U.S. aircraft refueling operations in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan -- a possible substitute for Manas? (photo: flickr user BTCooper)
The commander of the U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan has said that the missions that the base carries out "will have to move someplace else" as a result of the Kyrgyzstan government's refusal to renew the base agreement. While U.S. officials have not formally announced that they are leaving the base at Manas, near the capital city of Bishkek, this is the strongest indication to date that they are.
The base commander, Col John Millard, made his comments in an interview with the Pentagon Channel. The report leads off, "As the drawdown in Afghanistan nears, the U.S. transit airbase in Kyrgyzstan is preparing to shut down." And Col Millard adds: "At this time, our plans would be to stop our operations and be complete here at the transit center. According to the ISAF and the president we will not be out of Afghanistan by that time, mid-July of 2014 [when the current base agreement ends], so the operations will have to move someplace else." The piece was posted August 14, but then was subsequently taken down. (I managed to save it and you can watch it below.)
Rouhani and his Kazakhstan counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev meet in Tehran for Rouhani's inauguration (photo: president.ir)
Iran's newly elected president Hassan Rouhani may or may not take his first trip abroad as president to Kyrgyzstan and the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Regardless, most analysts seem to believe that as compared to his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, Rouhani is less likely to seriously pursue ties with the SCO and its member states more generally.
A number of news media, including Iranian state media, reported last week that Rouhani would travel to Bishkek for the SCO summit on September 13. But then Iran's foreign ministry clarified that no such decision has been made:
"The SCO summit is of high importance in Eurasian region and Iran, as an observer, has actively participated in its meetings," [Foreign Ministry Spokesman Abbas] Araqchi said at his weekly press briefing, adding that "For this (year's) summit, Iran has also been invited, but no final decision for participation in the summit has been made yet."
"The final decision in this regard will be made by the president (Rouhani)," said the spokesman.
Iran isn't a member of the SCO, but an observer. (Full members are China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.) Under Ahmadinejad, Iran applied for full membership to the organization and he frequently praised the organization, for example calling it the foundation of a "new world order." But Rouhani is likely to step back from that emphasis, said Iranian expert Mehdi Mahdavi Azad in an interview with Radio Ozodi:
Russian President Vladimir Putin led a high-powered delegation to Baku this week, and security issues seemed to be high on the agenda, leading to renewed speculation about whether the traditional geopolitical allegiances in the South Caucasus may or may not be shifting.
The fact that the delegation included such a large number of heavyweights spoke to the significance of the visit. In addition to Putin, it included Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, Energy Minister Alexander Novak and the heads of Russia’s biggest oil companies, Rosneft and Lukoil. Also along for the visit were some ships from Russia's Caspian Flotilla and the fleet's commander, Vice Admiral Sergey Alekminsky. Putin's remarks after his meeting with Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev focused mainly on economics and business ties, but also touched on security:
During our talks we paid a great deal of attention to resolving problems in the Caspian region. We are interested in seeing this region become one in which peace and cooperation reign. There are still many unresolved issues here, relating to security, border delimitation, conserving biological diversity in the Caspian Sea and so on. We have a vested interest in resolving all these problems, naturally taking into account the interests of all littoral states.
It is symbolic that our talks coincide with a friendly visit of a detachment of the Russian Caspian Flotilla to Baku. The Dagestan missile ship and the Volgodonsk small artillery ship are among the vessels. At the end of 2013 Azerbaijani sailors plan to make a return visit to Astrakhan.
The new head of U.S. Central Command has made his first trip to Central Asia, visiting Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and -- intriguingly -- not Kyrgyzstan. One source close to CENTCOM also pointed out to The Bug Pit that the commander, General Lloyd Austin, has been everywhere else in his area of responsibility before stopping into Central Asia, suggesting what sort of priority the region is.
The official statements about the visit were predictably vague: In Tashkent, "there was an exchange of opinions on the perspective of peaceful resolution of the situation in Afghanistan." In Dushanbe, Austin discussed "assistance in strengthening stability and security in Afghanistan and prevention of risk of spread of terrorism and extremism."
So, we are left to guess about what were the topics of discussion. No doubt at the top of the agenda was the logistical support that those countries provide to U.S. forces and equipment entering and leaving Afghanistan. A piece in Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta sees a sinister hand in the timing of Austin's visit to Tajikistan, coming just before President Emomali Rahmon's trip to Russia: "In recent years a practice has developed: on the eve of Russian-Tajik discussions, without fail, an American envoy appears." That doesn't seem likely; the U.S. government usually isn't efficient enough to pull of that degree of deviousness.
Chinese and Russian soldiers participate in Peace Mission 2013 exercises. (photo: mil.ru)
Chinese troops are currently in the Ural Mountains, carrying out joint military exercises with their Russian counterparts. The exercises include 600 Chinese troops and 900 Russians, practicing the usual "anti-terror" scenario, and are following joint naval exercises by the two countries earlier this summer. What is intriguing about these exercises is that they're called Peace Mission 2013, which is the name of the annual Shanghai Cooperation Organization exercises over the past several years. And those exercises usually included most of the other SCO members -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. And as RT says, "All Russian-Chinese war games are organized within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization." Meanwhile, SCO members not including Russia and China have already held exercises this year in Kazakhstan.
So is there any significance to these dual exercises? Why are Russia and China doing their own Peace Mission this year? I asked some veteran SCO followers, and to paraphrase, the collective response was: "Who knows?" The SCO operates in mysterious ways. But Peace Mission 2014 is already scheduled to take place in China, and at least Kazakhstan seems to suggest that it will be participating.
Being summer, it is the season for military exercises. Some of the others that have been going on around the region:
A leader of a governmental think tank in Tajikistan has accused "some countries" and "certain forces" of trying to create an independent Greater Badakhshan from parts of Tajikistan and Afghanistan -- but that Russia and China would help prevent that from happening. That's according to Asia Plus, which reported on a report that deputy director of the Center for Strategic Studies, Sayfullo Safarov, presented in Kazakhstan:
According to [Safarov], currently, there are groups in Afghan Badakhshan that are supported by certain forces. “This indicates that underground geopolitical games are being carried out,” [Safarov]said. He, however, did not specify what forces those groups submit to.
“We cannot say that these plans now pose serious threat to security of Tajikistan, because we are able to defend our part of Badakhshan. Besides, our strategic partners – Russia and China – will help us. However, some countries are hatching such plans we must be vigilant in order to keep stability in this region,” Safarov said.
In a response, also published on Asia Plus, Tajikistan political analyst Parviz Mullojonov noted that Safarov's comments dovetailed neatly with those of Russian government-affiliated "experts" who like to portray Central Asia as on the brink of chaos so as to justify an increasing role there. He said that the fallout from the controversial Khorog operation last year has forced the government into playing up the seriousness of the threat posed by Badakhshan:
Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon traveled to Moscow this week to meet with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. At the top of the agenda was the long-delayed ratification of the agreement, signed last year by the two presidents, to extend the presence of Russia's 201st military base in Tajikistan until 2042. While Russia has already ratified the agreement, Tajikistan has been dragging its feet for reasons that remain unclear. But after the meeting in Moscow, Rahmon promised that the parliament would ratify the deal by this fall:
“I'd like to say that we treat this issue [of the Russian military base] very seriously,” Rahmon said, “and we are firmly committed to fulfilling our obligations. Now that we have solved a range of issues concerning the base, and as our parliament is returning from holiday, we will solve this issue by the fall of 2013.”
The two sides also apparently discussed the $200 million in military aid that Moscow has promised Dushanbe. One detail that emerged is that this amount is to be disbursed over a period stretching until 2025. “President Vladimir Putin’s orders are straightforward: to assess all risks and to help the Tajik armed forces face these risks,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said after the Putin-Rahmon meeting.
As usual with these sorts of meetings, details were scarce but speculation rampant. Much speculation centered around what the two discussed about Tajikistan's upcoming presidential elections. Political analyst Shokirjon Hakimov told the Tajikistan newspaper Avesta:
The shooting of a Turkish shepherd on the Armenia-Turkey border has sparked international tensions, though there appears to be some confusion in Turkey as to precisely with whom they should be angry.
The episode began July 31, when a 35-year-old shepherd in Turkey's Kars province accidentally wandered over the border with Armenia to retrieve one of his sheep that had strayed. (Though some reports say the wayward animal was a cow.) Kars Governor Eyüp Tepe blamed Armenian soldiers for the incident, and Turkey's Foreign Ministry issued a strong statement blaming Armenia:
We strongly condemn the shooting and killing of an innocent Turkish citizen for a simple border violation which we understand to have had an innocent purpose. There is no explanation for the Armenian party’s use of disproportionate force in such an incident which may typically occur at the border.
But it's no secret that Armenia doesn't actually control that border -- Armenia's borders with Turkey and Iran are in fact patrolled by Russian soldiers (though there are some Armenian guards under Russian command). It soon became clear that it was a Russian unit responsible for the shooting. From Hurriyet Daily News:
Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania during his interview with The Bug Pit (photo: Georgia MoD)
How can Georgia both improve relations with Russia while remaining on the path to NATO membership? That's been the fundamental question for Georgia's new government, which has promised to pursue both those seemingly contradictory strategic goals. But the country's defense minister, Irakli Alasania, chooses to frame them as complementary, rather than contradictory, aims. Alasania spoke to The Bug Pit last month in Tbilisi and discussed that question, among several other of the security issues Georgia now faces.
Alasania said that the new government, led by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, is a more attractive ally for NATO in several respects: “First, we are mature politically, we're not going to end up entangled in a military confrontation," he said. Secondly, the ministry is engaging a number of internal reforms to increase transparency, opening up tenders and expanding parliamentary and public oversight. "And the third thing: by improving, step by step, the relationship with Russia. This gives us space to deal with Abkhazians and South Ossetians, to reintroduce ourselves to Abkhazians and Ossetians. This is the key: If Abkhazians and Ossetians start thinking that, together with Georgia they're going to be in Europe, rather than stay under Russian occupation, this is going to be the key when allies will understand that we're ready.”
Nagorno Karabakh's armed forces have been substantially strengthened by large deliveries of weaponry over the past two years, said the head of the armed forces of the breakaway territory, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty:
"We have never had a situation which we have now in terms of obtaining concrete weapons and military hardware,” their top commander, General Movses Hakobian, told a news conference in Stepanakert.
Hakobian said the arms acquisitions have been so extensive that the Karabakh Armenian military has difficulty storing them and plans to build a new arms depot for that purpose. He declined to specify the types of new weaponry delivered to it.
Providing no details is standard practice. Armenians, both in Yerevan and in Karabakh (which broke away from Azerbaijan after the collapse of the Soviet Union), tend to talk big about their military might but provide few details. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, loves to tout its weapons purchases, probably to the point of exaggeration.
(Incidentally, the most authoritative source of real data on arms sales and transfers is the database of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which does a pretty complete (or, as complete as you can get) accounting of arms deals around the world. But remarkably, the database has absolutely no information on Karabakh, or the other ex-Soviet breakaway republics of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transniester, underscoring again what a black hole this part of the world is for verifiable information.)