Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad discuss railway projects in Dushanbe.
This week, Dushanbe hosted the fifth meeting of the Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan, and the U.S., as expected, used the occasion to promote its "New Silk Road" vision of a future in which Afghanistan is a hub of commerce between Central and South Asia. "The region’s wealth of natural resources, nascent trade agreements, and a burgeoning network of transport and energy connections underscore the great economic promise of a more integrated South and Central Asia," said Robert Blake, assistant secretary of State for Central and South Asia, the U.S.'s senior representative at the meeting. "ut achieving greater economic cooperation – the essence of the New Silk Road vision – will not be easy or happen overnight. It will require strong buy-in and coordination by governments in the region, its international partners, and investment from the private sector."
So when participants announced that they would "accelerate" plans for a railway from Kashgar (in far western China) and Herat (in western Afghanistan), you might assume the U.S. would be thrilled. It doesn't get much more Silk Road than Kashgar and Herat, and getting China, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan on the same page for a regional project is no small feat.
The catch is that Iran is a driving force behind the Kashgar-Herat railway project. And the U.S. can't abide any cooperation with Iran, New Silk Road be damned. Blake was asked about this at a press conference after the meeting:
Question [BBC Persia]: Mr. Blake, we know that the United States and European countries likewise, you promote integration projects in the region between Central Asia and South Asia. How is it possible without Iran’s participation?
The guest list for the annual Agile Spirit 2012 exercises had been the task of the Georgian Ministry of Defense, and, granted, Georgians are renowned for their hospitality to foreigners. The country’s open-door policy with Iran is also well documented.
Russia doesn't want the U.S. and NATO to leave Afghanistan by 2014 unless Afghans are ready to secure the country themselves -- but Moscow also doesn't want the Westerners to stay if they're not going to finish the job. That's the message that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave in an interview with Afghanistan's Tolo News. Lavrov suggested that the U.S. is angling for permanent military bases both in Afghanistan and in Central Asia, while leaving Afghanistan unstable and threatening to Russia.
Here he discusses the U.S. withdrawal (from a transcript on the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website):
A Turkish military helicopter crashed in a residential neighborhood in Kabul, killing 12 Turkish soldiers and four Afghan civilians on the ground. Early indications suggest that the helicopter had technical problems and was not shot down. Although Turkish troops have served in significant numbers in Afghanistan since the beginning of the U.S.-led operation (there are about 1,800 there now), before this crash only three Turkish soldiers had died in theater.
Turkey's participation in the Afghanistan war doesn't have significant popular support: According to a 2009 Pew Global Attitudes Survey (the most recent I could find that addressed this question), only 15 percent of Turks supported keeping NATO troops in Afghanistan, with 63 percent opposing. (The survey, unfortunately, didn't ask specifically about Turkish soldiers' participation.)
An analyst interviewed by the Wall Street Journal suggests that the crash may lead to more Turkish public questioning of their presence in Afghanistan:
"Our presence in Afghanistan has always been controversial and this development will add to those question marks," said Atilla Yesilada, a political analyst at Global Source Partners, an Istanbul-based research group...."There are very serious questions being asked about how far our reach should stretch."
Indeed, the leader of the opposition Nationalist Movement Party, Devlet Bahçeli, reacted to the accident by saying that Turkey needed to "reconsider" its role in Afghanistan, reported Today's Zaman:
Russia has confirmed that it is planning to help NATO set up a transportation hub in the Volga city of Ulyanovsk, confirming its willingness to cooperate with U.S. goals in Central Asia and setting off a mild political controversy among Russians uncomfortable about working with NATO.
As first reported a month ago by the newspaper Kommersant, NATO is looking at using the Ulyanovsk facility to fly in equipment that it is moving out of Afghanistan as it withdraws. The equipment will then be sent onward to Europe via train.
The first official confirmation of the plan was made this week by Dmitry Rogozin, formerly Moscow's ambassador to NATO and now deputy prime minister dealing with defense industry. In his inimitable way, he addressed a controversy that had been brewing on Russian online fora, writing on his facebook page (and reported by RIA Novosti):
Reading about a ‘U.S. base near Ulyanovsk’ is annoying. Let me explain: we are talking about a so-called multimodal transit of non-lethal cargos to serve the needs of international security assistance forces in Afghanistan.
In Ulyanovsk, mineral water, napkins, tents and other non-military cargos will be reloaded from trains onto planes and then moved to Afghanistan.
This will be a commercial transit, which means the Russian budget will get money from it. I don’t think that the transit of NATO toilet paper through Russia can be considered the betrayal of the Fatherland.
The next day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov mentioned the NATO-Russia deal, which he said had not yet been formally approved:
"This draft agreement… has not entered force yet, it has not yet been considered by the government,” Lavrov told State Duma members...
The Northern Distribution Network through Central Asia won't be sufficient to get U.S. military supplies out of Afghanistan, senior U.S. military officials have said, saying that they need Pakistan to reopen its territory again to military transit. On Tuesday, the head of U.S. Central Command, General James Mattis, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, and said: “The withdrawal out of Afghanistan, we do need the ground line of communications through Pakistan.” That reinforced comments from last week by his colleague, General William Fraser, commander of U.S. Transportation Command, when he testified in front of the same committee. “With the amount of equipment we need to move ... we need the Pakistan [ground lines of communication] open,” Fraser said. “Because of the large numbers that we are talking about that we need to bring out in a timely manner.”
While the U.S. recently concluded agreements with all the Central Asian states for "reverse transit" -- bringing equipment out of Afghanistan when the U.S. and NATO start withdrawing in 2014 -- the generals' testimony emphasizes that won't be enough. General Mattis is going to Pakistan next week to try to negotiate a reopening of those routes, which have been closed since December, when a U.S. attack killed more than two dozen Pakistani soldiers.
U.S. military cooperation with Tajikistan provides a necessary counterbalance to Russian influence, but also is helping authoritarian President Emomali Rahmon to cement his grip on power. That's the analysis of country's leading opposition politician, Muhiddin Kabiri, chairman of the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan, who sat down for an interview last week with The Bug Pit on the topic of the increasing U.S. military cooperation with Tajikistan.
Kabiri is a unique figure: although his party promotes "Islamic Revival," he is also, in the words of local analyst Alexander Sodiqov, "a moderate and pragmatic politician with explicitly pro-Western views." And he is widely regarded as a singularly credible and authoritative voice in Tajikistan.
U.S. military cooperation with Tajikistan has been increasing over the last few years, as the U.S. has sought to build relationships with the countries involved in the Northern Distribution Network, and to help local security services protect the countries of Central Asia from threats out of Afghanistan. The cooperation has focused on border security, as well as training and equipping the myriad of special forces in Tajikistan's military, National Guard, border security and police. Kabiri said the government has a variety of interests in this cooperation:
First of all, we need this training. After these events in the east of Tajikistan, this showed us that we are not so ready for terrorist attacks, so Tajikistan needs these units to be stronger.
Russia has reportedly convinced its allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization not to participate in a new U.S. counterdrug program in Central Asia, apparently concerned that it would give the U.S. too much leverage over the regional governments. The program, called the Central Asia Counternarcotics Initiative, would promote regional cooperation in countering drug trafficking by setting up task forces in all five Central Asian countries and hooking them up with similar task forces in Afghanistan and Russia.
But Russia has apparently taken a dim view of the proposal, reports the Russian newspaper Kommersant:
Moscow is convinced that the main objective of this initiative is strengthening the military and political presence in a region that Moscow regards as its area of special interests. As a result, Russia has managed to persuade the CSTO members to not participate in it.
The key problem, according to Kommersant's sources:
As planned by the United States, the task forces must have very wide powers, and most importantly, full access to secret operational information supplied to law enforcement agencies and intelligence services of the Central Asian countries. Moscow feared that this would give the U.S. an opportunity to gather sensitive information and then use these data to blackmail the governments in the region.
RFE/RL spoke with American diplomats involved in the effort, who confirmed that it was blocked:
A U.S. official familiar with the matter confirmed that Washington's delegation was unable to reach a final agreement at the meeting but said the plan has not been rejected.
Still, the official described the outcome as "a big surprise."
What is a military helicopter from Tajikistan doing in southern Afghanistan?
That question has been prompted by conflicting reports about a February 11 crash that killed four Tajik air force officers, including the son of the deputy defense minister, in Zabul Province.
Tajik state media report the Soviet-era MI-8 helicopter, which belongs to the country’s Defense Ministry, had been ferrying about supplies since May 2011 on behalf of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Khovar, the state news agency, said on February 13 that the reasons for the crash are unknown, but that bad weather was likely to blame. A source in Tajikistan’s Defense Ministry told the Asia-Plus news agency that the helicopter crew was delivering “humanitarian cargo to remote mountain villages in Afghanistan.”
But the Associated Press reports that the helicopter was delivering food to US troops on behalf of Supreme Group, a private contractor. Supreme, which supplies military bases around Afghanistan and operates a duty-free food and liquor store for expatriates in Kabul, told the AP that the helicopter was operated by a company called Central Asian Aviation Services. That company’s website is under construction, but lists a phone number in the UAE.
NATO and Russia are working on an agreement to set up a multi-modal transport hub in Ulyanovsk, in Russia's Volga region, to assist the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan, reports the Russian newspaper Kommersant, citing Russian diplomats. Via Johnson's Russia List:
Talks on establishing a NATO logistics base in central Russia started one-and-a-half years ago. A source from the Russian Foreign Ministry said that the United States proposed a Russian city where "cargo from Afghanistan could be airlifted and then forwarded by rail to Latvia or Estonia." After discussing several locations, both parties agreed to set up the hub in Ulyanovsk because its airport is best suited to the task in that region due to the proximity of railway lines.
Russian Railways and Volga-Dnieper Airlines, which are already involved in delivering NATO cargo from Afghanistan to Europe, are expected to benefit, as the project will increase cargo traffic considerably.
The report adds that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will soon sign an agreement on the proposal.
Intriguingly, one of the reasons that the facility at Ulyanovsk will be needed is because Uzbekistan is wary of the reverse transit, specifically about the possibility of drugs or arms being smuggled in along with it:
[The Ulyanovsk hub] is also important because of Uzbekistan, whose territory is currently used for the supply of goods to Afghanistan, does not want to allow them in the opposite direction.
"The Uzbeks are afraid of the importation of drugs and weapons. It's not so easy to check whole trainloads of military equipment," says the diplomat.