When the U.S. ships military goods through Central Asia to Afghanistan, who gets paid? That's a pretty simple question, but several years after the establishment of the Northern Distribution Network, we still don't know. The Pentagon uses private companies to ship its equipment through Central Asia, but which private companies? How much do they get paid? People in Uzbekistan were asking these questions two years ago, and we still don't have answers.
Investigations into murky contracting practices around the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan exposed that relatives of two successive presidents were getting rich from base-related business. That resulted in a greater degree of transparency around Manas contracts. But as Jeff Goldstein, a policy analyst at the Open Society Institute, writes, the White House and Pentagon have actively sought to block measures that would illuminate who is getting paid on the NDN:
An August 28 meeting of the heads of CSTO member militaries in Moscow
The Collective Security Treaty Organization has vowed to "seriously strengthen" its military capacity, the group's general secretary said Tuesday, after a Moscow meeting of chiefs of general staffs of CSTO member militaries. According to a report in RIA Novosti, CSTO General Secretary Nikolai Bordyuzha:
noted that in December of this year a meeting of the Collective Security Council will be held. "The main agenda item which will be proposed in December is first of all to consider military questions. This will be a discussion of the development of the military component of the CSTO," the secretary said.
"And today's discussion led to many decisions, which will likewise be presented to the presidents for approval. I think, if today's decisions are approved, this organization will take a very big step forward with respect to the strengthening of the force component of this international structure," Bordyuzha said.
The general secretary did not specify precisely what decisions were made.
The CSTO is led by Russia and also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- though no longer Uzbekistan. The military chiefs of Russia and Kazakhstan spoke approvingly of the unspecified decisions made at this meeting, but it looks like we'll have to wait until December to find out what they amount to. Until then, the CSTO is scheduled to carry out military exercises in Armenia in September, and in Kazakhstan in October.
An efforts by U.S. lawmakers try to block the Pentagon from doing business with Russian state arms exporter Rosoboronexport has stalled, and likely will remain so until after the elections in November. But Russian officials are arguing that the fact that the U.S. military wants to buy helicopters from Russia, in spite of politicians' wishes, is "the best advertisement our helicopters can get."
Last year, the Pentagon awarded Rosoboronexport a contract worth nearly $1 billion to supply Afghanistan's armed forces with Mi-17 helicopters. U.S. defense manufacturers complained that the Pentagon was giving business to Russia that could be awarded to American companies. But the Pentagon's reasoning was that Russian helicopters are cheaper, and more importantly were already in service in Afghanistan, meaning that Afghanistan's pilots, maintenance crews, and so on, wouldn't have to learn an entirely new system.
Last month, though, the House of Representatives stepped in to try to put the kibosh on that contract. On a 407-5 vote, representatives voted to ban any funding for the contract. The Senate is unlikely to take up the issue before the election, but U.S. military are still advocating against it. That prompted one Russian defense official, Vyacheslav Dzirkaln, deputy director of the Federal Service for Military-Technological Cooperation, to brag a little bit:
"Despite this resistance, American military officials have made it clear that they need our helicopters, which are reliable and meet all of the requirements. This is the best advertisement our helicopters can get," Dzirkaln said.
The Russian newspaper Kommersant created a splash yesterday when it reported, citing "sources close to the Uzbekistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs," that the U.S. is planning to set up a Rapid Response Center in Tashkent. The Center would "coordinate actions in the event of deterioration of the situation after the American withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014" and would "essentially perform the functions of an American military base after 2014."
It went on: "'By and large, we are talking the largest American military object anywhere in the Central Asian region,' said a source."
Perhaps because Kommersant is a generally well respected newspaper, perhaps because of the apparent specificity of its report, the report was widely disseminated around the Russian-language internet. (UzNews.net went so far as to suggest that the U.S. was forcing Uzbekistan to allow a base by blackmailing Tashkent, threatening to "create problems" with the Western bank accounts of presidential daughter Gulnara Karimova.)
Iran has announced that it will deploy "light" submarines to the Caspian Sea, yet another step in the ongoing militarization of the oil- and gas-rich sea.
The deputy commander of Iran's navy made the announcement (in late June, while The Bug Pit was on hiatus) but gave no details. Some Azerbaijani officials believed (or at least were telling reporters) that Iran already had submarines in the sea, and that a semi-famous photo of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad getting into a sub was taken on the Caspian. Given that Iran is a lot more likely to overstate its capabilities than understate them, that latter claim probably wasn't true, and we should take this new claim with a grain of salt, as well.
Nevertheless, if Iran's newest oil and gas discovery, in waters also claimed by Azerbaijan, turns out to be for real, it would be natural for Iran to beef up its defenses around the sea.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization is taking on emergency management as one of its priorities, the group's secretary general, Nikolay Bordyuzha, announced during a CSTO meeting in Minsk last week:
Cooperation in prevention and mitigation of emergencies should become a priority in the CSTO, Nikolai Bordyuzha, CSTO Secretary General told media in Minsk following the fifth meeting of the CSTO Coordination Council on Emergencies.
“The issues regarding emergency response and mitigation should make a priority in the CSTO. In December we will submit the relevant proposals to the Presidents,” Nikolai Bordyuzha said.
Also at the Minsk meeting, it was announced that the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations, under the auspices of the CSTO, would set up a "regional humanitarian center" in Armenia. The center would open next year.
The CSTO has lately been taking on -- at least rhetorically -- a whole bunch of new priorities, including cybersecurity, quashing color revolutions, creating a unified foreign policy, even drone manufacture. It's not clear what has actually been concretely achieved with any of these, so who knows how seriously we should take this newest "priority."
The CSTO will hold its annual military exercises in September in Armenia, and attention will likely be focused less on emergency management than for hints on how the CSTO might act in case of a conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The U.S.'s top diplomat responsible for Central Asia just finished a trip to Uzbekistan, amid increasing speculation that the two countries are seeking to upgrade their relationship, in particular their military cooperation.
Robert Blake, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, visited Tashkent from August 15-18. His visit came after an eventful summer: in June, Uzbekistan suspended its membership in the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization. Many observers interpreted the move as motivated by Uzbekistan's intention to allow the U.S. to set up some sort of military base in the country. The CSTO requires members to get permission from other members before allowing foreign military bases; i.e., Russia gets a veto. Leaving the CSTO could free Uzbekistan up to allow a U.S. base. But then, earlier this month, Uzbekistan's parliament passed a new law forbidding foreign military bases.
That didn't stop many from continuing to speculate that the purpose of Blake's visit to Uzbekistan was to set up a military base. Most notably, the Kazakhstan newspaper Liter, an organ of the ruling Nur Otan party, reported that "We can dare to suggest that Robert Blake's visit will result in signing an agreement on deploying US troops on Uzbek soil." Blake, of course, denied that was on the agenda. And at a press conference in Almaty just before his trip to Tashkent, he said that while the U.S. will be leaving Uzbekistan some lefover military equipment after it leaves Afghanistan, that equipment likely won't include lethal weapons:
When it comes to the brewing arms race in the Caspian Sea region, no one can accuse Turkmen leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov of navel-gazing. Ashgabat is now able to back its claims to some energy-rich patches of the sea with considerable firepower.
The U.S. military is conducting exercises with their counterparts from Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan on disaster response and emergency management. The exercises, called Regional Cooperation 2012, are taking place in Kyrgyzstan through June 29.
They're being run by U.S. Central Command, with some contributions from the Massachusetts National Guard, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Manas air base. Military officials from the Central Asian countries are participating, as well as some civilian agencies from the government of Kyrgyzstan, like border troops, the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of Emergency Situations.
The exercise Regional Cooperation (RC) is an annual event in Central Asia that focuses on coordinating military and civilian assistance to disaster response and emergency management. It's been held in Tajikistan twice before (in 2011 and 2009) and was supposed to be held in Kyrgyzstan in 2010, but the revolution and violence of that year caused the exercise to be moved to Germany. This is just a tabletop exercise, as opposed to the Steppe Eagle field exercises that the U.S. carries out every year in Kazakhstan. And the fact that it's coming just after the Shanghai Cooperation Organization exercises in Tajikistan, which featured many of the same participants, is accidental, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek tells The Bug Pit: "This takes place after the SCO exercise, but that is purely coincidence. The annual event usually takes place later (September), but in order to get several countries’ schedules to align, it is being done in June."
A map showing the approximate location of Iran's new oil discovery in the Caspian
Iran recently announced that it has discovered a substantial oil deposit -- about 10 billion barrels -- in the Caspian Sea. That would be about seven percent of Iran's total reserves, and the country's first discovery in the Caspian in over a century. That in itself is pretty remarkable; Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said it will "change the energy and political balance of the region."
But the situation could get a lot more complicated, according to regional analyst Alex Jackson. In a recent presentation, which he provided to The Bug Pit, Jackson noted that the discovery appears to actually be in waters claimed by Azerbaijan. Iran hasn't provided a precise location, but has said it is 188km north of Roudsar in Gilan province and 250 km northwest of Neka. See the map here, from Jackson's presentation, where the white dotted line is what Azerbaijan considers to be the southern boundary of its waters, while the brown dotted line represents what Iran considers to be the northen extent of its waters. And right in the middle of that is this new discovery (actually two separate, though connected, fields, called Sardar Jangal and Sardar Milli). In addition to the 10 billion barrels of oil, it also holds 50 trillion cubic feet of gas, according to Iran.