Col. John Vaughn, 376th Air Expeditionary Wing vice commander, kisses school cook Galina Ivanovna in one of the last visits by US troops to the school in Birlik on Dec. 20, 2013. (Photo: US Air Force/Senior Airman George Goslin)
The U.S. air base at Manas, in Kyrgyzstan, has started formally shutting down, and U.S. troops have already started using the replacement facility in Romania as they transit in and out of Afghanistan.
This month, there have been a steady stream of U.S. military press releases marking the "last" of one or another functions at Manas: the air traffic control unit has shut down, the Theater Security Cooperation division (which deals with the base's joint activities with Kyrgyzstan's armed forces) is closing shop February 25, even the final visit by American troops to a local school.
Meanwhile, on February 3, 300 U.S. troops transited through the Romanian base at Mihail Kogalniceanu on their way to Afghanistan, the first contingent of U.S. troops to use that facility (popularly referred to among troops as "MK") instead of Manas. It was apparently a rush to get the MK facility ready to go, judging by the remarks made by an officer in the unit charged with setting it up:
“There were some naysayers who were very skeptical about our ability to complete this project in time,” Col. Michael C. Snyder, the deputy commanding officer of the 21st TSC, officer-in-charge of the Regional Support Element at MK Air Base and a native of Dallas, Ore., told his team of Army and Air Force personnel. “You should be immensely proud of what you’ve accomplished during the last couple months. Don’t let this moment pass without realizing we’ve come together as a team to achieve some amazing things.”
Georgian officials are saying -- again -- that they will make some concrete progress towards NATO integration during the alliance's next summit in Wales in September. “There is a high probability that at the next summit we will have new instruments for closer integration with NATO. Whether it will be called a MAP [Membership Action Plan] or it will be a new instrument… it has yet to be decided,” said Defense Minister Irakli Alasania in an interview with Rustavi 2 TV, reported Civil.ge. But will that help Georgia regain its lost territories?
That's what Georgia's new cabinet minister in charge of affairs in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Paata Zakareishvili, told The Bug Pit. Not because those breakaway territories want to be part of NATO, but because it would signal strength. I didn't bring up NATO in our interview, but Zakareishvili did: "We need to see very serious steps toward NATO to show Abkhazia and South Ossetia.... the European institutions should have our back, so we feel strong. It's quite clear that it's too early to talk about MAP, but there are signals... that there is progress. If we had MAP, we'd be more confident talking with the Abkhaz and Russians, we could say 'Look. we're going there anyway.'"
He continues: "NATO is not attractive [to Abkhazia] but it's the reality. Georgia is not part of any regional security organization. We left Russia's, the CIS, we don't see any prospects there. Now we're in a transitional period. We left somewhere but we haven't reached anywhere else yet. And the Abkhaz see this. And they see that nobody accepts Georgia, or didn't accept us for a long time, so what's the point of talking with Georgia? Here is Russia, which is more secure -- maybe it's not the ideal system, but it's still more secure. So why should we follow Georgia, if Georgia has no prospects? We need to show that Georgia is clearly going toward Europe."
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.
The USS Mount Whitney passes through the Bosphorus en route to the Black Sea. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Collin Turner.)
Two U.S. warships have entered the Black Sea in preparation for the Winter Olympics, kicking off Friday night in Sochi, Russia. The USS Mount Whitney passed through the Bosphorus into the Black Sea on February 4, and was followed the day after by the USS Taylor. The official announcement of the deployment from U.S. European Command did not mention Sochi: "Both ships will perform routine operations in the Black Sea to establish and enhance cooperation, mutual training and interoperability with regional partner nations and allies."
But it's clear that the visits to the Black Sea are timed for Sochi. The website Black Sea News reported that on February 6 the Mount Whitney reached a point about 20 miles off the coast of Sochi and began patrolling. The Mount Whitney is primarily a command-and-control ship, and Daniel Goure, a Washington-based defense analyst, told Military.com that "the communications assets of the USS Mount Whitney and the helicopter landing ability of both ships could provide a lily-pad type of presence in the event of crisis. 'You could deploy something off of the back of these ships if you had to operate,' he added. 'You also have command and control if you had to communicate with the Russian Navy and Coast Guard.'"
Russia's new political-military bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, has been widely criticized for its inaction in the face of real threats to security in the region that it covers, most recently when fighting broke out between CSTO member states Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. But it's rare that the organization has had to explain itself: it operates, for the most part, in countries where the press doesn't often challenge authority figures. But when Yevgeniy Denisenko of Kyrgyzstan newspaper Vecherniy Bishkek interviewed the CSTO's secretary general, Nikolay Bordyuzha, he actually asked the question that outside observers of the organization have been asking:
Denisenko: However, threats to stability in the CSTO do not come only from outside, but from inside, too. It is sufficient to recall the events in the Kazakh town of Zhanaozen [the riots of December 2011], the conflict on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border [in 2010] and the current incident involving the use of weapons on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. Does it not seem to you that concentrating on foreign dangers, the CSTO is underestimating the internal risks?
Bordyuzha: There are questions that should be solved bilaterally. The Kyrgyz-Tajik incident is one of them. That was a border incident and no-one except these two states themselves and those responsible for the demarcation and delimitation of the border, can solve this question. It is another matter that the CSTO can act as a mediator, which is what we are doing. This role involves providing the platform for a deeper discussion of the problems that have emerged.
Denisenko: However, in this case we are talking about colleague countries, CSTO members.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is concerned about the possibility of the American military conducting intelligence operations in Kyrgyzstan and will bring up the issue with his Kyrgyzstani counterpart Almazbek Atambayev when the two meet at Sochi during the Olympics. That's according to Russian diplomatic and military stories quoted in a story in Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta which provides a useful report what Moscow is thinking these days about Central Asian security.
Atambayev, having managed the U.S.'s withdrawal from the Manas military base, still leaves on the territory of the country a large-scale foreign military aviation presence, including American (and their allies). Concern has been expressed by experts about the possibility of conducting military surveillance with them. But Russia, of course, has no need for that. Evidently Putin, in his conversations with his Kyrgyzstan colleague, will touch on this problem. Russia has contributed too much to strengthening regional security for its interests not to be considered,
The piece also mentions the billion-plus dollars in military aid that Russia has promised Kyrgyzstan, and complains that "for Kyrgyzstan that's a lot, but the leadership of the republic, it appears, is trying to sit on two chairs" [that is, the U.S. and Russia].
Screenshot from YouTube video from Azerbaijani television showing captivity of alleged Armenian saboteur Mamiko Khojayan.
Two weeks after tensions spiked on the line of contact between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, much information about what is actually happening there remains unclear. A spokesman for Azerbaijan's defense ministry said on February 3 that "dozens" of Armenian soldiers had been killed, while the Armenian authorities in the de facto Nagorno Karabakh government denied that. And many of the first-reported claims about the upsurge in fighting -- an Armenian vehicle destroyed, attempted incursions by both sides -- remain murky.
One initial report has proven especially embarrassing for the Azerbaijani side. Citing the defense ministry, Azerbaijani media reported that on January 28, an Armenian "saboteur" was captured by Azerbaijani soldiers: "Armed and injured leader of an enemy intelligence-sabotage group Mamiko Khojayan was captured by our soldiers after a brief firefight."
But when Azerbaijani television stations aired footage of Khojayan, the image was not of an elite special ops commando, but of a disheveled, disoriented old man. And soon after, neighbors and relatives of the man in Armenia identified him as a 77-year-old mentally ill man.
Russia has agreed to give Kazakhstan S-300 air defense systems, as well as to share a Russian missile-testing range in the country with Kazakhstani troops, the two countries' defense ministers announced.
The S-300 gift had been announced some time ago, but nothing had been said about it for years, leading to speculation that Russia had rescinded the offer. But on a visit to Astana on January 31, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said that Moscow would deliver five "divisions" of S-300PS (consisting of 12 units per division) this year.
A paramilitary band led by a veteran of the Tajikistan civil war has reportedly been deployed to the border with Kyrgyzstan, prompting Bishkek to send an official note of protest to Dushanbe. Arkady Dubnov, the top Russian journalist covering Central Asia, reported this week that Shoh Iskandarov, a former opposition commander who later joined the government, is leading a paramilitary group of about 150 men in the Isfara region. That's near the Kyrgyzstan border, which was recently the site of fighting that included heavy weaponry. Although the situation has calmed somewhat since the fighting on January 11, and both sides have agreed to pull back their forces, the alleged arrival of Iskandarov adds a potentially dramatic new element into the tense situation.
Tajikistan has yet to officially comment on whether or not Iskandarov is in fact getting involved in the border conflict, but Kyrgyzstani website 24.kg reported that the Kyrgyzstan Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent an official note of protest to Dushanbe over his arrival, complaining about the "unacceptable massing of armed forces in the border region."
The United States intelligence community has released its annual "worldwide threat assessment," which for the first time highlights Central Asia's "unclear political succession plans" and Georgia's prosecutions of former government officials. The 27-page report (pdf) contains three paragraphs on the Caucasus and Central Asia, as it has for the last several years. Last year's report was notable for not even mentioning the possibility of "spillover" of instability from Afghanistan, the favorite bugaboo of regional leaders, Russia, and many parts of the U.S. government. This year's report does mention the possibility, but says that still represents a smaller threat than those generated within Central Asia itself. It also somewhat downplays the threat of interstate conflict compared to last year, the recent flareup of violence on the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border notwithstanding.
Central Asia continues to host US supply lines that support operations in Afghanistan, and its leaders remain concerned about regional instability after the Coalition drawdown in 2014. Central Asian militants fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan will likely continue to pose a threat, but sources of potential internal instability in Central Asia will probably remain more acute than external threats. Unclear political succession plans, endemic corruption, weak economies, ethnic tensions, and political repression are long-term sources of instability in Central Asia. Relations among the Central Asian states remain tense due to personal rivalries and disputes over water, borders, and energy. However, Central Asian leaders’ focus on internal control reduces the risk of interstate conflict in the region.