Located within the Department of State, the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs handles US foreign policy with the countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Two of the most critical policy areas that the bureau oversees are Afghanistan, which is still trying to recover from the rule of the Taliban in the 1990s and the US-led coalition that invaded the country in 2001, and Indian-Pakistan relations—a longstanding source of tension and conflict between two nuclear powers. The leadership of the bureau has come under criticism during the George W. Bush administration for its lack of knowledge about Pakistani politics and its deference to the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, who reportedly calls the shots on US foreign policy towards Pakistan.
During the 1990s, one branch of the Mujahideen, the Taliban, seized control of Afghanistan and imposed a strict rule of law based on their extreme interpretation of the Quran. The Taliban allied itself with al Qaeda, a terrorist organization with roots that also stemmed from the Mujahideen. The Taliban allowed al Qaeda to use Afghanistan as a training and staging area for its attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. The fierce reaction to the attacks resulted in the United States invading Afghanistan in October 2001. The Taliban and al Qaeda fled in the wake of the invasion, taking to the mountains that line the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Elements of the Taliban continue to battle the military forces of the United States and its allies.
- This former Soviet republic played a key role in the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 by allowing American military forces to stage operations on the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan border. Relations between Uzbekistan and the US have not been good since, as the government of Uzbekistan sought to limit the influence of US and other foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working on civil society, political reform, and human rights inside the country. Relations deteriorated rapidly following US and European demands for an independent, international investigation into the May 2005 Andijan massacre. Uzbekistan’s dictator, Islam Karimov, became so infuriated by U.S. criticism that he ordered American troops to evacuate the Karshi-Khanabad air base they had been using since the 9/11 attacks. Nonetheless, Uzbekistan has Central Asia’s largest population and the State Department consideres it “vital” to US efforts to promote stability and security in the region.
For FY 2009, the State Department has requested a total of $2.21 billion in appropriations to support a wide range of economic, health and security-related programs for countries in South and Central Asia. This includes more than $324 million for counter-narcotics efforts, $296 million for health initiatives, $226 million for education and $1.17 billion for economic support.
To handle U.S. interests in one of the most volatile and important regions of the world, President Barack Obama has turned to veteran diplomat Robert O. Blake, Jr., who has experience in the region and whose father was a prominent diplomat as well, serving as Ambassador to Mali from 1971 to 1973. Blake was sworn in as assistant secretary for South and Central Asian Affiars on May 26, 2009. South and Central Asia includes, among other countries, current hotspots Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and India. As Blake himself recently stated, “In no region of the world are the stakes higher for US national security than in South and Central Asia.”