The General Atomics "Avenger" UAV, which may soon be based in Central Asia. (photo: General Atomics)
The U.S. is making plans to set up drone bases in Central Asia in the case that the government of Afghanistan doesn't allow U.S. troops to remain in that country past this year, the Los Angeles Times has reported. The military wants to maintain the ability to carry out attacks against militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan even if it has no military presence in those countries, and the next best options are the Central Asian states. The officials interviewed didn't specify which countries were being considered: "There are contingency plans for alternatives in the north," said one official quoted by the paper.
So which would it be? The story's publication prompted much speculation among Central Asia watchers as to where the putative base might be located. Each of the three Central Asian states bordering Afghanistan would have serious downsides from the U.S.'s perspective. Tajikistan is highly susceptible to Russian pressure, and the Kremlin is surely not inclined to let the U.S. reestablish its military presence in Central Asia. Uzbekistan might be willing to host a base and is relatively immune to Russian pressure, but is a bit of a bete noire in Washington and setting up a drone base there would surely face resistance from human rights-inclined members of Congress. And Turkmenistan would have some of the same problems as Uzbekistan, but also has a proudly held neutrality that would seem to preclude hosting U.S. drones.
One wrinkle that could affect the decision is whether the bases are run by the military or the CIA. As the Times notes, the current drone program in Afghanistan and Pakistan is operated by the CIA, which can remain covert. President Barack Obama has said he wants to shift U.S. drone programs to the military, but in this case that would require the bases to be relatively public:
Users of Uzbekistan’s tightly controlled Internet are accustomed to hearing officials tell them that Western culture is harmful and its influence must be contained.
So they might wonder why their country keeps producing knock-off social networking websites, clones of modern Western culture. The latest is Bamboo, rolled out this week as an Uzbek answer to Twitter using the motto "One Country, One Network!"
Bamboo.uz was developed exclusively for Uzbeks, its developers said on the website (though the interface is available in 14 languages). The main difference from Twitter is that users can be more verbose: Bamboo messages can be up to 700 characters long, five times longer than messages on Twitter. Otherwise, the newsfeed and interface look almost identical to Twitter. Popular topics trend with hashtags, just like the ones Twitter uses.
Programmers in Uzbekistan, which Reporters Without Borders annually ranks an "Enemy of the Internet,” have previously launched local versions of Facebook, apparently with the government’s encouragement. State television has called social media a tool foreign powers use to foment revolution in former-Soviet states, but said local versions like Muloqot.uz and Sinfdosh.uz, "improve the moral and physical health of youth and form high morals."
President Islam Karimov’s would-be hosts in Prague say the Uzbek strongman has postponed his trip to the Czech Republic, according to a local news outlet. The announcement follows concerted pressure on Prague from dozens of human rights groups concerned that the February 20-22 visit would allow Karimov to whitewash his brutal record.
Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek confirmed the news to the Respekt.cz news website on February 13.
It seems unlikely we'll ever know who initiated the postponement, Karimov or his Czech counterpart Milos Zeman. Both may have bowed to the pressure, fearing the visit could become a PR nightmare.
But only two days ago, Zeman was defending the visit, telling the umbrella group of watchdogs to butt out of his affairs.
The Uzbek Foreign Ministry wasn't immediately available for comment on February 13. If the visit is cancelled, it is unlikely they will say much, since Uzbekistan’s tightly controlled media use Karimov’s rare trips abroad to enhance his prestige and make him appear as a recognized elder statesman.
The last time Karimov visited the West was in January 2011 when he was invited by NATO to Brussels.
With Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov scheduled to visit the Czech Republic next week, a coalition of human rights organizations has been urging his host, President Milos Zeman, to deny Karimov the "prestige and recognition associated with an official state visit." Today they are horrified by Zeman’s blistering response.
In a February 10 open letter, international watchdogs including Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists reminded Zeman that Karimov runs one of the most repressive governments in the world and has been "rightly shunned by most western leaders," particularly after Uzbek security forces killed hundreds of civilians in Andijan in May 2005. For Uzbekistan's refusal to allow an independent international probe into the Andijan killings the European Union, including the Czech Republic, had imposed targeted sanctions on the Uzbek government between 2005 and 2009, the letter noted.
Should he meet Karimov during the scheduled February 20-22 visit, the activists urged Zeman to push the Uzbek leader on his regime’s gross human rights violations and to hold a joint news conference to allow journalists to question Karimov. (Karimov hasn’t taken questions in public for years.)
Clearly irritated, Zeman fired back in an open letter February 11 that the visit was a “diplomatic courtesy,” the invitation for which had been issued by his predecessor (translation by Czech NGO People in Need):
Second, President Islam Karimov recently held talks with senior officials of the European Union in Brussels. I did not think you were protesting against the visit.
Third, the United States evaluated Uzbekistan as an ally in the fight against Islamic terrorism. I did not think you protested against this American view protested.
The U.S. Congress has again given the State Department the go-ahead to give military aid to Uzbekistan in spite of concerns about the country's poor record on human rights, a State Department official has told The Bug Pit.
Congress imposed restrictions on military aid to Uzbekistan in 2004 after the country's government failed to implement promised political reforms. Those restrictions remain in place today. But two years ago Congress, at the urging of the Obama administration, agreed to allow the Secretary of State to waive those restrictions if it were necessary for national security reasons. That waiver needed to be renewed every six months, and the ability to waive expired in October 2013. But Congress renewed the provision and last month the waiver was exercised again, a State Department spokesperson said.
"This waiver will allow the United States to provide assistance to the central government of Uzbekistan, including equipment to enhance Uzbekistan's ability to combat transnational and terrorist threats," the spokesperson said in an email to The Bug Pit. "Examples of this equipment include night vision goggles, personal protective equipment, and Global Positioning Systems. Enhancing Uzbekistan's defensive capacity improves the security of the U.S. supply transit system to Afghanistan and our ability to support our troops there." The new authority to waive will expire September 30, 2015.
The equipment in question includes not just the examples the spokesperson noted, but also tactical surveillance drones. Uzbekistan is also lobbying for some of the used mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles the U.S. is looking to offload as it pulls its troops out of Afghanistan.
Umida Akhmedova -- with one of her "offensive" photos of life in her native Uzbekistan -- at the Moscow Biennale in September.
UPDATE, January 30: EurasiaNet.org has spoken with Timur Karpov. He was released this evening after a Tashkent court fined him and three others up to approximately $900 for participating in the unsanctioned rally. Of the eight detained January 29, three –including cultural critic Alex Ulko – have received 15-day sentences; one, Gulsum Osmanova, remains unaccounted for. It's possible she has been released or is still being held.
The whereabouts of at least six activists who had held a small rally to express support for Ukrainian protestors remain unknown after they were apparently detained by police January 29.
The six – prominent photographer Umida Akhmedova and her photojournalist son Timur Karpov, cultural affairs commentator Alex Ulko and three others – were detained two days after they picketed the Ukrainian Embassy in Tashkent in support of pro-democracy protestors, Fergana News reported. Fergana News believes the activists are being held in Tashkent's Khamza District police department, where an officer told Akhmedova's daughter late on January 29 that the group had already been released.
Akhmedova's husband Oleg Karpov fears the detainees, who appear to have not had access to a lawyer, may face "repressive measures" (such as torture, which is “systematic” in the justice system, according to Human Rights Watch). Activists throughout the region and further afield have called on Uzbek authorities to immediately release the group.
When you think of cotton and forced labor in Central Asia, you probably think of Uzbekistan. But a new report offers a reminder that Turkmenistan continues to force thousands of citizens into the cotton fields each autumn against their will.
On January 21, Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN) released its assessment of the 2013 cotton harvest (by email): “Tens of thousands” of Turkmen, many of them public sector employees, were forced into the fields during the harvest. "Forced labor is still widely practiced throughout the country," the report – authored in collaboration with the Cotton Campaign, an international advocacy group – said.
The findings support reporting last autumn from Radio Free Europe’s Turkmen Service, which said that teachers were shepherding their students to the cotton fields on an "unprecedented" scale, with girls as young as 10 spotted picking cotton.
ATN describes a feudal system wherein government officials lease cotton plots from the state and then force their underlings to perform the manual labor. Like in neighboring Uzbekistan, the farmers (in this case the officials) then sell their harvest to the government at low prices. The government then sells the raw cotton abroad at market prices, says ATN:
We have information that shows that in the majority of cases, when the regional employees of the social sector are used as cheap laborers, the land is owned not by local farmers, but by high-ranking state or regional officials. These officials rent out land under the names of their wives, children, other family members, etc., however they do absolutely nothing by way of harvesting cotton on their land; many of these officials do not even live on this land or even in the region where the land is leased. [...]
Customs officials in Uzbekistan say they have stopped 20 luxury cars stolen in Europe from transiting to neighboring Tajikistan over the past year.
The vehicles, including BMWs and Range Rovers, are worth approximately $1.5 million, the State Customs Committee said in a January 4 statement. Tajik citizens had shipped the cars by rail from the Baltic states of Latvia and Lithuania with forged registration documents. According to the customs service, Interpol has confirmed the vehicles were stolen.
The announcement comes two weeks after German officials alleged that associates and relatives of Tajikistan’s president, Emomali Rakhmon, are driving some 200 luxury cars swiped from the streets of Germany. Investigators said they traced many of the vehicles with their built-in GPS location-tracking systems.
That purloined autos are plying Tajikistan’s roads has long been an open secret in Dushanbe, the capital. Western officials there often complain that their Tajik counterparts are unwilling to address the problem. Indeed, mounting frustration may have led officials in Berlin to leak the embarrassing accusations.
Tajik authorities deny the German accusations. A spokesman for Rakhmon called them “provocative and untrue.” The Foreign Ministry said any blame must rest with transit countries that allow the cars to pass.
The U.S.'s foreign policy panjandrums have determined what are the most likely global crises facing the U.S. in 2014 and have found that the Caucasus and Central Asia pose almost no threat to U.S. interests.
The Council on Foreign Relations, the U.S.'s most prestigious foreign policy think tank, has released its annual Preventative Priorities Survey for 2014. The survey, CFR says, "seeks to help policymakers choose among competing conflict prevention demands by offering what is essentially a risk assessment of the United States’ geopolitical environment over the next twelve months." It does so by first crowdsourcing a list of 30 potential crisis scenarios, then polling experts and policymakers as to how likely the threat of a crisis is, and how much of a threat to U.S. interests the crisis would be. The only Eurasian scenario to make the top 30 is "an outbreak of military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh," and that was ranked in the lowest possible tier as both a low risk of happening and posing a minor threat to U.S. interests.
The survey also asked the respondents to suggest other possible scenarios, and of the handful that CFR said were mentioned more than others included some more Eurasian scenarios: "rising political instability in Russia," "possible Russian intervention in Georgia, Ukraine, and other former Soviet states," and "rising political instability in Kyrgyzstan."
A delegation from Uzbekistan visited Washington this week as the two countries try to figure out how the impending withdrawal from Afghanistan is going to affect their relationship. The content of the discussions, part of the annual high-level talks that the U.S. has with every Central Asian country, were kept very quiet, but no doubt focused heavily on security issues.
"No new deals, agreements, just heart-to-heart discussions between U.S. and Uzbekistan -- I hear Russia's pressure on Central Asia was a big topic," said Washington-based Voice of America Uzbek service reporter Navbahor Imamova on twitter (edited slightly to detwitterize).
The talks included Uzbekistan Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, as well as officials from the Pentagon, White House, and Congress. The State Department statement on the talks, naturally, didn't mention Russia. "The participants discussed all aspects of the U.S.-Uzbekistan relationship, including political developments, regional stability and security, human rights and labor, education and cultural exchanges, and economic development and trade. The United States looks forward to broadening and deepening its relationship with Uzbekistan on the basis of these candid and constructive conversations."