The U.S. military needs to help the governments of Central Asia protect themselves against violent extremist organizations, says the likely next commander of U.S. Central Command, General Lloyd J. Austin, III. Austin faced a confirmation hearing on February 14, and while it seems that the question of U.S. relations with Central Asia didn't come up, Austin was asked about the region in written questions before the hearing. His responses (pdf) were notable for the emphasis that they put on maintaining military relations with the region even after the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan starting next year, and for the credence that he gave to the threat of extremism in the region.
In response to a broad question about relations with Central Asian states, Austin said that cooperation with U.S. partners in the region will gain importance after 2014:
As we transition in Afghanistan, securing access to the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) for logistical resupply and retrograde operations is of particular importance as we seek to promote stability and assure our partners of our continued commitment to the region. The development of the NDN has been a critical area of investment to that end and cooperation with our Central Asian partners will gain additional importance post-2014.
Relations with Uzbekistan are to be based on "mutual benefit":
Our relationship with Uzbekistan continues to improve in a deliberate, balanced way driven by regional security considerations, expansion of the NDN and mutual benefit.
Interestingly, Austin seems to take a bit of a defeatist attitude to Kyrgyzstan's stated desire for the U.S. to vacate the Manas airbase next year:
The Persian Empire at its greatest extent, including -- yes -- territory of today's Armenia, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan.
A minor diplomatic kerfuffle has arisen over an Iranian presidential candidate's campaign promise to "return" Armenia, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan if he is elected. The candidate, Ayatollah Sayyid Mohammed Bokiri Kherrozi, promised that:
“If I am elected as president, I will return the lands of Tajikistan, Armenia and Azerbaijan, which were separated from Iran...
He said the return of the territories separated from Iran will be the major program of his pre-election campaign.
“I will get back these lands without any bloodshed.”
Naturally, this was not well received in Baku, Dushanbe or Yerevan.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Tajikistan responded with a statement calling Kherrozi an "intriguer, an ignoramus and an unaware person" (according to BBC Monitoring's translation). Asked about Kherrozi's claim, Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry spokesman Elman Abdullayev said that he "doesn’t comment on absurd and groundless statements."
And Iran's ambassador to Yerevan had to clarify that Kherrozi's remarks did not reflect official policy:
Speaking about the mentioned remark, Ambassador Mohammad Raiesi said Kherrozi is not an official but religious figure, thus he cannot express the position of the state.
Sgt. 1st Class Peter Mayes, 101st Sustainment Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (AA) Public Affairs
A rail line at Hairatan on the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan border.
Just as the U.S. announces that it is accelerating its withdrawal from Afghanistan, its exit routes through Pakistan have reopened, taking a yet-unknown amount of business away from Central Asia.
The U.S. is reportedly now planning on removing more than half of the 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan over the next year. That means that the "retrograde" routes out of Afghanistan that U.S. military planners have been establishing will soon be operating in full gear. Repeated delays had kept the bulk of cargo in and out of Afghanistan passing through Central Asia, a longer route that cost the Pentagon about $100 million a month more than it would be spending to use the shorter route through Pakistan. But with impeccable timing, the Pakistan border has just reopened for U.S. military business, reports the AP:
The United States began its withdrawal from Afghanistan in earnest, officials said Monday, sending the first of what will be tens of thousands of containers home through a once-blocked land route through Pakistan.
The shipment of 50 containers over the weekend came as a new U.S. commander took control of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan to guide the coalition through the end stages of a war that has so far lasted more than 11 years.
The containers were in the first convoys to cross into Pakistan as part of the Afghan pullout, said Marcus Spade, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan....
Didgori armored personnel carriers, soon on their way to Azerbaijan and Korea?
Georgia's brand-new domestically produced armored vehicles may already have interest from foreign buyers, some government officials are saying, according to a report in Georgian newspaper Mteli Kvira (via BBC Monitoring). One of the officials is President Mikheil Saakashvili:
"Before the [1 October 2012] election, I often heard people saying that the Georgian military hardware production is a bluff. However, the public knows very well that it is not a bluff. Lazika and Didgori really exist and are so good that even South Korea and Azerbaijan got interested in them. I know it for sure...", the president said.
And though Georgia's defense industry has been the source of some political sparring between Saakashvili's United National Movement and the rival governing Georgian Dream, the latter confirmed Saakashvili's claim (while still using it as the occasion for some additional sparring).:
Defence Minister Advisor Vako Avaliani told Mteli Kvira ... that the fact that South Korea and Azerbaijan expressed interest in the Georgian military hardware is a top secret and in contrast to the president, he is going to respect the rule.
However, Parliament Defence and Security Committee Chairman Irakli Sesiashvili openly spoke about other countries' interest in the Georgian-made armoured vehicles.
"Delta is intensively working on different orders, which is a rather important issue. It should be noted that until present, the state has never worked in this direction and was only restricted to the domestic market.
"At the moment, South Korea, Azerbaijan and some other countries, too, show interest. What matters is that we correctly work out every detail when working on orders," Sesiashvili told Mteli Kvira.
UK Defense Secretary Phillip Hammond meets with Afghan troops in Helmand.
The UK will give or sell military equipment to Uzbekistan as it withdraws its forces from Afghanistan, the country's secretary of defense has reaffirmed, suggesting that London will have a pretty liberal policy for doing so.
During a visit to British forces in Helmand, Afghanistan, defense secretary Philip Hammond was asked about Uzbekistan's prospects for getting British equipment, The Times (UK) reports:
Mr Hammond, on a brief tour in Helmand, said: "Clearly those that have helped us would have a strong claim on any surplus material." He added that gifting or selling equipment under value would have to be reported to Parliament. "We have already agreed on the structure of the deal and it's just going through the ratification process now, and I am highly confident that that will happen," he added.
"We have a general principle that we don't transfer equipment that might be used for internal repression, but the Uzbeks have a clear challenge in the post-2014 period around their long border with Afghanistan. This is not just against an insurgency or Islamists, but also against crime and narcotics."
What is the U.S.'s interest in Central Asia? For the past decade, the answer has been simple: Afghanistan. The U.S. needs the cooperation of the Central Asian states to carry out its war in Afghanistan. But what happens when the U.S. leaves (or at least significantly draws down) in Afghanistan, which is supposed to start happening next year? What will be the U.S. interest then?
The simplest answer is, none. Geographically, Central Asia about as far away as you can get from the U.S. Its natural resources, while substantial, are hardly gamechanging. The security threat represented in 2001 by a group of transnational terrorists who happened to temporarily use Afghanistan as a base seems a fluke unlikely to be repeated. For those trying to promote democracy and respect for human rights, it is becoming evident that Central Asia is a barren desert in which their seeds can find no purchase.
This being the U.S., though, people in the policy community have to come up with some sort of justification to stay involved in the region. And so it was that a large crowd gathered Tuesday at the Washington think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies to hear a discussion of a new report, The United States and Central Asia After 2014. But the impression left after the thought-provoking discussion was that there is nowhere close to a clear picture, even among Central Asia experts, on what the U.S.'s interests in the region really are.
Uzbekistan has asked NATO for assistance in defense education, the alliance has said in the Secretary General's annual report:
Education is a key agent of transformation and NATO is using it to support institutional reform in partner countries. The Alliance’s education and training programmes, which initially focused on increasing interoperability between NATO and partner forces, have been expanded. They now also provide a means for Allies and partners to collaborate on how to build, develop and reform educational institutions in the security, defence and military domain. Defence education enhancement programmes have been set up with Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan and the Republic of Moldova. In 2012, Iraq and Mauritania also began cooperating in this field with NATO, while Ukraine and Uzbekistan have requested assistance.
In terms of building up Uzbekistan's military capacity, this isn't going to do much: these sorts of institutional reform projects, while probably more productive in the long run, tend to be viewed skeptically by post-Soviet countries, who would much rather have "hard" tactical training or equipment aid.
So the significance of this is geopolitical. While that diverse group of countries (including Collective Security Treaty Organization members Armenia and Kazakhstan) should temper any sweeping judgments about what the geopolitical significance of this is, it's still an intriguing step by Tashkent. And as Uzbekistan has just left the CSTO, much to the consternation of Russia, this will undoubtedly be viewed in the Kremlin as evidence of Uzbekistan's drift westward.
Azerbaijan never had any intention of shooting down flights to Karabakh, the country's deputy foreign minister has said, in what appears to be an effort to back away from previous statements threatening to do just that. From AZE.az:
[Deputy Foreign Minister Araz] Azimov said that Azerbaijan was not ready to shoot down civilian airplanes, as Armenians and their supporters are constantly crying.
"In accordance with the Chicago convention, specific rules exist which are recognized by the Azerbaijani side, which provide for the prevention of illegal flights and forcing them to land in specific airports. So it is not true, when someone earlier tried to speculate that 'Azerbaijan will shoot down civilian flights," Azimov reported.
"The Armenian side, speculating on these questions, attempts to put pressure on Azerbaijan by conducting these flights to the Khojaly airport. Recall that these territories are occupied and opening an illegal air corridor means an occupation of airspace," he said.
A number of Azerbaijani officials have threatened to shoot down flights landing in Karabakh, from the military to the civil aviation authority to the cabinet of ministers. While they may not have specified that they would shoot down civilian flights, given that the primary purpose of the Karabakh airport is for civilian use, the message Azerbaijan was attempting to send was clear.
Last week, Open Democracy Russia ran a very good series of articles on relations between Russia and China. One was especially interesting for EurasiaNet readers, about choices that the Central Asian states are having to make between integration with Russia or China. The piece concentrates on the economic sphere, in which, as the authors convincingly argue, integration with the two big superpowers is becoming mutually exclusive.
Of course, Russia and China also have their respective Central Asia integration schemes in the security sphere: China has the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and Russia the Collective Security Treaty Organization. So I asked one of the piece's authors, Raffaello Pantucci, an expert on Chinese-Central Asian relations, about whether there was going to be a similar reckoning in that sphere. Short answer: no. His more detailed thoughts:
The Bug Pit: Is there a similar looming choice to make for the Central Asian states, whether they prioritize ties with the SCO (dominated by China) or CSTO (dominated by Russia)?
Uzbekistan is seeking to get mine-protected vehicles, small arms, and even helicopters and drones from NATO forces who are using its territory for logistics support in Afghanistan, the New York Times has reported. That Uzbekistan is seeking some sort of leftover weapons is old news; this has been discussed (publicly) for more than a year. But the Times story provides a lot of new detail on what in particular Uzbekistan might be looking for, and it looks like they're aiming their sights high:
[T]he Uzbeks have been broadening the scope of their demands, said a senior American official directly involved in the diplomacy of the Afghan logistical routes, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the delicate negotiations.
The requests have gone from relatively common items like night-vision goggles to large and expensive American-made goods like MRAP vehicles, the 14-ton armored utility trucks that help protect troops from roadside bombs.
Other items that the Uzbeks have eyed in the American arsenal in Afghanistan are small arms, mine detectors, navigation equipment and possibly drones, according to Der Spiegel, the German newsmagazine, suggesting that the Uzbeks are looking at the pullout next year as a sort of everything-must-go moment for military shopping.
And Uzbekistan isn't just looking to the U.S., but Germany, too:
After years of watching helicopters fly in and out of Termez airfield, which is used as a German base in Uzbekistan, the government in March told Germany’s defense minister, Thomas de Maizière, who was visiting, that it would not mind getting its hands on a few of them, the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported....
Such talks have alarmed members of the German Parliament, who requested clarification from their government.