From top: Nearly all US troops going to and from Afghanistan transit through the airbase in Manas, Kyrgyzstan.; Barracks, or top-secret intelligence gathering facilities?; Wing commander headquarters.
Over the past year, the U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan has expanded its programs of outreach to the local community and to Kyrgyzstan's military and government, strengthening the base's role as a public diplomacy tool of the U.S. government.
Most of what the base (officially called the Transit Center at Manas) does has nothing to do with Kyrgyzstan. Its two main missions are serving as a transit and processing point for nearly all troops entering and leaving their tours in Afghanistan, and as a base for aerial refueling aircraft. Those are functions that can't as easily be carried out in Afghanistan itself. Most troops arrive to Manas on chartered civilian aircraft, which can't land in Afghanistan because of the security situation there. (At Manas, they transfer on to military aircraft for the rest of the trip into Afghanistan.) And the U.S. and NATO have maxed out Afghanistan's existing airport space with attack aircraft, as well as smaller transport planes and helicopters, requiring larger planes like the refueling tankers to be based outside the country.
As a result of Manas's sole focus on Afghanistan, there isn't any inherent connection between the base and Kyrgyzstan, other than the high-level negotiations that take place between Bishkek and Washington over the base's presence, rent and so on. And there remains a great deal of suspicion among Kyrgyz people and government officials about what exactly it is that goes on at Manas (suspicion enthusiastically fueled by Russian media). That, in turn, has fueled recurrent drama over the base's continuing presence in Kyrgyzstan; current President Almazbek Atambayev has frequently threatened to shut the base down.
The White House today released its proposed budget for the upcoming year, and the big news from The Bug Pit's area of interest is that the U.S. is now giving the same amount of military aid to Uzbekistan as it is to the rest of the Central Asian republics. Last year, Uzbekistan was budgeted a mere $100,000 in Foreign Military Financing aid, which allows countries to buy U.S. equipment. Still, that was the first FMF money Uzbekistan had been budgeted since 2005, because of Congressional concerns about human rights. But according to the budget documents (pdf) released today, in the current fiscal year Uzbekistan's aid has been bumped up to $1.5 million, and it is slated to get the same next year. That's still small potatoes compared to the big U.S. military aid recipients: Pakistan is budgeted to get $350 million, Egypt $1.3 billion and Israel $3.1 billion. And this also is dwarfed by the cash these countries get as reimbursement for being part of the Northern Distribution Network. But Uzbekistan's aid package is now the same as its neighbors': Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan also are budgeted to get $1.5 million, Kazakhstan $1.8 million and Turkmenistan $685,000.
The countries of the Caucasus get more: Armenia and Azerbaijan $2.7 million each, and Georgia $14.4 million (though we'll have to wait and see if any of that includes weaponry). Except for Uzbekistan's aid, and a doubling of Tajikistan's aid, there aren't many changes from last year. And the documents contain very little explanation of the aid packages for these countries. Georgia does get highlighted briefly:
Kazakhstan is close to opening a nuclear fuel bank that would allow countries a safe, reliable means of getting fuel for their nuclear power plants, and would theoretically make it more difficult for would-be rogue nuclear states to secretly build weapons. From the Wall Street Journal:
Kazakhstan believes the international community's first nuclear fuel bank can be up and running on Kazakh soil by late next year, potentially supporting the Obama administration's broader efforts to combat the spread of nuclear weapons...
In an interview, Kazakh Foreign Minister Yerzhan Kazykhanov said his government hopes consultations with the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, on the future fuel bank's location can be completed by this spring. He added the government then hopes to bring the facility on line by late 2013...
The IAEA and donors have already pledged $150 million for the project.
An official at the Vienna-based agency said consultations with Kazakhstan were progressing but the target date for the fuel bank's inauguration wasn't yet "set in stone."
The idea of such a fuel bank has been floating around pretty much since the beginning of the nuclear age, but now it seems like it could actually be coming to fruition. I asked Togzhan Kassenova, a nonproliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, what was different now, and she said the fact that the IAEA itself acknowledged that talks were moving forward. "At this point it appears likely that the IAEA/NTI [Nuclear Threat Initiative] bank will be established," she says, adding that there also have been no offers from elsewhere to host the bank.
France is finding it difficult these days to get its troops to and from the fight in Afghanistan. In an interview with L'Orient-Le Jour, the French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet says that withdrawing troops from Afghanistan via Uzbekistan and the rest of the Northern Distribution Network is "too costly." From RFE/RL, which cited the interview:
Longuet said the route was "not optimal" for withdrawing NATO forces but conceded the better option -- via Pakistan -- was currently more complicated due to "spoiled relations" between NATO countries, particularly the U.S., and the Pakistani government.
That chill in ties followed a November 26 NATO air strike that hit Pakistani troops on Pakistan's side of the Afghan border, killing 26 soldiers.
The interview doesn't give any indication of how France intends to deal with that dilemma. France, of course, just announced that it is withdrawing from Afghanistan a year earlier than planned, after four of its troops were killed by a rogue Afghanistan government soldier. That, too, could be pinned on the Americans; the killer allegedly attacked the French because he was angry about a video showing U.S. Marines urinating on dead Taliban members.
That's the thesis of a smart political scientist, who argues that the air base, as a concentrated source of wealth for whoever is in power, has provided a temptation for autocrats to consolidate power and for rivals to that power to challenge them. In his new book Chaos, Violence, Dynasty: Politics and Islam in Central Asia, Eric McGlinchey analyzes the differing political paths taken by independent Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
The reason Kyrgyzstan has been more unstable has to do with the Kremlin's policies in the region in the late 1980s. But the catalyst that has led to two dramatic overthrows of the government is Manas, McGlinchey argues. Under the first post-Soviet president, Askar Akaev, Kyrgyzstan was propped up by foreign aid, the diffuse nature of which forced him to spread it around to other members of the country's fractured political elite to keep them on his side.
The Manas air base changed this dynamic, however. Although political and economic reform aid continued to flow, this aid was overshadowed both in the popular imagination and ultimately by the huge amount of wealth that was directly accruing to the Akaev family through American fueling contracts. Members of Akaev's winning coalition, perceiving they were not receiving their fair cut of the Manas wealth, began defecting and agitating for Akaev's overthrow.
And of course, as has been well documented, when Kurmanbek Bakiyev took power in 2005, he began to do the same thing as Akaev had, using the massive fuel contracts for Manas as a way to enrich his family.
An Elbit Skylark, the model for Georgia's new drone?
Georgia is building its own drone aircraft, a leading member of parliament has told the Voice of America Georgian Service. The development of the drone has thus far been carried out in secret, but it may be unveiled at a military parade on May 26, Georgia's independence day.
The development of the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is part of the explanation for why the Georgian government and Elbit, an Israeli defense manufacturer, had gone to court over what Elbit says was a breach of contract. That lawsuit was just settled about a month ago for $35 million. Givi Targamadze, the chair of the parliament's defense and security committee, told VOA that Georgia returned the drones it bought from Elbit.
"The fact is that Georgia started the production of drones. Accordingly, we do not need the apparatus of Israeli manufacture and can safely return the equipment back."
That is actually a translation of a Russian translation of the original VOA article, which is only in Georgian, so I hope nothing was lost. Anyway, that seems a strange way to do business, but we don't know the details of the contract and Elbit has declined to comment on this lawsuit, so we may never know.
There are no technical details on the drone, including what its mission (surveillance? attack?) might be, or even its name. VOA quotes an expert, George Antadze, saying that there are several variants:
I have all the information available to the Georgian side has already completed work on the unmanned aircraft, there are working prototypes of these devices, the issue is not only one type, but several different types of unmanned aircraft.
Georgia's prospects in NATO, after being more or less left for dead in the wake of the 2008 war with Russia, have lately appeared to be improving. NATO has recently changed its rhetoric on Georgia, for the first time calling it an "aspirant" along with several Balkan countries. And U.S. officials have said Georgia is making "significant progress" that should be recognized at the next NATO summit, in Chicago in May.
So what does this mean? Does Georgia have a shot at NATO membership after all? As a story on EurasiaNet's main page today explains, not really: President Obama, after his meeting with his Georgian counterpart Mikheil Saakashvili, used the word "ultimately" to describe Georgia's entrance into NATO, which suggests he doesn't see it happening any time soon. And even if the White House were to again back Georgian NATO membership as strongly as the Bush administration did pre-August 2008, there would still be the matter of the big Western European countries who oppose Georgia's membership. So what to do?
The defense official quoted in the EurasiaNet piece had more thoughts on this (though there wasn't room in that piece). A Membership Action Plan, the holy grail for Georgia, is not a possibility. That subject won't even be discussed at the summit: remember, this will be in May of an election year. "It's about U.S. internal politics, so this summit needs to look good. We don't need a food fight like in '08, between us and the Germans, or the pro-Georgia camp vs. the camp that's not too keen on Georgia. We don't need that. So the whole Georgia issue isn't going to be raised," the official said.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has asserted that his recent visit to the United States raised US-Georgian strategic ties to a “new level.” American officials have been much more reticent on bilateral defense issues, raising questions about what exactly was discussed in Washington.
NATO and Russia are working on an agreement to set up a multi-modal transport hub in Ulyanovsk, in Russia's Volga region, to assist the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan, reports the Russian newspaper Kommersant, citing Russian diplomats. Via Johnson's Russia List:
Talks on establishing a NATO logistics base in central Russia started one-and-a-half years ago. A source from the Russian Foreign Ministry said that the United States proposed a Russian city where "cargo from Afghanistan could be airlifted and then forwarded by rail to Latvia or Estonia." After discussing several locations, both parties agreed to set up the hub in Ulyanovsk because its airport is best suited to the task in that region due to the proximity of railway lines.
Russian Railways and Volga-Dnieper Airlines, which are already involved in delivering NATO cargo from Afghanistan to Europe, are expected to benefit, as the project will increase cargo traffic considerably.
The report adds that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will soon sign an agreement on the proposal.
Intriguingly, one of the reasons that the facility at Ulyanovsk will be needed is because Uzbekistan is wary of the reverse transit, specifically about the possibility of drugs or arms being smuggled in along with it:
[The Ulyanovsk hub] is also important because of Uzbekistan, whose territory is currently used for the supply of goods to Afghanistan, does not want to allow them in the opposite direction.
"The Uzbeks are afraid of the importation of drugs and weapons. It's not so easy to check whole trainloads of military equipment," says the diplomat.
The United States is gently pressing Kazakhstan to do more to reform its political system in the wake of parliamentary elections that failed to meet international standards and a violent crackdown on labor protests in the country's oil-rich western region.