(Updates with visit to GM plant from 21st paragraph.)
Oct. 23 (Bloomberg) -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressed Afghanistan’s neighbors to halt the flow of militants and drugs across their borders and to support regional trade and a peace process to end a conflict tying up 100,000 U.S. forces.
“Instead of Afghanistan being the crossroads for terrorism and insurgency,” Clinton said yesterday in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe, “we want Afghanistan to be at the crossroads of economic opportunities going north and south and east and west, which is why it’s so critical to more fully integrate the economies of the countries in this region in South and Central Asia.”
Clinton urged Tajik President Emomali Rahmon and Uzbek President Islam Karimov yesterday to ensure that insurgents from Afghanistan and Pakistan don’t establish sanctuaries in their countries, according to a State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity since the talks were private.
Clinton’s visit to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan this weekend also is a chance to bolster relations with two nations along a northern supply route used for about half of all non-lethal provisions for American troops in Afghanistan.
While the overland supply route from Pakistan to Afghanistan is cheaper, the Pentagon is boosting traffic through the rail, air and truck routes of what is referred to as the Northern Distribution Network as an alternative at a time of strained relations between the Obama administration and the government in Islamabad.
On an earlier stop in Islamabad on Oct. 20 and 21, Clinton, along with Central Intelligence Agency Director David Petraeus and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, urged Pakistan to move against extremists who are attacking U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
In Kabul on Oct. 20, Clinton stood alongside President Hamid Karzai and warned that Pakistan will pay “a very big price” if it fails to crack down on militants staging cross- border attacks against U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
The U.S. has sought closer ties with Uzbekistan over the past decade to win support for the war in Afghanistan and to press for a crackdown on Uzbek militants linked to al-Qaeda. Uzbekistan hosted a U.S. airbase that was a supply route to Afghanistan when the war began, then shut down the base in 2005 after the Bush administration condemned Karimov’s attacks on protesters that year that rights groups said claimed hundreds of lives.
Clinton met with Karimov yesterday and expressed appreciation for Uzbekistan’s support for the supply route for U.S. troops and for building a rail line to connect northern Afghanistan to its Central Asian neighbors.
Last month, President Barack Obama spoke with Karimov about possibly expanding the northern supply route for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Congress is reviewing a law that restricts military aid to Uzbekistan because of its poor human rights record.
Tajikistan allows overflights for U.S. aircraft supplying the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan. The Tajik government has also granted permission for ground transit routes.
Clinton said she was visiting Uzbek leader Karimov, who has wielded autocratic power for 22 years, because “if you have no contact, you will have no influence, and other countries will fill that vacuum who do not care about human rights.”
Clinton called it “a balancing act” to engage with authoritarian governments while pressing them to respect human rights.
In Clinton’s talks with Karimov, she urged him to respect political and religious freedom and end forced labor in the cotton industry. He assured her he wanted to make progress on liberalization and democracy to leave a legacy for his children and grandchildren, a State Department official who participated in the meeting told reporters traveling with Clinton.
Clinton also raised U.S. concerns about religious and media freedom in Tajikistan.
“We encouraged the Tajik government to take concrete steps” toward greater civil and religious freedom, she said at a press conference after meeting with Rahmon and Foreign Minister Hamrokhon Zarifi.
Restrictions on religious expression, such as Tajik rules against Muslims wearing veils or beards, “could build up discontent,” she said.
“We don’t want to do anything to breed extremism,” she said, adding that she urged the Tajik leaders to rethink “any restrictions going forward, because we think they could increase sympathy for extremist views.”
Speaking at a gathering of Tajik civic leaders, women and youth, Clinton said Afghanistan’s neighbors have suffered economically from regional instability caused by the war. She promoted the concept of a “New Silk Road” linking Central Asian nations as a way to boost economies and living standards throughout the region.
Clinton urged both the Tajik and Uzbek leaders to support transit connections to promote regional trade in raw materials, energy and agricultural products as part of the vision for economic integration of South and Central Asia. The Tajik and Uzbek leaders have poor relations and few links between their countries.
Today in Tashkent, Clinton visited a new General Motors Co. plant that next month will begin commercial production of more than 200,000 engines annually, officials said. GM has a 97 percent market share of cars sold in Uzbekistan, the highest of any GM market, the company said.
Clinton highlighted the joint venture with state-owned UzAvtosanoat as the kind of collaboration that creates jobs in both countries. GM Uzbekistan employs 6,600 people and imported $34 million of American parts and supplies in the past two years, officials said.
“GM’s presence in Uzbekistan also adds to our efforts to build closer economic connections between the countries of South and Central Asia,” Clinton told workers at the plant. “We are seeking to build a New Silk Road that integrates markets from Mumbai to Karachi to Kabul, and on to Tashkent and Astana and beyond.”
The original Silk Road was more than 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers) of trade routes crossing Asia and into southern Europe and northern Africa. Based on China’s silk industry, the commerce it enabled also helped the growth of civilizations from Egypt to Rome.
--With assistance from and Andrew MacAskill in New Delhi and Viola Gienger in Washington. Editors: Ann Hughey, Christian Thompson.
To contact the reporter on this story: Indira Lakshmanan in Tashkent, Uzbekistan at email@example.com
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