Direction During Uncertain Times: A New Assistant Secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs is Sworn In
Author: Daniel Lehmann
Sep 24, 2021
On September 15, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland swore in Ambassador Donald Lu as the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs. Ambassador Lu is a career diplomat with extensive experience in the region and the surrounding areas, previously serving as Ambassador to the Kyrgyz Republic (2018-2021) and Ambassador to Albania (2015-2018). He has also served as the U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) in India (2010-2013) and Azerbaijan (2007-2009), a consular officer in Georgia, and a political officer in Pakistan. As the Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs, Ambassador Lu will have a broad and challenging portfolio that includes managing Afghanistan, reassuring U.S. partners in Central Asia of its commitment to the region, and working with India and Pakistan to promote regional stability.
Ambassador Lu is notably the first Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs to have served as an Ambassador to a Central Asian state, and the first senate-confirmed Assistant Secretary to the region since 2017. His confirmation comes weeks after the chaotic U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s seizure of power that prompted existential questions about the U.S. role in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Two of the six listed policy objectives in the Bureau’s most recent Strategy for Central Asia Report explicitly focus on Afghanistan and a third discusses reducing the terrorist threats in Central Asia by strengthening border security — a clear nod towards the situation in Afghanistan at the time of the strategy’s publication.
From 2001 until 2021 the United States believed it was in its strategic interest to build the capacity of Afghanistan’s northern neighbors to support Washington’s war effort. It is still in the United States’ interest to encourage good governance, economic growth, and strong diplomatic relations with Central Asia. The fact that the Bureau has its first senate-confirmed Assistant Secretary in four years perhaps indicates that the Biden Administration understands this fact.
Ambassador Lu now has the privilege and burden of leading a bureau that, for the past 20 years, has been dominated by the demands of the war in Afghanistan. That war is over. The Bureau must now contend with the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal: a renewed Russian military presence in Central Asia, increasing Chinese involvement, and countries undergoing significant economic change. The United States needs a new strategy to match the new realities of the region, all while climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic loom large. Ambassador Lu’s experience in the Caspian Region and South Asia will serve him well in his new and challenging post.