Although Uzbekistan has been getting the most attention among coalition countries in Afghanistan looking for land routes to ship their equipment back home, Tajikistan also is encouraging western countries to do the same, and the United States and United Kingdom seem to be among the interested parties.
Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake visited Dushanbe last week and met with President Emomali Rahmon. After the meeting, Blake was asked if the U.S.'s withdrawal from Afghanistan would take place through Tajikistan. His response:
[A]s you all know, the President of the United States announced during his State of the Union speech that the United States would be halving the number of troops in Afghanistan by February of next year, but I don’t expect that that operation will take place through Tajikistan.
That appeared to be a shift in policy: the U.S. has been using the Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan (KKT) route as a complement to the more heavily used Uzbekistan route to ship equipment to Afghanistan. And some media reported it as such: Asia-Plus headlined its article "Washington does not plan to use Tajikistan’s infrastructure for Afghan withdrawal," while Nezavisimaya Gazeta wrote that his comments showed that "the U.S. doesn't consider Tajikistan to be a transit country."
A State Department spokesperson said Blake was only referring to troops, not to equipment, and referred The Bug Pit to the Pentagon for clarification of Tajikistan's status as a transit country. Commander Bill Speaks of the Office of the Secretary of Defense confirmed that "Yes, Tajikistan will be used as part of the NDN routes for retrograde of equipment." So that's cleared up.
The Russian military has carried out its most extensive surprise inspections of units' readiness in 20 years, and the base of the 201st Motorized Rifle Division in Tajikistan was singled out as one of the poorest performers. From a report in Vedemosti (via RIA Novosti):
The first surprise inspection in 20 years took place on February 17-20 and included the Central and Southern Military Districts, the Airborne Force and the Military-Transport Aviation Command. Airborne and Army officers were deemed sluggish in transmitting combat-alert signals. Many young officers and soldiers apparently don’t drive well, and can’t shoot much better. Several malfunctioning airplanes and helicopters remained grounded.
In the exercise, units were given a surprise order to carry out tasks like deploying themselves to another base. In the case of the 201st in Tajikistan, they apparently didn't even get the message.
A duty officer at the 201st military base (located in Tajikistan, on the outskirts of Dushanbe) missed the alarm signal, which led to the delayed departure of personnel. Commander of the base, Colonel Sergey Ryumshin explained the incident by the fact that the lines of communication, which the Russian soldiers use, belong to the local authorities, and they use outdated equipment which frequently is out of service.
Anyone who's dealt with Central Asian communications technology can certainly sympathize. But is the only way for Moscow to communicate with its base in Tajikistan through local lines? Perhaps Russia will use part of its $200 million aid package to Tajikistan for some new phone equipment.
The slow start for NATO's logistics hub in Russia may be due to cost and fears of Russian meddling, according to a senior NATO-member diplomat, speaking to The Moscow Times. While France just signed an agreement with Kazakhstan to use a facility at Shymkent to facilitate withdrawal, "no alliance member has announced that it will use [Ulyanovsk] for troop withdrawal from Afghanistan," The Times writes. "The only cargo that has been sent through Ulyanovsk so far is a number of containers for the British contingent that were sent from Camp Bastion in Afghanistan to Britain in December. That shipment has been described as a 'trial' by both NATO and Russian officials."
A NATO-country diplomat speaking to the Times reporter offered some intriguing explanations for that state of affairs.
A senior diplomat from a NATO country told the panel that the route was considered too expensive. Experts from his defense ministry have calculated that shipping a container from Afghanistan through Ulyanovsk costs 50,000 euros, while sending it via the Termez airbase in Uzbekistan costs only 30,000 euros, the diplomat told The Moscow Times, asking not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
But Yury Gorlach, a deputy director in the Foreign Ministry's European department, argued that Ulyanovsk was worth the extra cost because it was safer. "When you send valuable cargo from Afghanistan, Ulyanovsk is an option," he said.
The senior NATO member diplomat suggested that alliance countries are reluctant not just because of financial reasons. "They do not like the idea that Russian intelligence can take a close look at what they send back from Afghanistan," he said.
A special police unit from Tajikistan's Ministry of Internal Affairs during counter-terrorism training.
A program by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to provide human rights training to police in Uzbekistan has sparked controversy, with local activists arguing that such training is at best useless and would simply be window dressing.
The training, funded by the government of Germany, will train 50 police in the Kashkadarya, Andijan, Ferghana and Namangan regions. According to an OSCE press release:
Participants in the training courses will study basic principles of human rights and the international system of human rights protection. They will also discuss case studies on the role of law enforcement agencies in ensuring rights, including the right to peaceful assembly, freedom of expression and privacy.
Well, who could object to that? It turns out, human rights activists in Uzbekistan, according to a report on UzNews.net.
Human rights activists in Tashkent are convinced that these training courses serve no useful purpose and what the OSCE and the German government are doing is simply the imitation of training.
Human rights activist Tatyana Dovlatova believes that the Uzbek police “could not care less about international law”. “All these courses of the OSCE are just idle talk,” she said....
Another human rights activist, Shuhrat Rustamov, said that training courses for the Uzbek police would turn into a mere “talking shop”.
“This event is only for appearance sake,” he said.
The U.S. is proposing to cut State Department aid to the Caucasus by about 24 percent, while decreasing the portion of that aid devoted to security-related programs by about two percent, according to recently released budget documents (pdf). In Central Asia, while total aid would drop 13 percent, security assistance would remain roughly the same. The aid packages, if approved by Congress, would continue a pattern by the U.S. of increasingly placing a greater emphasis on security than on political, economic or health programs in the region.
Overall, State Department aid to Central Asia would drop from $133.6 million in fiscal year 2012 to $118.3 million in the current fiscal year, while aid programs under the rubric of "Peace and Security" would stay roughly steady at $30.3 million. (Programs in the "Peace and Security" category include not only military aid programs but also those targeting police, border control agencies and so on.) In the Caucasus, the aid would drop from $150.2 million to $121.6 million, with the security portion of that declining slightly from $35.6 million to $34.9 million.
Georgia would remain the largest U.S. aid recipient in the region, though its assistance package would drop from $85 million last year to $68.7 million this year. Most of the decrease would affect programs under the rubric of "Economic Growth." Aid programs in the "Peace and Security" category, meanwhile, would remain steady, at $21.7 million, with particular focuses on preparing Georgia's armed forces for NATO interoperability and retraining weapons scientists to work in counterproliferation.
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."