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Veteran U.S. Diplomat Tackles Vast South and Central Asian Docket
The Washington Diplomat / December 2009

By Larry Luxner

Eleven countries. More than 1.44 billion people. Nearly 2.97 million square miles of territory. Unrelenting poverty, but the hope of prosperity. Ethnic conflict, yet the prospect of peace.

Such are the realities confronting veteran diplomat Robert O. Blake on a daily basis. As U.S. assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, Blake oversees Washington’s relations with two distinct, non-contiguous sub-regions: India and its largely Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist neighbors, and the five former Soviet republics of Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan

The nations in Blake’s vast portfolio range in size from India, the world’s largest democracy, to the tiny Republic of Maldives, with only 300,000 people. And although Afghanistan and Pakistan technically fall under the umbrella of Blake’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, the entire Af-Pak docket goes to Richard Holbrooke, special U.S. representative for those two nations.

“We have several priorities: The top one right now is to advance our strategic partnership with India, which we see as one of our most important friends in the 21st century,” Blake said during a 45-minute interview last month at the State Department.

“We’ve always had a very strong bilateral relationship with India, and increasingly we’re focusing on multilateral cooperation to address such challenges as nuclear nonproliferation, climate change and global trade. We are encouraged that India wants to be part of the solution to these challenges, working constructively with us,” Blake told The Washington Diplomat.

“Our second priority is to support ongoing efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” he continued. “Many of the countries in the South and Central Asian region have an important role to play in these stabilization efforts. And third, we want to expand our relations with the states of Central Asia. We plan a series of annual bilateral consultations with each of those countries to address all the issues on our agendas, and to advance those through expanded engagement with them.”

The last time The Diplomat interviewed Blake, he was U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka — a country embroiled in Asia’s longest-running civil war (also see “U.S. Envoy: Military Might Alone Won’t End Conflict” in the March 2009 issue of The Washington Diplomat). Nearly a year has passed since that interview, during which time Sri Lanka’s military managed to crush the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an outlawed group that had been fighting for a separate Tamil homeland in northern Sri Lanka.

The United Nations estimates that 80,000 to 100,000 people died in the conflict, which lasted 26 years. Concerns are mounting that Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance — which remains widely popular — is still reluctant to cede real political power to the Hindu Tamils, a disadvantaged minority in a country long dominated by Sinhalese-speaking Buddhists. Meanwhile, an estimated 250,000 Tamil refugees remain holed up in internment camps that have come to resemble cramped, makeshift cities in the jungle.

“We welcome the end of the fighting, but we now feel it’s incumbent on the government to win the peace,” explained Blake, who as ambassador was once lightly injured by an LTTE mortar blast while stepping out of a Sri Lankan Army helicopter. “We have focused our diplomacy on three aspects: first, to encourage the government to resettle all 250,000 internally displaced people as quickly as possible, and also to allow them freedom of movement while they remain in the IDP camps.

“Secondly, to pursue political reconciliation with the Tamils and Muslims, so that they will be able to lead a life of respect and dignity in a unified Sri Lanka. And third, that the government make a concerted effort to reduce human rights abuses and improve accountability, since we believe those would be key parts of the reconciliation process.”

Blake noted that the Untied States has provided more than $56 million in humanitarian assistance to Sri Lanka this year, including $6.6 million to help deactivate the thousands of land mines throughout the countryside. Yet he added that restrictions remain on U.S. military assistance to Sri Lanka “because of human rights problems and the recruitment of child soldiers that operate in the east.”

He added U.S. sanctions against the LTTE remain in effect as well. “The Tigers were long ago declared a foreign terrorist organization by the United States. Even though many of its leaders were killed or captured, we have no indication the LTTE has stopped its activities,” he said. “We’re in a transition right now, so the Sri Lankan government has a unique opportunity to end terrorism by taking the steps I have outlined.”

Blake, 52, entered the Foreign Service in 1985 after having earned a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College and a master’s in international relations from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He has served at U.S. embassies in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Nigeria, as well as deputy chief of mission in India and ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

Blake hasn’t been back to Sri Lanka since being promoted to his new job this past May. But he has spent much of his time — one or two weeks per month, by his own estimate — traveling to every other country under his jurisdiction.

And no place has received more of Blake’s attention than India, where the diplomat served three years (2003-06) as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi.

“I have some experience in the region,” Blake said, quite modestly, since he clearly prefers not to talk much about himself. “I make it a point to meet not only with government leaders, but also with civil society leaders and to get out and travel, and visit our various assistance projects. Also, I always try to meet with the press.”

While serving as DCM in India, Blake made it a point to visit madrassas — Islamic religious schools — “precisely because they were known to be centers of anti-American thinking. I wanted to talk to them and find out why.”

As such, he once spent five hours talking to students at a madrassa in Deoband, a predominantly Muslim city in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state.

“A lot of their dislike of the United States was based on misconceptions and bad information — and the fact that a senior American diplomat was willing to go out and listen to them and respond impressed them,” Blake recalled. “I can’t say that I changed their attitudes overnight, but we began a conversation that we intend to continue. That’s an important thing for all American diplomats to do: treat people who sometimes think poorly of us with respect, and try to answer their concerns as directly as we can.”

Blake spoke to The Diplomat on Oct. 9, the day after suspected Taliban suicide bombers detonated a car packed with explosives at the gates of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, killing 17 people and injuring another 75.

It was the second time in a little more than a year that the Indian Embassy in Afghanistan came under attack, with a suicide bomber killed 58 people in July 2008 — a reflection of the hostility that Islamists in both Afghanistan and Pakistan feel toward India gaining influence in Afghanistan and subsequently encircling Pakistan.

Despite the obvious risks, Blake said, “India has invested $1.2 billion in helping to provide reconstruction in Afghanistan. We welcome the assistance they’ve provided. India also has an important role to play in trying to forge peace with Pakistan. That would enable India to focus its efforts on the real threat in Pakistan, which is that posed by the militants in the Northwestern Frontier [tribal] area.”

Blake added: “Pakistan must also play an important role in bringing to trial the Mumbai bombing suspects. They must also stop cross-border infiltration. Those could then provide the basis for renewed bilateral talks on a wider range of issues,” such as the disputed territory of Kashmir, claimed by both nations.

Despite the long history of bitterness between the two nuclear-armed neighbors, Blake said there’s reason for some optimism lately.

“For the first time in a long time, we and India and Pakistan have very similar interests in this region,” he told The Diplomat. “Pakistan itself has said it doesn’t want to have its territory used as a platform for terrorism. We think it’s important that the Pakistani people have expressed support for the steps their government has taken in the Swat Valley, and have made clear their revulsion for the tactics and the policies of the Taliban.”

Blake said he’s also seen improvement on an individual, very personal level. “While I was in India, I was really struck by the warmth between Pakistanis and Indians. Remember, they were all one country not so long ago,” he said. “Between 2004 and 2006, a lot of people-to-people initiatives were undertaken. When the Indian cricket team went to Pakistan, they were received with great enthusiasm by the Pakistani people. Many Indian fans went with the team, and they all came back recounting how Pakistanis whom they’d never met before had invited them into their homes.”

By now, most Americans are familiar with India, Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the five “stans” that once formed part of the Soviet Union still rank among the least-known countries on Earth. Blake, who’s been to all of them, says the U.S. government “has always supported the sovereignty and independence” of these fledgling Central Asian states, some of which have potentially huge oil and gas reserves, though their reserves on the democracy front seem to be in short supply.

“American companies see very important opportunities, particularly in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan,” he said. “And all the Central Asian countries are playing helpful roles in stabilizing Afghanistan through efforts on counterterrorism, counter-narcotics, and helping deliver non-lethal supplies into Afghanistan through the northern distribution network.

“All of them have welcomed the new administration,” Blake added. “I think there’s still very strong support for the people of the United States in all these countries, although sometimes there’s a misunderstanding about the policies we’re pursuing.”

Blake said one of his most interesting experiences to date was his recent trip to the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan. There, he toured a water project bankrolled by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“Up to a million men are now working overseas in Russia, sending money home. So women have a very important role to play, and these water-user associations greatly benefit from women’s leadership skills by offering a way forward. They’ve proven themselves to be adroit leaders and managers, and I was very pleased to see that,” he said.

Another fascinating recent trip Blake described taking was to Bangladesh, whose 153 million inhabitants make it the seventh-most populated nation on the planet.

“In many Muslim countries, we found that the madrassas welcome our involvement. So we’ve become active in providing English-language training programs that not only help students enhance their education and future employment opportunities, but also open up a whole new world of knowledge outside the sometimes narrow curricula.”

Blake explained that “we do this by making the curricula more relevant to students’ needs so that when they graduate, they’ll be able to compete in Bangladesh’s increasingly globalized economy.”

As if 11 countries are not enough to deal with, the seasoned diplomat is about to add two more world capitals to his upcoming travel plans: Moscow and Beijing.

“China is an increasingly important player in South and Central Asia. We want to work closely with them, just as we want to work closely with Russia,” said Blake. “One of my priorities will be to visit both Russia and China and maintain active consultations with their embassies here. In many cases, we have similar interests, and it’s important that we combine our efforts as much as possible.”

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