador Alice G. Wells
Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs

Moderator:  Hello, I would like to welcome journalists to today’s virtual press briefing with Ambassador Alice Wells, Acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs.  Ambassador Wells, thank you so much for joining us today, and I’ll turn it over to you for opening remarks.

Ambassador Wells:  No, and thank you and thank everyone for joining the call.  And before I take questions, I want to start with about 10 minutes’ review of some of the major accomplishments during the last three years when I’ve headed the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, and I’m going to start with Afghanistan. 

As President Trump made clear when he took office, we needed to take a serious look at the costs of the U.S. presence there, both in terms of taxpayer dollars but also in terms of the risks to our service members.  And one of his first acts as Commander-in-Chief was to order a policy review, which produced the South Asia Strategy that he announced in summer 2017.  And nearly three years later, the core principles of that strategy – that the war will end via a political settlement and not on the battlefield, that our policy will be guided by conditions on the ground, that Pakistan must take decisive action against militant groups, and that India is an important partner in Afghanistan’s development – continue to guide us. 

And after over a year of direct talks led by Ambassador Khalilzad with the Taliban, we signed a U.S.-Taliban agreement in February in which the Taliban committed that Afghanistan will never again be a base for international terrorism.  Now, the United States is upholding its end of this commitment by bringing troops home while continuing to closely watch the Taliban’s actions and respond when necessary to defend Afghan Security Forces. 

Progress to the next phase of the political negotiations has been difficult.  You’ve heard Ambassador Khalilzad address that directly.  The level of violence is unacceptable, and it’s the responsibility of the Taliban to significantly reduce that violence.  While we welcome the formation of an inclusive government by President Ghani and Dr. Abdullah, we’re looking for rapid implementation of their agreement and immediate steps to reach an intra-Afghan negotiation.  The Afghan Government and the Taliban should combine forces both against COVID-19 and the other terrorist groups like ISIS-Khorasan, whose ruthless and evil attacks we tragically saw last week.

The South Asia Strategy also marked a fundamental change in the U.S. approach to Pakistan, seeking to hold Pakistan accountable for the presence of terrorist and militant groups on its soil.  The strategy made clear that Pakistan needed to take decisive action against these groups, particularly those that support the conflict in Afghanistan and threaten regional stability.  President Trump’s suspension of security assistance in January 2018 demonstrated our resolve.  And since then, we’ve seen constructive steps by Pakistan to encourage the Taliban to advance the Afghan peace process.  Pakistan has also taken initial steps toward curtailing other terrorist groups that threaten the region, such as arresting and prosecuting Lashkar-e Tayyiba leader Hafiz Saeed and beginning to dismantle terrorist financing structures.  And as Pakistan’s commitment to peace in the region has grown, we are seeing initial growth in our U.S.-Pakistan relationship as well, particularly in trade.

I’d like to pivot to India.  It’s a critical actor not just for our South Asia Strategy but also for the vision of the Indo-Pacific region that President Trump put forward in November of 2017.  Now, we have welcomed India’s emergence as a leading global power and as a net security provider in the region, and we have committed the United States to deepening the U.S.-India Strategic Partnership.  We are working more closely together than ever before to advance shared ambitions.  And you see this in the 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue, the reinvigoration of the Quad mechanism, the enhancement of military cooperation through joint exercises, increasing defense trade, increasing regional security support through our Counterterrorism Joint Working Group and Homeland Security Dialogue, and expanding cooperation in space.  And the visit of Prime Minister Modi to the U.S. in 2017 and last year and President Trump’s visit to India this February really showcased the closeness between our leaders and our nations.

The last three years has also seen significant growth in the U.S.-Bangladesh relationship.  Bangladesh has rightly been commended for the generous response of its government and people to the Rohingya refugee crisis and their cooperation with international humanitarian partners.  The United States is the single largest contributor of assistance to the Rohingya crisis, but Bangladesh is much more than just a host nation for refugees; it is a country that has achieved impressive economic growth over the last decade, accompanied by strides in human development.  It plays an important role in the Indian Ocean region, and our security cooperation has grown closer.  And we encourage Bangladesh to renew its commitments to democratic institutions and governing structures, which we think will further growth in our bilateral relationship that’s based on shared values.

Sri Lanka continues to be a valued partner in the Indo-Pacific as well.  The strength of this partnership was on display following the horrific terrorist attacks on Easter Sunday 2019, when the United States offered full support to the immediate manhunt, the longer-term rebuilding, and sustained counterterrorism effort.  The Sri Lankan Government advancing justice, accountability, reconciliation, and human rights we believe will foster its long-term stability and prosperity.

Moving a little bit further southwest, I would just like to remind everyone of the remarkable 2018 elections in the Maldives, when 90 percent of the eligible population turned out to vote.  Since that election of the reform-minded President Solih, we have dramatically scaled up our cooperation and assistance as the Maldives has rebalanced its foreign policy, reinvigorated its democratic institutions, and redoubled its efforts against terrorists.

And we have also strengthened our ties with the Himalayan partners.  We continue to make strides in supporting Nepal’s transition into a full-fledged constitutional federal republic.  And in summer 2019, former Deputy Secretary Sullivan made a historic visit to the Kingdom of Bhutan, the highest-level U.S. Executive Branch official to visit in over two decades.

The third guiding strategy that I have helped to develop and implement has been the administration’s new Strategy for Central Asia.  The Central Asia Strategy affirms the rock-solid U.S. commitment to the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence of the Central Asian states.  The strategy encourages greater connectivity and cooperation within Central Asia and the restoration of the region’s historical ties with Afghanistan.  We are working with the Central Asian states bilaterally but also in the C5+1 construct.  The Secretary’s February trip to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and the participation in two of the C5+1 ministerials, as well as an upcoming trilateral meeting that will be hosted by Under Secretary Hale with his counterparts from Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, demonstrate our enduring commitment to partnership, peace, and shared prosperity.

And before I take your questions, I’d just like to reinforce that the United States will be a reliable partner in helping countries of the region on the path to economy recovery as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.  We have provided over $96 million in COVID-related assistance to the region, but this is really on top of what has been $6 billion in public health investments over the last two decades.  We are joining other voices in the region and globally calling on China to offer transparent relief from the Belt and Road predatory loans that the countries are now suffering from.  Our private sector, our partnership with international financial institutions like the World Bank, IMF, and Asian Development Bank, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, will use these partnerships to help ensure that countries reemerge from this crisis on stable footing, and we urge others to join us in this global effort.

I look forward to your questions.  And again, thank you very much for attending today’s event.

Moderator:  Thank you for that answer.  Our next question, let’s turn to Central Asia.  We have a question from Ikhtiyor Rakhman with Korrespondent in Uzbekistan.  He asks about the fact that you’ve been working in Central Asia for a while now, and he wants – his question relates to your views on the success and weaknesses of reforms in Uzbekistan.  How do you assess the reform process in Uzbekistan during the past three years since you’ve held this position?

Ambassador Wells:  Right.  Well, if I could sort of pull back a little bit, I opened the first U.S. embassy in Tajikistan, and I have spent my entire career watching the countries of Central Asia develop, and I think it’s been a tremendous accomplishment to see all five countries determine to uphold their sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence.  And it is not an inconsiderable achievement given where the countries started from 27, 28 years ago.

And so it’s been a real privilege to be able to work on U.S. programs that have helped to support independence, and whether it’s through economic development programs, assisting countries as they navigate their entrance into the World Trade Organization, providing technical assistance, whether it’s to the government, to nongovernmental organizations, media, to the judiciary, to institutions that are vital to the democratic development of any country. 

But I think clearly in the last three years the transformative change in the region has been the political transition to President Mirziyoyev in Uzbekistan, and the reform program that President Mirziyoyev has laid out is breathtaking and it’s opened up new avenues for cooperation, new avenues for growth.  It opens up the region to greater connectivity, connectivity with Afghanistan, Pakistan, hopefully to India.  It opens up opportunities, I think, to unleash the potential of this 30-plus-million-person country that traditionally has been the engine of Central Asia.

So we’re very excited by the promise of the reforms.  As I’ve said before, reform is difficult.  There are always going to be resistants.  There will always be two steps forward and one step back.  And I think the message is that the United States is determined and committed to supporting this long-term, methodical progress toward a more democratic and open society in Uzbekistan.

Moderator:  Thanks for that answer.  We have a few questions on U.S. assistance around the coronavirus.  I’m just going to ask a couple of them in one question, and maybe you could speak to U.S. assistance for the region writ large.  But a question from Abduvali Saybnazarov with 24 Radio Channel in Uzbekistan asks how much the U.S. Government is supporting the Uzbek media after the pandemic.  And then we also have a question from Tanzim Anwar in Bangladesh with Sangbad Sangstha asking about the economic impact of the coronavirus on Bangladesh and how the U.S. Government will continue to assist Bangladesh to keep its export supply chain to the United States in place and prospering.

Ambassador Wells:  So let me start just more broadly with COVID assistance because I think it really is a testament to the generosity of the American people as well as the commitment of the American Government to international public health.  America – all of America, the government and the people together have provided more than $6.5 billion in assistance and donations, and that’s about 60 percent of the global effort.  And it reflects, again, a historic commitment of America to the region.  The – as I mentioned, the 6.5 billion that’s been invested in – or excuse me, the over $140 billion in global health assistance that America has provided over the last two decades.

And so what you’ve seen since COVID has broken out in the South and Central Asia region is about $98 million in COVID-specific, whether it’s technical assistance or PPE or other kinds of material support for governments as they seek to address the crisis.  And as America also comes out of the pandemic, we’re going to be even better prepared to provide more assistance to our partners. 

But I think we’re very proud of the fact that it’s not just the American Government, but it’s also American people, it’s faith-based organizations, it’s private sector corporations – Boeing, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, a good corporate social responsibility that’s taking place.  And I want to underscore that America will stand with the world in responding to all of the effects of this crisis, both health and economic, working bilaterally, through the G20 and G7, through the OECD, through the multilateral lending institutions.

What we’ve seen in a country like Bangladesh – again, a dynamic entrepreneurial society whose social indicators have been a real success story, and the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and lifting women up in particular has been so noteworthy – we see the devastating impact of the disease with the cutting off of supply lines, the unfortunate, if only temporary, loss of markets as a result of disruptions in the ready-made garments sector. 

Now, already we’re seeking to address that.  We’re trying to match-make between Bangladeshi manufacturers and consumers in America for critical medical supplies, as the Bangladeshi factories are retooling and seeking new markets.  And we will continue to look for all opportunities to be able to increase the trade and investment relationship between our two countries.

America remains or has been the largest export market for Bangladesh.  We’re very important to Bangladesh’s economic health.  And again, I think at a time of some de-risking from China, from diverse – at a time of diversification of global supply chains, this very, very painful time can also be a moment of opportunity for Bangladesh.