The U.S. has announced it is funding a project to eliminate intestinal parasitic worms among schoolchildren in Tajikistan. Sure, you're saying, agencies like the U.S. Agency for International Development do that sort of thing all the time. Well, but in this case, it's not USAID or another aid agency who's doing it, but the tough guys at U.S. Special Operations Command. From the official government solicitation notice:
The United States Government‟s (USG) Department of Defense (DoD) is seeking to contract for a Tajikistan nationwide deworming effort in conjunction with the local government‟s Ministry of Health (MOH), Ministry of Education (MOE), and other stakeholders as applicable. The goal of the project is continue historic efforts and provide a foundational program which can be built upon and continued by the Government of Tajikistan into the future.
The solicitation notes that deworming projects in Tajikistan have been undertaken in the recent past, but this one appears to be more ambitious: the goal is to target the entire country. The commandos from SOCOM won't be doing the deworming; it looks like they're just trying to find a qualified organization to fund to do the project.
A week ago, after Human Rights Watch issued a statement criticizing the White House for seeking to ease restrictions on military aid to Uzbekistan, a State Department spokesperson promised to provide me with more information on what exactly sort of aid was being sought. After repeated inquiries, I still haven't heard anything, so it's safe to assume there will be no information for now. HRW suggested that the aid was to bribe Uzbekistan into greater cooperation with the Northern Distribution Network, the overland supply lines to Afghanistan that pass through Uzbekistan. The spokesperson told me that they had gotten several inquiries, but the only additional information (and it's not much) has come from Steve LeVine, of Foreign Policy, who talked to an unnamed U.S. official:
The senior U.S. official, who asked not to be identified, argued that the U.S. is not bribing the Uzbeks, but "seeking congressional support so small amounts of non-lethal assistance can be provided so Uzbekistan can defend itself against possible retribution from militants who might attack them for supporting NDN." This assistance includes items such as body armor, he said. Regarding Karimov's intolerance of opponents and critics, he said that the U.S. presses Uzbekistan to improve its human rights record and "we have acheived some progress."
Any time the Uzbekistan government justifies something by saying it is needed to protect against militants, we should immediately be skeptical. This is an old trope with them, and there have as yet been no attacks on the NDN in Uzbekistan or anywhere else. What small amount of militant activity used to exist in Uzbekistan has been completely wiped out -- does anyone remember the last time there was any sort of attack there?
Wreckage of what Armenian officials in Nagorno Karabakh say is an Azerbaijani unmanned drone
Armenian forces in the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh have shot down an Azerbaijani unmanned drone aircraft, they say. Azerbaijani officials thus far have been silent on the issue, but the Armenians have produced photos and video of the wreckage.
Vazgenashen, previously known as Gulably, is about ten kilometers from the Line of Contact (LoC) between the two armies. Armenian officials believe the aircraft was on a reconnaissance mission.
Karabakh military officials said there was a spike in Azerbaijani UAV activity in recent days most of it along the LoC. But an Azerbaijani intrusion at such depth can be considered a significant escalation.
The aircraft went down on September 12 at 7:30 AM local time near Vazgenashen in Nagorno Karabakh's Martuni district "as a result of special measures undertaken by units of air defense and radio-electronic warfare of the Karabakh Defense Army," the army's press office reported.
Upcoming military exercises between Russia and several Central Asian countries are targeted both preventing the spread of the "Arab Spring" into Russia's near abroad, and the possibility of Islamists destabilizing Central Asia after U.S. troops leave Afghanistan. From September 19-27, about 12,000 troops from Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan will practice counterinsurgency in Russia and Kazakhstan, and Russia's Chief of General Staff Nikolai Makarov said the exercise's scenario would deal with "possible negative developments following the example of events in Libya and Syria, as well as the export of instability from Afghanistan after the withdrawal of NATO troops from there in 2014," reports Vedemosti (in Russian).
The article goes on to quote Makarov as saying that 80 percent of the tasks of a modern army are "post-conflict settlement," so the exercise, called Tsentr-2011, will simulate fighting against small groups of militants. The article also notes, however, that Makarov said that Russia's entire Caspian Sea Flotilla would be involved in the exercise, which suggests that there may be more going on than just counterinsurgency here.
Analyst Roger McDermott, writing in Jamestown's Eurasia Daily Monitor, further notes that the scenario also envisages enemy aircraft and a chemical weapons attack on a southern Russian city. He says that the inclusion of aviation and naval components in the exercise is a muscle-flexing move by Russia:
One point must be stressed: this element in the exercise bears no relation to any concern about a future bleed out in Central Asia of a resurgent Taliban....
Turkey's collapsing relations with Israel over the past week or so have occasioned a new round of hand-wringing about whether the West is losing Turkey. But that drama has overshadowed another, countervailing, development: Turkey's agreement to host a NATO air defense radar. This has recently been one of the most sensitive Turkey-NATO issues; NATO wanted Turkey to host the system, but Turkey didn't want it to explicitly target Iran, even though it is obvious to everyone that that's the threat the system is intended to protect against.
But for whatever reason, the Turkish government has changed its mind, agreeing to host the radar and even (in a somewhat between-the-lines fashion) acknowledging that it has to do with Iran:
“We are of the opinion that the step taken [in deploying the radar system] is important for our region. That’s why we, as the government, have decided [to station the system in Turkey] after broad consultations,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said late Tuesday.
That has bolstered Turkey's relationship with NATO, argues Lale Kemal in Today's Zaman:
Turkey's decision to host on its soil the radar component of a US-sponsored missile shield project should be seen as a political decision reaffirming Ankara's ties with NATO. This decision comes at a time when the alliance has begun to perceive Turkish foreign policy goals as a deviating from those of the Western club. One Western official commented on the Turkish decision to host the missile defense radar saying, “Turkey is back in the club.”
The White House is getting soft on Uzbekistan for the sake of access to military transport routes to Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch charges:
According to congressional sources, the administration wants Congress to adopt language that would allow the secretary of state to waive existing human rights-based restrictions on US assistance, including military aid, to the Uzbek government. The waiver would be intended to help secure a deal the United States is negotiating with the Uzbek government to provide the US enhanced military access to Uzbekistan to support its operations in Afghanistan...
“The US has an interest in enhancing its supply routes to Afghanistan, and the Uzbek government profits handsomely from existing transit agreements, so both have strong reasons to continue and expand them,” Williamson said. “The United States should not be sacrificing human rights conditions to reach an agreement on access that both sides ultimately want.”
The U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi believed that the Georgian government was "overly focused" on getting American weapons, according to a cable written in February 2010, in advance of then-Afghanistan envoy Richard Holbrooke's visit to the country, and released by Wikileaks:
It is hard to overestimate the extent to which an intense climate of insecurity permeates Georgian society and political culture. Russian forces, located as close as 25 miles outside of Tbilisi, are building permanent bases and Georgians hear a steady drip of Russian statements alleging Georgian aggression or announcing the latest step in incorporating Abkhazia into Russia's economy. Moscow's statements suggesting that Georgia is planning provocations in the North Caucasus have raised fears among Georgian officials that Russia is looking for another pretext. Tbilisi, in turn, is overly focused on weapons acquisition as an antidote to its jitters. It fears our approach to defense cooperation (heavily focused on developing the structures and processes to assess threats, develop appropriate responses and make informed decisions about use of force before moving to acquisition) is a trade-off to secure Russian cooperation on other issues, such as Iran. ... Your discussion of our broader efforts with Moscow will help reinforce with Saakashvili that we do not see this as a zero-sum equation - and that Georgia also benefits from Moscow's cooperation on the wider agenda.
Azerbaijan's defense minister told U.S. officials that the country was interested in "active cooperation with NATO up to full membership" but couldn't say so publicly, according to a diplomatic cable recently released by Wikileaks. The cable recounts a 2007 meeting between Defense Minister Safar Abiyev and a U.S. delegation from the Pentagon and State Department headed by then-Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Peter Rodman:
Abiyev said that Azerbaijan's cooperation with NATO had a goal in mind. He said that this goal "could not be announced, for certain reasons" at present, but that Azerbaijan sought "active cooperation with NATO up to full membership". He said that the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was the only inhibitor of Azerbaijan moving even more quickly with NATO: "It is time for more serious, more active steps by the US in Minsk Group. Our cooperation with the US and NATO would be more open and more decisive in this case."
There is ample reason for suspicion here. It's not clear what the "certain reasons" for Baku's reticence were, perhaps the fear of a bad Iranian or Russian reaction, an issue that's frequently cited in the cables from Baku. There is reason to doubt the sincerity of that fear (see below). But even if you take the Azerbaijanis at their word, if you can't even announce publicly that you want to join NATO, the obstacles are so daunting as to make any such wish meaningless.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has visited Tajikistan, and with his counterpart Emomali Rahmon, announced that the lease on Russia's military base in the Central Asian country will be extended for 49 years. Said Medvedev at a joint press event:
We discussed today the completion of work on extending the agreement between our countries on the presence of a Russian military base on Tajikistan’s territory. We agreed to instruct our relevant agencies to have a new forward-looking agreement extending the base’s presence for 49 years, ready for signing in the first quarter of 2012.
I think that this kind of agreement must be carefully put together, and at the same time needs to reflect the balance of interests between the two sides. In any case, Mr Rahmon and I reaffirmed our desire today to reach a final agreement on this matter within the timeframe I just named.
Russia has been thinking long-term with its military presence abroad, signing deals of similar length with Armenia and Ukraine. But the real story between Russia and Tajikistan will be whether the former is willing to pay to keep the base. Tajikistan's government has said it now expects Russia to pay for the base, but Russian analyst Arkady Dubnov, in a recent interview with IWPR, says he doesn't think Russia will agree to that:
The railroad connecting Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, with the Uzbekistan border town of Hairatan, has opened, putting into operation a key node of the U.S. military's overland transport route through Central Asia to Afghanistan. reports Central Asia Online:
TASHKENT – Service began last weekend on the long-awaited Hairatan-to-Mazar-i-Sharif railway.
Uzbekistan Railways (UTY) built the route, which was scheduled to open in July before contingencies forced a postponement.
“We have been working out the route’s status as well as who will run it and how (since early July),” said Rasul Holikov of UTY.
Uzbekistan and Afghanistan signed a three-year cortract August 4 under which Uzbekistan will provide commercial services and operate the 75km railway.
Curiously, the report doesn't mention the military origins of the railroad, even though the website is run by US Central Command. It does, at the end, refer lightly to the security issues related to operating a train in Afghanistan:
“I drove a locomotive through all of the stations up to Mazar-i-Sharif,” said Umid Hursandov, a UTY engineer. “Like all other the new railways built by our company, (it) is reliable and meets all standards. Many railway workers in our country are worried about their safety if they work this route. Of course, it would be foolish not to recognise that tension in the region persists, but I saw sound security along the entire railway and soldiers were guarding every crossing and important railway yard.”
It's also curious that no one else seems to be reporting this, but anyway, for more on the military aspect, see this previous post.