Putin and Karimov on April 15. (Photo: Kremlin.ru)
Amid ongoing rumors about his frail health, Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov popped up in Moscow today, where he publicly glossed over strained ties with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. The fight against terrorism and the pullout of NATO troops from Afghanistan topped the two leaders’ agenda, according to the Kremlin's press service.
Tashkent withdrew from the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization last summer for the second time. Since then, Moscow's promises of military aid to Uzbekistan’s regional rivals – Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – and its pledges of support and investment for grand hydropower projects in those upstream countries have vexed Tashkent. Meanwhile, Washington's promises to gift Tashkent some Afghanistan leftovers in return for facilitating the pullout have alarmed Moscow.
Yet whatever was said about these delicate topics behind the Kremlin’s closed doors, it was all smiles following the April 15 talks. Praising economic and humanitarian collaboration, Putin told journalists that security cooperation in light of the NATO pullout from Afghanistan was paramount to bilateral relations.
We have, of course, discussed the situation in Central Asia in detail and talked about problems associated with the pullout of international coalition forces from Afghanistan in 2014. We have agreed to continue to follow this topic attentively and to coordinate possible joint steps. By this we mean providing necessary assistance to the Afghan leadership regarding the stabilization of the military and political situation and the fight against drug trafficking, terrorism and extremism. […] I stress: Close interaction with Tashkent on a wide range of aspects will be continued.
Russia's announcement that it might be setting up repair facilities in Afghanistan for the maintenance of the Afghanistan military's equipment may seem like a pretty mundane bit of news, except for the irresistible symbolism. "Russia considers returning to Afghanistan," writes Foreign Policy. "Russia going back to Afghanistan? Kremlin confirms it could happen," writes the Christian Science Monitor.
“We will look into various options of creating repair bases on Afghan territory,” the head of the Defense Ministry’s department of international cooperation, Sergey Koshelev, told the press. He added that the maintenance of weapons and military hardware in Afghanistan remains a top priority, as any instability in the country would affect Russia’s own security, as well as the security of other European nations.
And Moscow is also not ruling out more substantive cooperation with NATO in Afghanistan. RT again:
Russian NATO envoy Aleksandr Grushko also said that Moscow was not excluding the possibility of broader cooperation with the military bloc. In particular, Russia could offer to enlarge the transport corridor to Afghanistan, so that the country’s own forces could continue to receive supplies from Western allies after coalition troops leave Afghanistan in 2014.
The logistics center that Russia set up in Ulyanovsk for NATO to use for transporting military equipment out of Afghanistan is not being used because it's too expensive, a senior NATO official has said. Alexander Vershbow, the alliance's deputy secretary general, gave a long interview to Russian newspaper Kommersant and discussed a variety of issues involving Russia-NATO relations. Unsurprisingly, the bulk of the conversation was about missile defense, but there was also some interesting discussion on Ulyanovsk:
Kommersant: What is happening with the transit center at Ulyanovsk? As far as I know, there has been only one test flight with NATO cargo from Afghanistan. When will the transit center start working in full?
Vershbow: Everything is agreed on there and ready for use not just by NATO countries but by all other partners in ISAF who want to transport cargo to or from Afghanistan. The issue is the commercial aspect. NATO countries are studying the most advantageous transportation networks from the financial point of view. So, for example, transit routes through Pakistan, closed not long ago, now are fully open and that is the most inexpensive route.
Kommersant: The Russian proposal is less advantageous?
Vershbow: It's costlier. NATO governments are looking for the best proposal for the least amount of money. We're talking about a very large quantity of cargo -- tens of thousands of containers. Correspondingly, the prices have to be competitive, this is business.
Kommersant: Not long ago Russia announced it was ready to use one of its ports for these transport networks.
Vershbow: Yes, on the Baltic Sea. That was one of the variants discussed, but everything will depend on how commercially advantageous it is in comparison with the other available routes. If Russia makes a better proposal, that could gain them a greater share of this business (laughs).
Conflicting reports about a bloody skirmish, or two, on the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan border in recent days have generated some basic questions -- like, who got killed? Some Russian-language media say the Uzbeks killed three Afghan police officers on March 16; Tashkent says it killed three Afghan attackers on March 14.
According to Tashkent’s account, about 10 Afghans attacked Uzbek border guards on March 14 and tried to seize their weapons. Uzbek guards were forced to shoot, wounding four Afghans, three of whom died.
But on March 17, Afghanistan’s border police commander, General Mohammad Jan Mamozai, said that Uzbek border guards had shot seven Afghan “police” on an Afghan island in the Amu Darya river, according to an Afghanistan.ru report, killing three.
The "police" narrative seems to have taken hold in the Russian-language media. But Pajhwok Afghan News, also citing Mamozai, says the seven Afghans were civilians.
Haji Sharfuddin, an elder from Kaldar District in Afghanistan’s Balkh Province, denounced the killings. He said the civilians had not crossed the border into Uzbekistan, according to Pajhwok.
The two countries share a 137-kilometer border defined by the Amu Darya.
Neither the Uzbek border service, nor the National Security Service (SNB, formerly the KGB), which operates it, have responded to the Afghan allegations.
In recent months, Washington and its NATO allies have been discussing what matériel to bequeath Uzbekistan as a thank you for its help getting them out of Afghanistan. Tashkent has made it clear it has a long wish list. And there’s no time like the present: Tashkent says it is already battling Afghans on the border.
About 10 Afghan citizens attacked Uzbek border guards on March 14 “and attempted to seize weapons,” the State Border Protection Committee told the private 12news.uz website and others. The skirmish occurred after some 30 Afghans “ignored the Uzbek border service’s lawful demands” to leave the Aral-Paygambar Island on the Amu Darya river that separates Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.
"With the aim of ensuring its own security, the border duty, after repeated warning shots into the air, was forced to use weapons against the assailers. As a result of the armed encounter, four Afghan citizens received gunshot wounds, three of whom died afterwards. The other violators of the border escaped into their territory. The wounded citizen of the neighboring country has been provided with urgent medical assistance," the border service, which operates under the National Security Service (SNB, former KGB), said.
Violations of Uzbekistan's border by Afghans have been on the rise in recent months, the border service told 12news.uz: "There have been 22 cases of border violations and a total of 106 Afghan citizens have been detained since the beginning of 2013." The two countries share a 137-kilometer border.
The U.S. intelligence community believes that the greatest threat facing Central Asia is internal, rather than emanating from Afghanistan, in contrast to recent statements by State Department, members of Congress and Pentagon officials who have lately been emphasizing Afghanistan-based Islamist threats to the region.
In an annual ritual, the U.S. director of national intelligence delivers the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community to the Senate, and the current director, James Clapper, did so Tuesday morning. Obviously such a report can make the world sound like a very dangerous place (Micah Zenko, of the Council on Foreign Relations, calls it the "World Cup of threat inflation"). But the section of the report dealing with The Bug Pit's beat is remarkably sober. While last year's report emphasized the threat to Central Asia from Afghanistan, this year's makes no such mention, instead focusing on the region's internal dynamics:
A new U.S. government report says that fuel for Afghanistan's security forces, paid for by the U.S., may include Iranian fuel in contravention of U.S. sanctions -- and implies that Turkmenistan may be to blame.
The report is by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a U.S. government oversight agency that investigates possible abuse of U.S. funds in Afghanistan. While Afghanistan gets a majority of its fuel supplies from neighboring Iran, for fuel that the U.S. buys -- which includes that for the security forces -- suppliers have to abide by U.S. regulations prohibiting commerce with Iran. The companies that buy the fuel are Afghan-owned, but most of the fuel comes from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, with lesser amounts coming from Russia and Uzbekistan. But, as the report notes, that fuel is often "blended" from different sources by the suppliers, and the oversight mechanisms that ensure that no Iranian oil is included are weak.
That there is no oversight is hardly surprising, but there is little positive evidence that the U.S. is actually buying Iranian oil. Still, the report does say that there is some suspicion, and it is directed at Turkmenistan:
According to SIGAR investigators, a fuel vendor in Afghanistan stated that Afghanistan’s neighboring countries to its west may be exporting blended fuel from various sources, including Iran....
In response to a draft of this report, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul stated that it is possible that if blending is taking place in Turkmenistan it could contain some Iranian fuel; however, it would be very unlikely that fuel imported from refiners in Russia and transitioned through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan would be blended with Iranian fuel prior to its import into Afghanistan.
An Afghan airline is using passenger flights to deliver “bulk quantities of opium” to Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, according to U.S. officials cited in a January 24 Wall Street Journal report.
The Pentagon, which has blacklisted Kam Air from receiving military contracts, opened an investigation when the airline bid on a contract to service the U.S.-led coalition. "An organization such as Kam Air exposes itself when it bids on a U.S. contract," U.S. Army Maj.-Gen. Richard Longo, the commander of Task Force 2010, a coalition anticorruption unit, told the Wall Street Journal. "They are subject to scrutiny."
Kam Air, which is in talks to merge with state-run Ariana Afghan Airlines, denies the charges. The private airline operates four weekly flights between Kabul and Dushanbe.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime says approximately 30 percent of Afghan narcotics, including 90 tons of heroin, exit Afghanistan through Central Asia each year, mostly through Tajikistan. Tajik officials either lack the capacity to interdict the narcotics, or are complicit in the trade, according to Western officials in Dushanbe.
Those Western officials suspect the bulk of the onward trafficking begins at Tajikistan’s airports, usually on flights to Russia. The inbound smuggling, according to the Wall Street Journal report, is apparently happening right under the nose of airport officials, too.
Kam Air operates a fleet of some 16 planes, including Boeing 767 and 747 aircraft and Antonov cargo planes. The task force believes that domestic passenger routes have been used to ferry opium around the country, according to a U.S. official in Kabul. But the investigation is focused on Central Asia, the official said. "Kam Air is flying out bulk quantities of opium," the official said.
When looking at the future security situation of Central Asia, discussion invariably leads to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. As its name suggests, it has roots in Central Asia, but since the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan and Pakistan began in 2001, the IMU has turned its focus to those battlefields. And the group's Central Asian founders, Tahir Yuldashev and Juma Namangani, have both died. But there is much speculation that, after the U.S. starts to leave Afghanistan in 2014, that an emboldened IMU may again return to Central Asia. Those discussions, unfortunately, are usually short on knowledge about what the IMU is actually doing now.
A recent piece in Foreign Policy, "The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan: Down but not out," looked at the current state of the group and its strategy. And what was most striking, from the perspective of a Central Asia watcher, was how little discussion there was of that region. The piece devotes one sentence to the IMU's activities in Central Asia: "The group also continued to issue statements about events in Central Asia such as brutal attacks on Uzbeks living in Kyrgyzstan by gangs of Kyrgyz youth in 2010."
The piece notes that the group has been revitalized by the charisma of its "chief juridical voice," Abu Zarr Azzam, whose strategic focus is on South Asia:
Although Pakistan reopened its border with Afghanistan of U.S. and NATO military back in July, traffic there is still moving so slowly that the coalition forces haven't even moved all of the goods that had backed up there -- meaning the Northern Distribution Network through Central Asia remains the key means of supplying foreign forces in Afghanistan. That's according to Air Force Col. Robert Brisson, chief of operations for U.S. Transportation Command, in a recent interview with Military Times.
U.S. military officials have spent the past five months wrangling with the Pakistanis over a formal legal agreement and also working to clear out the roughly 7,000 shipping containers that were stalled in transit when the Pakistanis abruptly closed the border crossings in November 2011.
Coalition forces are only able to get between 10 and 50 cargo trucks per day across the border, compared to around 100 before the border was closed, Col. Brisson said.
“We haven’t booked any new cargo into the ports of Karachi and Qasim to move northbound, nor have we started moving new cargo heading southbound out of Afghanistan,” Brisson said.
New cargo may begin moving in late December or January, he said.
The U.S. and Pakistan are still working out the terms of the new agreement to ship goods through that country, and apparently the biggest sticking point is the question of transit fees.