An explosion on a railroad on the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan border was a "terrorist act," according to local media, via RIA Novosti (in Russian). The explosion apparently happened on the line between Termez, at the southern tip of Uzbekistan, and Kurgan-Tyube in Tajikistan, between the Galaba and Amuzang stations. I can't find either of those stations on any map, but the stretch of that route that's inside Uzbekistan is pretty short, and hugs the Amu Darya river, the border between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. The explosion took place the night of November 17, there were no injuries and local authorities are investigating.
There is very little information about this so far, but there hasn't been a terror attack in Uzbekistan for several years. And the fact that it's so near to Termez, the hub of the U.S.'s Northern Distribution Network that carries military cargo through Central Asia to Afghanistan, has to have people worrying in Tashkent and the Pentagon. This line isn't the main line of NDN train traffic, which goes a more northerly route from Termez to Karshi, which would be an argument that it may not be NDN-related. Nonetheless, the location of the (alleged) attack is suggestive. Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov's number one fear is the rise of Islamist extremism in his country, and so if this does turn out to be NDN-related -- meaning that cooperation with the U.S. has brought terrorism back to Uzbekistan -- expect discussions between the U.S. and Uzbekistan over the NDN to get a lot more difficult.
Still, it's too early to jump to many conclusions. We'll see what more information emerges.
The Russian Okno satellite-tracking station in Tajikistan
Tajikistan could threaten a crucial satellite-tracking station if Russia continues its hostility toward Tajik migrant workers, an adviser to President Emomali Rahmon says. His comments were made before Tajikistan announced that it would release the pilots whose imprisonment sparked the recent brouhaha. But Dushanbe and Moscow are still wrangling over the price of rent for the Russian 201st military base in Tajikistan, and in a piece on Asia Plus, the adviser, Suhrob Sharipov, suggests that the Okno station could become a bargaining chip in the increasingly contentious negotiations between the superpower and its tiny, isolated client state. Translation via BBC Monitoring:
"Well, let us say Russia introduces a visa regime with Tajikistan. What will change in migration processes? There will be nothing serious... If Russia loses its base and the Okno space monitoring complex in Tajikistan then Tajikistan will turn into an absolutely alien country for Russia. It is hard to imagine what consequences it will have for Russia," Suhrob Sharipov said...
"Tajikistan is the only serious outpost of Russia's geopolitical interests in the region. Russia's interests in Tajikistan are the space monitoring station Okno, the 201st military base, geopolitical interests of the Russian Federation in Central Asia, influence on Afghanistan and so forth. There is no doubt that the current crisis in relations with Russia is shortcomings of Russian diplomacy and the Russian embassy in Tajikistan. I hope that Russia's hysteria is above all because of the election campaign and elections. Of course, Russia is a big country and still have levers to exert pressure on Tajikistan," he said.
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev on a 2009 state visit to India.
The chief of India's army is visiting Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the latest stops in what seems like a growing push by New Delhi to build military relations in Central Asia. IndianDefence.com reports:
Chief of Army Staff General VK Singh, “This proposed visit to Khazakhastan would be recorded as the first for the past 16 years by an Indian Army Chief after General Shankur Roy Chaudhury visited Kazakhstan. As for Uzebekistan, this would be the first time an Army General will be visiting,” he informed.
“The objective of these visits is to develop India’s relationship with the CAR countries,” they went further saying.
The visit will last three days in each country (Singh arrived in Uzbekistan yesterday), which seems substantial. Recall that, after getting pushed aside by Russia in its attempt to set up an air base in Tajikistan, India has regrouped and set up new military arrangements with Tajikiistan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia. But obviously Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are the heavyweights in the region, and I'll be curious to see where this is all heading.
There aren't many issues on The Bug Pit's radar that have much political resonance in Washington (or elsewhere), but the Russia-Georgia war is by far the most significant. As someone who had already been following the region for a while before the 2008 war, it was dispiriting to see how, over the few days that that war lasted, how polarizing the issue became. Before the war, there wasn't a conservative or liberal way to see Georgia -- pretty much everyone in the small cohort of people who paid attention to the Caucasus, no matter what their political views, understood that Russia was aggressive, Georgia was reckless, and that could end badly there. But over the short duration of the war, people who had never previously paid attention to the region tried quickly to figure out what was going on, and the easiest way to do that is to make it a partisan issue. So conservatives said Russia started the war, liberals said Georgia started it, and then a couple of weeks after the shooting stopped, everyone more or less stopped thinking about it, and their opinions calcified at that. So when you write about the Georgia war, you expect a little more attention -- people in Washington's ears perk up, and they read to see whether you confirm their bias about what happened, or if you're a warmongering neocon/feckless stooge of the Kremlin.
Rice and Saakashvili at a July 2008 press conference in Tbilisi
Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says Georgian President Saakashvili alienated potential NATO allies by "letting the Russians provoke him" into starting a war over South Ossetia. That's in her new book where, as with the controversy over Uzbekistan, she portrays herself as the voice of reason, in this case trying to contain the impulsive Saakashvili while also restraining the more bellicose members of her own administration.
She describes a meeting in Tbilisi with Saakashvili before the war broke out:
He's proud and can be impulsive, and we all worried that he might allow Moscow to provoke him to use force. In fact, he himself successfully provoked conflict in another breakaway part of the country, Adjara, and benefited when it had been reintegrated into Georgia through domestic and international pressure. The precedent, we feared, might make him think he could get away with a repeat performance in the territories located closer to Putin's beloved Sochi.
She urged Saakashvili to sign a non-use-of-force agreement, and he refused.
"Mr. President, whatever you do, don't let the Russians provoke you. You remember when President Bush said that Moscow would try to get you to do something stupid. And don't engage Russian military forces. No one will come to your aid, and you will lose," I said sternly.
Here's how she describes the start of the war, the evening of August 7:
Despite Georgia's unilateral ceasefire earlier in the day, South Ossetian rebel forces continued shelling ethnic Georgian villages in and around the capital, Tskhinvali. In response, the Georgian military commenced a heavy military offensive against the rebels..."
Now that the Bush administration has been gone a few years, its principals are coming out with memoirs of their time in the White House, and with them come a little more insight into U.S. government policymaking in the oughts. My colleague Giorgi Lomsadze has already reported on the small furor that Condoleezza Rice's new book has made among Armenian-Americans, but she's probably not going to make Donald Rumsfeld, or the government of Uzbekistan, any happier.
Like Rumsfeld, she recounts into the internal debate in the administration about how to respond to the massacre at Andijan, which was particularly delicate given that the U.S. was then maintaining a key air base at Karshi-Khanabad. Rumsfeld, you'll recall, in his own memoir called the U.S. response to Andijan “one of the most unfortunate, if unnoticed, foreign policy mistakes of our administration" because it privileged human rights concerns over strategic interests. In her book, Rice explains her side of the story, and how she won over President George W. Bush:
We'd crossed swords, for instance, on Uzbekistan where, after bloody riots in May 2005, State had issued a tough human rights report against the regime. The Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, had responded by threatening to expel us from the military base that he'd allowed us into at the time of the invasion of Afghanistan. Let us recall that we'd paid a small fortune for the privilege, but the dictator felt no obligation to honor that deal and said so.
A 2008 event in which U.S. special operations soldiers trained their Kyrgyzstan counterparts was a "success" -- except for the part when the Americans were relieved of their money and their weapons by the Kyrgyz. That's the unlikely assessment given by a U.S. embassy official in a Wikileaked cable.The cable was written in January 2009 for General David Petraeus, then commander of U.S. Central Command, ahead of his visit to the country.
Check out this extraordinary paragraph:
We assess Kyrgyz Special Forces to be among the best in the region and very receptive to SOF [special operations forces] engagement. In August 2008, we conducted training with the Alphas, the operational arm of the State Security Committee. While the training was a success, it was marred by the seizure by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, of the team's equipment, to include personal items, money and all the team's weapons kits. The Embassy has engaged the Kyrgyz Government up to the Presidential level to secure the release of the equipment but, to date, they have returned only a small portion of the weapons. The incident has also highlighted the need for increased coordination between the U.S. and Kyrgyz authorities to ensure smooth, successful future training engagements. Your visit can help move us closer to resolution of this issue.
Ever since Almazbek Atambayev won last month's presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan and promptly announced that he would close the U.S.'s Manas air base, there has been a lot of handwringing about Manas's future. Those inclined to armchair geopoliticking saw it as a victory for Russia, while others dismissed it as a bargaining ploy, an attempt to squeeze more money out of the Pentagon next time the terms of the base came up for negotiations. After all, that's what happened in the past when Kyrgyzstan's government threatened to close the base. But Lincoln Mitchell, writing in The Faster Times, has a different interpretation:
The situation today is different. Atanbaev’s position does not appear to be a case of simply trying to line his pockets with more American money, but has expressed his view based on his country’s geographical and strategic proximity to Russia and a fear that having a U.S. air force base just outside of his country’s capital could create security concerns for Kyrgyzstan. While this position is not what the U.S. wants to hear, it is also reasonable and can plausibly said to be representing the interests of the Kyrgyz people.
Atambayev in fact campaigned on a promise to close the base, calculating -- apparently correctly -- that that was a winning position. Mitchell continues:
Heads of government of the SCO states pose in St. Petersburg
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization held a prime minister-level meeting on Monday in St. Petersburg, and from the outcome it appears the group is continuing its trajectory away from being a security group -- as it appeared to be in the mid-oughts -- toward being a more economically oriented body.
Most intriguingly, the proposals that came out of the meeting seem to dovetail remarkably with those of the U.S. and its New Silk Road -- i.e., building infrastructure in Central Asia to help the region become a hub of commerce between Europe and Asia, along the way building prosperity and stability. Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said that Moscow would contribute $500 million to the CASA-1000 electricity project, by which hydropower from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan would be transmitted to India and Pakistan. And he endorsed the idea of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline. Both of those projects, you'll recall, are also centerpieces of the U.S.'s new New Silk Road initiative. Putin's speech at the SCO meeting echoed some of Washington's rhetoric of the New Silk Road:
I believe that we need to form a strong infrastructural outline of the Shanghai Organisation. Primarily, we need this in order to further expand our respective national economies, and to create new points of growth and additional opportunities for the people of our nations. Secondly, this will help realise the huge transit potential of the region and secure its role as a link between Europe and the Asian-Pacific Region.
A train crash in southern Uzbekistan in late September led to speculation that it was related to U.S. military transport to Afghanistan on the Northern Distribution Network, but the U.S. says the cargo on the ill-fated train wasn't theirs.
The crash happened September 25 near Tangimush, in Sukhandarya province. It doesn't seem to have been acknowledged by the Uzbekistan government, but some witnesses reported the news to Radio Ozodlik (in Russian) and took photos. Four people were killed.
This is the same line that was the subject of a Wikileaked cable that this blog mentioned a few months ago. In that cable, a local informant reported to the U.S. embassy in Tashkent that the new line, which was being used for NDN cargo, was built on such steep terrain that it necessitated riding the brakes on such a long descent that they were glowing red by the time it reached the bottom:
XXXXXXXXXXXX's description of current operations on the Karshi-Termez rail line is cause for concern. XXXXXXXXXXXX underlined this by saying he himself refused to travel on the line under current conditions. His description of wheels that are red hot by the end of the mountain crossing implies that a train wreck is possible in the literal sense.
I asked the State Department about the September crash, and this is the statement they provided:
Some media reports indicated that the train was carrying fuel; however, the cargo did not belong to the US government. This route is also used for commercial cargo transportation, and this appears to have been a commercial cargo shipment...