Kyrgyzstan's government has failed to win the confidence of its Uzbek minority after ethnic violence in the southern part of the country forced hundreds of thousands of Uzbeks to flee earlier this summer, a top US State Department official has said.
General James Mattis, the nominee to be next commander of U.S. Central Command, testified today at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services committee. Obviously the commander of CENTCOM has a lot on his plate -- Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Iran, Pakistan, Somalia, the Persian Gulf. But Central Asia is part of his area of operations, too. If his testimony is anything to go by, though, Central Asia is likely to be an afterthought. In a ten-page written statement (PDF), here is the sum total of what he says on our humble part of the world:
[I]n Central Asia, we have opened new and encouraging opportunities for engagement with Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan by cooperating to establish the Northern Distribution Network as a supply route to Afghanistan, which will also serve to further future economic integration and stability. Strengthening our relationships greatly aids our cooperation on other issues, such as counterterrorism and counternarcotics. In similar fashion, we are reaching out to Turkmenistan, advancing our partnerships in Central Asia, and doing so transparently to avoid any misunderstanding of our motives.
The end of that first sentence suggests, again, that the notion of the "modern Silk Road" emerging from the Northern Distribution Network continues to gain traction. But otherwise, there's not too much there to sink your teeth into.
The committee also released Mattis's answers (PDF) to questions committee members put to him in writing before the hearing. Among 59 pages, here is what he says on Central Asia, in response to a question about security threats there:
The mysterious Manas air base fuel contractors have hired some big-time Washington lobbyists, reports journalist Seth Hettena on his blog:
A secretive defense contractor that is at the center of a congressional investigation of a $1.4 billion contract to supply aviation fuel at the U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan has hired a powerhouse D.C. lobbying team that includes Dana Perino and others from the Bush White House....
As Congress turned up the heat on Mina and Red Star in July, the companies sent Washington lobbyists to the Hill to plead their case.
Senate lobbying disclosure forms show that on July 12 Mina Corp. hired public affairs firm Hamilton Place Strategies LLC to lobby Congress and the Defense Department.
Senate filings show the Hamilton Place team includes Perino, now a Fox News political commentator, and her former Bush White House colleagues William Griffin and Tony Fratto, who spoke for the president on issues including intelligence matters, terrorist financing and financial crimes.
Also joining the Mina Corp. team this month were McLean, Virginia-based Dudinsky, Lisker & Associates, which says it is “monitoring and reporting Congressional activity” on behalf of Mina.” Principal Joel Lisker is a former FBI agent who headed the Justice Department’s foreign agent registration unit in the Carter years. His investigation led the president’s brother, Billy, to register as a foreign agent for Libya.
Barbour, Griffith & Rogers’ Ed Rogers, a Reagan and Bush I White House veteran, and Morris Reid, registered July 20 as lobbyists for Mina to handle a House investigation regarding Department of Defense contracts to provide jet fuel to U.S. military base in Bagham, Afghanistan.
The Washington Post's Spy Talk blog reports on a couple of new wrinkles in the investigation(s) into the fuel contracts at the Manas air base:
The Pentagon says it is “cooperating fully” with investigations into allegations of corruption related to aviation fuel contracts at a U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan, a major staging area for the war in Afghanistan.
It’s the first time evidence has surfaced that the Defense Logistics Agency officials may be of interest to investigators, who are already looking into relationships between a supplier of aviation fuel to the base and the last two U.S.-backed ruling families of Kyrgyzstan.
The DLA's response to a SpyTalk inquiry, moreover, suggests there may be more than one investigation into those classified contracts beyond a probe opened by a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee in April.
“DoD takes all allegations of illegal activity seriously, and we are cooperating fully with all investigations into these allegations,” the DLA said in a statement.
The agency’s reference to “all investigations” suggests that at least one other federal probe of the aviation fuel contracts is underway.
You mean the fact that the Pentagon gave a $1.4 billion no-bid contract to a couple of not very well known companies is suspicious? More to come on this, for sure...
Russia has clarified its short-term modernization plans for the Black Sea Fleet:
Three patrol boats of a new project and three submarines of 636 project will be laid up at Russian shipyards for the Black Sea Fleet before the end of 2010, Russian Navy Commander Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky said.
"They [the ships] will be included in the Black Sea Fleet," Vysotsky said. "The three submarines of the 636 project have already been laid, and they will be included in submarine forces of the Black Sea Fleet."
The ships appear, given Vysotksy's description, to be Krivak III class frigates, a version of which has been produced for export to India. That would contradict some earlier reports that the ships would be the newer Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates. And Moscow appears to have opted for 636(Kilo)-class submarines rather than the newer Lada/St. Petersburg class that some had expected. (A side note: Really? You're naming a new submarine 'Lada'?)
While this may be look like a downscaling of Russia's expectations, it's a more realistic plan that has a greater chance of success, argued Dmitry Gorenburg in a good analysis of Russia's Black Sea Fleet plans a month ago:
If the Navy announces that the new ships will consist of Admiral Gorshkov frigates and Lada submarines, the Black Sea Fleet is likely to be in for more delays and disappointments. But if the modernization does end up consisting of Kilo submarines and Krivak III frigates, then it is much more likely to happen quickly and successfully.
In addition, Russia will soon be getting back its only currently functional submarine in the Black Sea Fleet:
The government of Tajikistan says it has captured a member of al Qaeda, a citizen of Uzbekistan, which RFE/RL says is Central Asia's first "homegrown al Qaeda member":
Islam Niyozmatov, an Uzbek citizen and a suspected member of Al-Qaeda, has been arrested in neighboring Tajikistan, according to a spokesman for the Tajik Interior Ministry.
"Niyozmatov was trained in Al-Qaeda terrorist camps in Pakistan in 2005-06, and he has taken part in several terrorist operations plotted by this organization," ministry spokesman Mahmadullo Asadulloev told RFE/RL.
He added that officials have convincing evidence to believe Niyozmatov is indeed an Al-Qaeda member.
Is this really Central Asia's first al Qaeda member? That would be pretty remarkable, given that there are already documented America, British, Canadian and German members.
RFE/RL's analysis of what this means seems pretty solid:
Expert opinion is divided over the arrest. Some security analysts suggest officials could be exaggerating the suspect's affiliation to Al-Qaeda to attract Western attention and aid.
Others, however, say that Al-Qaeda's recruitment of Central Asian youth has always been a question of "when." They say the most vulnerable to recruitment are people who struggle to find their place in society as a result of the lack of opportunity, poverty, and rampant corruption in the region.
Still, expect Niyozmatov to pop up as a data point in every future scaremongering journalistic/government/think tank report about the looming al Qaeda threat in Central Asia...
Matthew Bryza, President Obama's controversial nominee to be the next American ambassador to Azerbaijan, had his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill on July 22. He defended himself against allegations of bias in favor of Baku and asserted he would be an even-handed advocate of US policy in the Caucasus. His critics did not appear reassured, however.
A few weeks ago, when Hillary Clinton was on her tour of the Caucasus, the Associated Press reported that while in Yerevan, she "implicitly rebuked" Azerbaijan for violating the Nagorno Karabakh ceasefire:
At an evening news conference in Yerevan, Mrs. Clinton implicitly criticized Azerbaijan for a recent outbreak of violence. In mid-June, an exchange of gunfire along the front lines near Nagorno-Karabakh killed four ethnic Armenian troops and one Azerbaijani soldier.
However, if you actually read the transcript of that conference, you have to look extremely hard to find a rebuke of any sort. This is about as explicit as she gets:
The United States strongly condemns the use of force or the threat to use force. And we regret the loss of life that results as the use of force is used. These are unacceptable violations of the 1994 cease fire agreement. And it is also contrary to the stated commitments of both sides.
So, we have called upon everyone to refrain from the use of force or the threat of force because we, number one, do not want to see loss of life or injury; we do not want to see further dislocation of individuals or families; and we do not want to see the peace process harmed. So, my message is the same to everyone: the United States condemns the use or threat of use of force.
You have to have a pretty keen eye to detect any rebuke of Azerbaijan in there.
But maybe the AP was on to something. Because today, during the confirmation hearing for Matthew Bryza to be the next ambassador to Azerbaijan, Barbara Boxer -- a strongly pro-Armenia senator -- asked him about that:
Abkhazia has for some time been complaining about Georgia's violation of its airspace with unmanned drone aircraft. And now Sukhumi is going to fight back. Reports Aspnypress (in Russian; translation by BBC Monitoring):
The presentation of up-to-date unmanned aircraft developed by Russian specialists was held at Sukhumi airport today. Vice president Aleksandr Ankvab and prime minister Sergey Shamba, and representatives of the interior ministry, state security service, and department for emergency situations attended the presentation.
The Russian ZALA AERO company from Izhevsk also presented its products. Specialists of the company provided technical details of the unmanned aircraft, which are equipped with up-to-date video cameras, thermal imagers and photo cameras.
Two kinds of unmanned aircraft were launched as part of the show.
The representatives of the Abkhaz leadership took an interest in the products, as law-enforcement agencies can use them for monitoring transport on the roads and the border. Unmanned aircraft can also be helpful in emergency situations.
"We familiarized ourselves with presented specimen. We are interested and we will make a choice," prime minister Sergey Shamba told Apsnypress after the presentation.
Remember when we thought that the prospect of Turkish troops going to Armenia, through a temporarily opened border, for a NATO exercise was a further step toward rapprochement between the two countries? Well, never mind. For all the enthusiasm Turkey apparently held for the idea, it was less popular among Armenian officials, who quickly rejected the notion:
The Armenian Foreign Ministry refrained from officially commenting on the possibility of a temporary border opening. But a diplomatic source in Yerevan shrugged off the Turkish statement as "a public-relations stunt aimed at burnishing Turkey's image."
"Armenia has no desire to contribute to that effort," the source, who asked not to be identified, told RFE/RL. The Armenian government might refuse to let any personnel or vehicles enter the country from Turkey during the exercise, he added.
Other Armenian officials went on the record rejecting the Turkish reports:
The talks on a temporary opening of the Armenian-Turkish border during the NATO military drills to be held on September 11-17 in Armenia are groundless, assure correspondents of the RA Ministry of Emergency Situations with which NATO is organizing this year's military drills.
During the initial and final planning conferences organized within the framework of the NATO military drills, there was no mention of the opening of the Armenian-Turkish border. The Armenian, North-Atlantic and Turkish delegations didn't even make a proposal," Deputy Director of Armenia's Rescue Service of the RA Ministry of Emergency Situations Sergey Azaryan told "A1+".