Zakir Hasanov, Azerbaijan's new defense minister (photo: Azerbaijan Ministry of Internal Affairs)
Azerbaijan's newly re-elected president Ilham Aliyev has announced his new cabinet, and it contains one surprise: long-serving Defense Minister Safar Abiyev has been let go. Abiyev was a controversial figure, holding his post since 1995 and widely seen as the source of much corruption in the MoD. The conventional wisdom for some time has held that if Abiyev were replaced, that would be a signal that Azerbaijan was getting ready to move to try to take back the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh. So is that what's happening?
Yerevan-based analyst Richard Giragosian says so; he posted on his social media sites that "the risk of war over Karabakh has just increased three-fold, as this move may signal the start of real defense reform and adoption of serious offensive posture, as well as a possible end to corruption within the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense."
But a source in Baku, who asked not to be named, said that internal considerations may be more at play in Abiyev's removal. For one, he was the target of recent protests over poor conditions for Azerbaijani soldiers. Secondly, he was at the center of a dispute this month between the U.S. embassy in Baku and the Azerbaijani government over criticism of the presidential vote. And Abiyev reportedly had a bad reputation among allies.
The monitoring mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had to suspend its activities last week because of an as-yet unexplained shooting:
Following the usual exchange of security guarantees by local commanders on both sides of the Line of Contact, members of both OSCE teams heard shooting as they approached their observation points. It was not possible to determine from where the shots were fired. Safety and security concerns prompted the Personal Representative to abandon the exercise.
Naturally, both sides blamed the other. Azerbaijan's APA reported:
The Armenians violated ceasefire while the contact line was being monitored by the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairman-in-Office.
Defense Ministry Spokesman Eldar Sabiroghlu told APA that today the Armenian Army units violated ceasefire..
A planned monitoring of the Line of Contact between the armed forces of Nagorno Karabakh and Azerbaijan to be conducted by the OSCE Mission in the Hadrut direction, scheduled for October 17, was stopped because of the submachine gun shots from the Azerbaijani side towards the positions of the NKR Defense Army.
U.S. troops patrol the Torkham Gate on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. (photo: Spc. Hillary Rustine, Combined Joint Task Force 1)
The United States military is reducing its usage of Central Asian supply routes for Afghanistan as Pakistan's shorter, simpler routes have again fully opened to U.S. traffic. That's according to the deputy commander of U.S. Transportation Command, Lt. Gen. Kathleen Gainey, in an interview with Defense News. In the interview, Lt. Gen. Gainey declines to give any specific numbers, but it's clear that the Central Asian routes -- known as the Northern Distribution Network -- are too bureaucratically arduous to use regularly, and are useful only as a backup to Pakistan.
Recall that two years ago, Pakistan abruptly shut off its roads to U.S. and NATO transport after a NATO attack over the border from Afghanistan killed more than 20 Pakistani soldiers. About a six months later Pakistan reopened the border, but it's taken until now for the Pakistan routes to get fully up to speed. And with that, Central Asia has taken a back seat, Lt. Gen. Gainey said:
Q. Speaking of Pakistan, what’s the current status of the supply routes? How are things flowing in comparison to before the shutdown?
A. We are almost back to normal levels for Pakistan. There are some different processes that we’re using, different security, different customs documentation, different review and screening requirement of excess cargo that’s exiting country, etc. So there are some additional tasks that we have to perform. It’s not as simple as it was before.
Q. Are you continuing to expand the Northern Distribution Network?
U.S. airmen handle cargo en route to Afghanistan at Romania's Mihail Kogalniceanu air base, now reportedly the U.S.'s new troop transit center.
The U,S, is working out a deal to move part of its operations at the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan to Romania, AFP has reported, citing U.S. defense officials. The U.S. was forced to look at options for replacing Manas after the Kyrgyzstan government demanded that the Americans finish up their operations there by July 2014. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is hosting his Romanian counterpart Corneliu Dobritoiu at the Pentagon on Friday, where the issue is expected to be on the agenda. From AFP:
Representatives from both governments in recent months have been negotiating the terms for use of the Mihail Kogalniceanu air base in eastern Romania, which would serve as the main hub for flying troops out of Afghanistan back to the United States.
Some equipment also would be flown from Afghanistan to the base, officials said.
Five US military personnel are currently stationed at the air base and the number of American troops and contractors would dramatically increase if the agreement goes ahead. In Kyrgyzstan, about 1,500 US troops and contractors work at the air base.
Russia's food safety czar has again claimed that a U.S.-funded biological research lab is in fact a secret bioweapons facility, and has warned that imports of Georgian food to Russia could be in danger if Georgia does not shut down the facility.
This is of course not the first time that chief sanitary inspector Gennady Onishchenko has made such a claim, issuing a similar threat in July. In between then and now he's been busy warning of the health dangers of other products like Moldovan wine and Lithuanian cheese. But he hasn't forgotten about the biolab -- known formally as the Richard G. Lugar Center for Public Health Research -- and the grave threat it poses to Russia. He addressed the issue again on Monday:
"We are pointing out again that we are extremely concerned about the activity of the laboratory that the Georgian authorities are not in control of," Gennady Onishchenko said.
"According to our estimates, the laboratory is an important element of the offensive part of the US military-biological potential," the Head of the Russian Service on Surveillance for Consumer Rights Protection said...
U.S. Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, returns a salute to Mongolian service members during Khaan Quest 2013 in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. ((U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Danny Hayes)
Chinese hackers have been planting malware in documents associated with U.S.-Mongolia military exercises in an apparent attempt to interfere with Mongolia's ties to the West, a private American cybersecurity company claims.
According to a recent report by the company ThreatConnect, Chinese hackers created a decoy "weaponized Microsoft Word document" appearing to be an official U.S. Army announcement related to the annual Khaan Quest exercise that Mongolia hosts, and the U.S. supports.
This activity represents Chinese Computer Network Exploitation (CNE) activity against organizations that China perceives to be jeopardizing its interests in Mongolia. As evidenced in the weaponized Khaan Quest document described above, Chinese APT groups will likely continue targeting US military entities involved in cooperation activities with the Mongolian military. Also, western European and other governments that engage with Mongolia diplomatically will be considered CNE targets as well.
Another document, in Mongolian and discussing a joint military exercise with Vietnam, was also found with the same bit of code. ThreatConnect suggests some sort of connection between this operation and the famous Chinese People's Liberation Army hacking operation, Unit 61398. It's hard to tell how seriously to take this -- threat inflation is endemic in the cybersecurity world -- but it's an interesting little look into how Washington and Beijing might be looking at this.
Most talk of security in Central Asia these days revolves around what will happen in Afghanistan after 2014. The widespread expectation is that after U.S. and NATO combat forces withdraw from the country, leaving behind some smaller training/advising force, security will deteriorate in Afghanistan, with unpredictable -- but probably not good -- results for Central Asia. But most scenarios assume some sort of U.S./Western presence in Afghanistan post-2014, minimizing the potential for chaos in that country. But what if the U.S. pulls out altogether? After all, few expected that the U.S. would entirely pull out of Iraq, but after political negotiations broke down over the status of U.S. forces, that's what happened there. Couldn't the same thing happen in Afghanistan? And what would that mean for Central Asia?
That scenario is looking increasingly likely. The New York Times has reported that negotiations between the U.S. and Afghanistan governments are close to breaking down, and time is running out:
The United States and Afghanistan have reached an impasse in their talks over the role that American forces will play here beyond next year, officials from both countries say, raising the distinct possibility of a total withdrawal — an outcome that the Pentagon’s top military commanders dismissed just months ago.
American officials say they are preparing to suspend negotiations absent a breakthrough in the coming weeks, and a senior administration official said talk of resuming them with President Hamid Karzai’s successor, who will be chosen in elections set for next April, is, “frankly, not very likely.”
CSTO forces take part in the Unbreakable Brotherhood 2013 exercises in Chelyabinsk, Russia. (photos: MoD Russia, Kazakhstan)
The Collective Security Treaty Organization is holding its second-ever peacekeeping exercises, in Russia's Chelyabinsk region. About 2,500croops from all CSTO members -- Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- are taking part in the exercise, named "Unbreakable Brotherhood 2013," up from 950 in the previous year's drills
The scenario of the drill involved a conflict in the fictional CSTO member state of Uralia, and the peacekeepers were tasked with protecting a convoy of humanitarian aid from "extremists" trying to attack it. The peacekeeping forces provided air cover for the convoy using Mi-24 helicopters, set up checkpoints in the conflict zone and successfully apprehended some extremists who were trying to smuggle weapons.
The larger context of the drill, though, included fights over resources in the region and interethnic tension, giving some sense of the circumstances in which the CSTO imagines that these peacekeeping forces might someday be used:
The situation was based on a possible scenario of events that may occur in CSTO collective security regions in view of the rising tensions between leading global powers and military political unions, an escalation of interethnic contradictions and the fight for energy resources.
The parties in conflict tried to reach their political and strategic goals using political means and military force. The conflict had been started due to historical territorial, interethnic and religious contradictions as well as economic ones.
The tensions had been fueled primarily due to social and economic reasons, the rising interference of international terrorist and extremist organizations, and tensions in interethnic relations.
Pakistan's chief of army staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani meets Kazakhstan's minister of defense, Adilbek Dzhaksybekov, in Astana last month (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
With a handful of recent visits by senior Pakistani officials to Central Asia, is Islamabad looking to step up its security cooperation in the region?
Pakistani's chief of army staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani visited Tajikistan in August and Kazakhstan in September. The topics of discussion in Tajikistan included "development of military and technical cooperation, preparation of staff, and economic components" while in Kazakhstan they were "issues of regional security and the situation in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of troops of NATO and USA in 2014." And an adviser to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Sartaj Aziz, visited Bishkek in September for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit.
The limited Pakistani engagement with Central Asia has for the most part been associated with economic issues: the proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline, the CASA-1000 energy project, the development of the Gwadar port.
So does all this recent political-military activity add up to anything? A commentary in the Pakistani newspaper The Frontier Post says, yes:
Why this renewed focus on defence leadership’s exchanges with [the Central Asian republics], where Pakistan’s main interest, exhibited so far, remains economic and energy-oriented? The visits have a clear message: Islamabad values the role of CARs in post-withdrawal stability of Afghanistan, and resultantly the region as a whole....
Gate of the Ayni air base outside Dushanbe. (photo: The Bug Pit)
Now that Russia has solidified its control of its military base in Tajikistan, it is looking to expand. A Russian parliamentary delegation in Tajikistan is starting negotiations on use of the Ayni air base, whose future occupancy has been the source of much speculation. As an air base, Ayni would complement the land forces base of the 201st Motorized Rifle Division that is based in Tajikistan. "Signing of an additional agreement on the Ayni air force base, which Moscow also intends to rent and to consider part of the 201st military base, is expected," according to a report in Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gaezta, citing Russian government and military officials. Russian officials indicated several months ago that they intended to do this; now it seems like the effort has begun in earnest.
After Russian President Vladimir Putin met his Tajikistan counterpart Emomali Rahmon at the Collective Security Treaty Organization summit last month in Sochi, he promised unspecified "support" of Rahmon in Tajikistan's upcoming presidential elections. And it was that pledge that prompted the recent moves to ratify the 201st base deal and also to start negotiations on Ayni, Nezavisimaya Gaezta writes.
And Russia considers an air base in the country necessary to support Russian and CSTO military activities in Tajikistan to strengthen the border with Afghanistan, especially since Uzbekistan is refusing to cooperate with Russian efforts in the region and has effectively blockaded Tajikistan.