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Central Asia Warms To Clinton As Drawdown Looms


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton winds up a week long overseas tour today, one that's focused on the war in Afghanistan and tensions with Pakistan. Her last couple of stops were in Central Asia, which is playing an increasingly important role as the U.S. begins its drawdown in Afghanistan. NPR's Jackie Northam has been traveling with the secretary. She has this report from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, the last stop on Clinton's tour.



JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: It seems just about everywhere Secretary Clinton showed up during her visit to Tajikistan, she received rock star treatment.

CLINTON: Thank you. Please...

NORTHAM: This event was held at the Ismaeli Center in the heart of the capital, Dushanbe. For close to an hour, Clinton took questions from women, students and others. It was a feel-good moment for U.S.-Tajik relations. And that's what Clinton was looking for during her brief one-day visit. As the U.S. begins its drawdown in nearby Afghanistan, Central Asian nations such as Tajikistan have taken on increasing importance. There are concerns once the U.S. pulls out, Afghanistan will be vulnerable to regional power plays. The U.S. is trying to get commitments from all of Afghanistan's neighbors in advance to respect its sovereignty. Clinton told a press conference that Washington has launched an initiative that will bring Afghanistan and its neighbors closer together.

CLINTON: We call this initiative the new Silk Road. And we hope that it will give rise to a network of thriving economic relationships throughout the region.

NORTHAM: This is the second time in less than a year that Clinton has swung through Central Asia. The two stops of this trip, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, are part of what's known as the Northern Distribution Network, or NDN, a critical network of road, rail and air lines through many parts of Central Asia, as well as Russia that shuttle supplies into Afghanistan. Less than a year ago, more than three-quarters of the supplies were moved through Pakistan, but relations with the U.S. have increasingly deteriorated. The NDN now carries about 50 percent of non-lethal supplies into Afghanistan, such as water, food and fuel. In an interview with NPR, Clinton says the U.S. is looking to expand the NDN for supplies going in and troops coming out of Afghanistan if needed.

CLINTON: The Northern Distribution Network, which we have accelerated in developing because we did not want to be totally dependent on a supply route through Pakistan into Afghanistan, is critical to our getting our troops withdrawing from Afghanistan on the timetable that the president has set forth.

NORTHAM: Uzbekistan, which was Secretary Clinton's last stop, has the only rail line going to Afghanistan. Most of the supplies shipped through the Northern Distribution Network run through Uzbekistan. But this has presented a challenge for the U.S. Uzbekistan has a worryingly checkered record of human rights abuse. Secretary Clinton again.

CLINTON: There's no doubt that our disagreements with the human rights record in Uzbekistan is profound. And we have personally, continually, including my visit last year, delivered that message.

NORTHAM: In 2004, the U.S. restricted military aid to Uzbekistan because of its abuses. But in September, Congress adopted a decision to abolish those sanctions at the urging of the Obama administration. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.