What's the biggest "threat" emanating from the Caucasus and Central Asia? Every year the head of the U.S. intelligence community is required to give to Congress a "Worldwide Threat Assessment" describing all the things that could go wrong for the U.S. around the world. Yesterday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper submitted this year's version (pdf), and our humble region got four paragraphs in the 30-page report. The facts in the report won't be news to readers of The Bug Pit, but what threats the intelligence community chooses to highlight are worth looking at:
The unresolved conflicts of the Caucasus and the fragility of some Central Asian states represent the most likely flashpoints in the Eurasia region. Moscow‟s occupation and military presence in and expanded political-economic ties to Georgia‟s separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia account for some of the tensions. Meanwhile, Tbilisi charged Russia with complicity in a series of bombings in Georgia in 2010 and 2011, while the Kremlin has been suspicious about Georgian engagement with ethnic groups in Russia‟s North Caucasus. Georgia‟s new constitution strengthens the office of the Prime Minister after the 2013 presidential election, leading some to expect that President Saakashvili may seek to stay in power by serving as Prime Minister, which could impact the prospect for reducing tensions.
Still from video of Obama and Saakashvili's White House meeting
Presidents Obama and Saakashvili has their much-anticipated Oval Office meeting Monday afternoon, and their comments to the press afterwards suggested that differences of opinion remained over the question of the U.S. supplying weapons to Georgia. That has become the most fraught element of the U.S.-Georgia partnership, with Tbilisi pushing hard to get the U.S. to give or sell the Georgians "defensive" weapons, and the U.S. demurring. Congress recently tried to force Obama to restart a more robust defense cooperation, including arms sales, but Obama then declared his intention to ignore Congress, setting up the potential of a small crisis between the tiny Caucasus nation and its would-be superpower patron. At the White House meeting, in spite of the formal professions of strong cooperation, it wasn't hard to see cracks in that facade.
Obama spoke first, and made an unfortunate slip of the tongue: he praised the "institution-building that's been taking place in Russia -- in Georgia." (Saakashvili did display remarkable restraint during the second or so before Obama corrected himself, sitting stone-faced.) After mentioning the possibility of a free-trade agreement between the U.S. and Georgia, he then discussed defense cooperation:
We talked about how to continue to strengthen our defense cooperation and there are a wide range of areas where we're working together. And I reaffirmed to the president, and reassured him, that the United States will contnue to support Georgia's aspirations to ultimately become a member of NATO.
By contrast, here is what Saakashvili said about defense cooperation:
Earlier this week, the U.S. designated three men as members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), shadowy groups operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And U.S. agents arrested a fourth man in the U.S., charging him with supporting the IJU.
These moves have prompted skepticism about whether the IMU and IJU are in fact real threats, and questions about whether the U.S. is trumping up these charges -- or even selling out Uzbekistan's dissidents -- for the sake of Tashkent's cooperation on the Northern Distribution Network. These are worthwhile questions to be asking, even while there's still too little information to come to conclusive answers.
But if this is a sort of "payment" by Washington to Tashkent, it wouldn't be the first time. Political scientist Eric McGlinchey, in his new book Chaos, Violence, Dynasty: Politics and Islam in Central Asia, discusses how the IMU got on the State Department's official list of terrorist organizations -- ultimately making this week's arrest and sanctions possible:
The "Desert Tank," on the way to fight terrorists in Kazakhstan?
Last May, Kazakhstan bought 20 off-road buses from a Chinese company, a sale that was marked at a ceremony at the factory and an "atmosphere festive, full of joy" but otherwise little notice. Now, though, several months later, some news stories have been popping up in the Chinese press that this bus is in fact a "desert tank" suitable for fighting terrorists in the desert on Kazakhstan's border with the Chinese province of Xinjiang.
Here we have a mighty new machine from China. This is the Shaanxi SX6100 SPF, nicknamed the ‘Desert Tank’. It is a bus-like vehicle based on a 6×6 Dongfeng truck chassis, made for all-terrain duty in the desert. Shaanxi just sold twenty SX6100′s to security services in the great country of Kazachstan where they will be used for ‘anti-terrorism-patrol’ in the vast empty deserts in the east, near the border with China’s Xinjiang Province.
As you can see from the photo (several more available here), the SX6100 sure looks a lot more like a bus than a tank, most notably because of its complete lack of armor. But, the report continues, it could be weaponized: "The Desert Tanks sold to Kazachstan are nor armed but Shanxi says a turret for a small machine gun can be fitted on the roof." The author challenges the mighty SX6100's potential attackers: "Come to check that out, terrorist!"
Still from video purporting to show American Humvees during the unrest in Zhanaozen, Kazakhstan, in December.
American Humvees, given to Kazakhstan using U.S. military aid, appear to have been used by the security forces which violently quelled the December riots in Zhanaozen, killing at least 17 protesters. The U.S. gave the Humvees to the Ministry of Defense for use in its nascent peacekeeping brigade, and it's not clear who was using them in Zhanaozen. But their use there suggests either that the peacekeeping brigade, known as KAZBRIG, was used to put down the uprising in Zhanaozen, or that the Humvees are being used by some internal security unit rather than by Ministry of Defense forces. Neither of those options are likely to please the Americans who gave Kazakhstan the Humvees.
The involvement of the Humvees is shown in a citizen cellphone video, aired in this report from Russian television network REN-TV. At about the 1:35 mark, you can see three Humvees driving down the road, and at 1:42 a very fleeting image seems to show another one traveling in the opposite direction.
Obviously, that brief glimpse doesn't say much, but it does suggest that Humvees were on the scene at the crackdown (assuming this isn't some sort of elaborate disinformation campaign). So, what were they doing?
The U.S. began giving Humvees to Kazakhstan in 2002, and now, according to a 2010 diplomatic cable, the "Kazakhstan HMMWV fleet currently includes 114 vehicles (45 up-armored vehicles, the rest being primarily unarmored or ambulances). KAZBRIG uses the [Humvees] for training peacekeepers and is expected to deploy with them as part of a future PSO [peace support operation]."
Former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze is making some pretty inflammatory accusations against his successor, reports the website Gruziya Online:
To maintain power, Mikheil Saakashvili may involved in a war against Iran, says ex-Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze.
"I do not rule out that Saakashvili to keep his seat can turn to a military campaign against Iran that would be a disaster for our country," he said, stressing that the issue could be the subject of future negotiations between Saakashvili and U.S. President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on January 30.
"An anti-Iranian campaign should not be conducted on the territory of Georgia," said Shevardnadze.
The Russian media is full of speculation about an impending attack on Iran far out of proportion with the likelihood of such a thing happening any time soon. And it's unlikely that war with Iran will actually be on the agenda when Obama and Saakashvili meet next week.
This analysis from Messenger.ge seems (except for the Iran stuff) more on target:
The defense bill that President Obama signed into law on December 31 contained a provision by which the U.S. could again start providing military aid to Uzbekistan, if the Secretary of State certifies that there is a national security reason for doing so. It also requires the State Department to provide an assessment of the progress that Uzbekistan has made in human rights.
Today, the State Department for the first time used that waiver, State Department officials tell The Bug Pit. And they sent along the language of the human rights assessment, which will likely warm the hearts of human rights groups: despite several recent statements by U.S. diplomats suggesting that Uzbekistan's human rights situation might be improving, there is no such implication in this document. (Of course, this is also probably why the State Department volunteered to send the document along.) The entire assessment is below, and it summarizes the woeful state of political, religious and media freedom; prison conditions; torture; child and forced labor; and the lack of an independent investigation into the notorious Andijan "events."
I wasn't told what aid specifically the State Department was seeking to provide via this waiver, but presumably it is the $100,000 in border guard training that has been already discussed. Anyway, the takeaway here appears to be that the U.S. can provide military aid to Uzbekistan without saying silly things about human rights there.
President Almazbek Atambayev meets his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul, in Ankara.
Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev has made his first foreign trip since becoming president, to Turkey. And while trade and aid seemed to top the agenda, the two sides also agreed to increase military cooperation, reports 24.kg:
Turkey will assist Kyrgyzstan in strengthening of Defense Ministry, Security Council and Frontier Service. It was announced by Foreign Affairs Minister Ruslan Kazakbaev during the official visit of President Almazbek Atambayev to Turkey.
According him on bilateral negotiations the issues of security, fighting against international terrorism, drug trafficking and illegal migration, strengthening of Defense Ministry, Frontier Service and law machinery,” said Ruslan Kazakbaev.
As the minister noted the issue of quota increasing for students, officers and young diplomats wishing to study in Turkey was also discussed. “Turkish part is going to support our request,” added the Minister.
And Central Asia Online reports, citing a Kyrgyzstan defense ministry statement, that Turkey will help build a military school in Osh and build up the country's defense industry:
“One of the high-priority issues for Kyrgyzstan is construction of an Armed Forces Military Institute in Osh,” said Kyrgyz Defence Minister Taalaybek Omuraliyev. “Its creation would permit us to train highly skilled officers for the Armed Forces and other Kyrgyz military forces.”
“Another important direction that we’d like to develop is the opening of joint defence industry factories,” he said. “We could foresee the conduct of joint tactical counter-terrorism exercises in Kyrgyzstan and Turkey.”
A pseudonymed analyst writing in Asia Times suggests that the visit was an effort by Atambayev to add more vectors to his country's foreign policy:
Russia will be holding a series of military exercises in the North Caucasus, Armenia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia this fall, reportedly in preparation for a possible U.S.-Israeli attack on Iran. The exercises, called Kavkaz-2012, will be held in September and won't be tactical/operational but strategic (i.e. won't involve large numbers of troops). The exercises will, however, include officers from the breakaway Georgian territories. The focus on surveillance, air defense and logistics suggests that Russia is tailoring the exercise to prepare for a U.S.-Israel-Iran war, says Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta:
As suggested by the head of the Center for Military Forecasting, Colonel Anatoly Tsyganok, "Preparations for the Kavkaz-2012 exercises seems to have begun already largely due to the increasing military tensions in the Persian Gulf." "In a possible war against Iran may be drawn some former Soviet countries of South Caucasus. How, then, to ensure the viability of Russian troops stationed abroad, for example, in Armenia? Apparently, the General Staff will plan some proactive measures, including learning to organize in critical logistic supply of troops," said the expert.