India's Defense Minister AK Antony gets a "traditional bread and honey welcome" in Dushanbe from his Tajikistani counterpart, Sherali Khairyulleov
India's defense minister AK Antony visited Tajikistan this week on his way to Russia, which served as an occasion to revive rumors that India might yet use the Ayni air base near Dushanbe. One would think those rumors would have died once Tajikistan publicly said that India wouldn't be using the base, and that it was negotiating only with Russia on the use of the base. Yet, on Antony's visit he demurred when asked about the base, the Press Trust of India reported:
India, Tajikistan and Russia are in negotiations on the joint use of the Ayni Air Base, close to the Tajik capital Dushanbe which is set to acquire strategic significance after US withdrawal from Afghanistan, sources said here.
Though Defence Minister A K Antony made a technical halt at the Base, on way to Russia he did not divulge whether a trilateral understanding had been reached to develop the base, one of the biggest in Central Asia during his parleys here.
But, sources said that in talks with his Russian counterpart Anatoly Serdyukov, the issue, including working out modalities of joint use of the base was discussed.
When asked if India was a partner in the use of the base, Antony merely described Ayni as the best air base in entire Central Asia.
So is India still in the running? Probably not. But some Wikileaks cables shed light on why these rumors refuse to die. One cable, from the embassy in New Delhi in 2007, says that India has an interest in keeping the rumors flowing, in order to send signals to China and Pakistan:
Iran's movement of an oil rig toward Azerbaijan's territorial waters in the Caspian Sea in 2009 caused Baku to fret about its lack of military capacity to handle such a threat, and to seek advice from U.S. officials on what to do, recently released Wikileaks cables show.
The cables make for some fascinating reading, and seem to provide some real insight into the strategic thinking of both the Azerbaijani and U.S. governments about the threat of conflict in the Caspian. They make it clear that Azerbaijan is afraid of both Iran and Russian threats against its gas and oil infrastructure in the Caspian, and that U.S. embassy officials are eager to prevent any such conflict because of the economic disruption that it would cause.
The crisis, which seems not to have been previously reported, began in November 2009, when Iran moved its new Alborz-Iran rig into waters that were disputed between Azerbaijan and Iran. The U.S. shared some (unspecified) intelligence information to Ali Asadov, senior energy advisor to President Heydar Aliyev to which Asadov responded:
"This situation is challenging, your information shows this. This tension will escalate." Asadov did not outline specific responses the Azerbaijani government planned to undertake. Rather, like many of our GOAJ interlocutors, Asadov appears to be gathering information and weighing Azerbaijani options, in light of superior Iranian naval strength."
Asadov's assessment of the situation is worth quoting at length:
Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov is betting on NATO rather than the CSTO to help secure his country as the U.S. forces begin to leave Afghanistan in 2014, according to a report on the website uzmetronom (in Russian). The report doesn't cite any hard data, but uzmetronom is pretty well connected with government officials in Tashkent and their analysis certainly makes sense, given the trends of the last few years, in which Karimov has pulled away from Russia and its favored security bloc, the CSTO, while increasing its cooperation with NATO.
"The fact is that Islam Karimov has never considered the CSTO as a real force that could counter the military threat from the outside," the report says, adding that Karimov's top concern as the U.S. starts to withdraw from Afghanistan will be border security. "One solution: to develop contacts with U.S. and NATO as much as possible."
Since the U.S. has moved to remove human rights-related restrictions from military aid to Uzbekistan, the Obama administration has been criticized for abandoning its scruples for the sake of Tashkent's cooperation on hosting supply lines to Afghanistan. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked about that yesterday, and she said there has been progress on human rights and political freedoms:
With respect to Uzbekistan, we value our relationship with Uzbekistan. They have been very helpful to us with respect to the Northern Distribution Network. They have also been helpful with Afghanistan in terms of reconstruction. They are deeply involved in assisting Afghans and the Afghan Government to try to rebuild and make Afghanistan a more prosperous, peaceful country. We believe that our continuing dialogue with officials of the government is essential. It always raises, as I have and as others from our government continue to do so, our concerns about human rights and political freedoms. But at the same time we are working with the Uzbeks to make progress, and we are seeing some signs of that, and we would clearly like to deepen our relationship on all issues.
Now, that contention is going to get a lot of scrutiny. She didn't give any examples of how the situation in Uzbekistan has improved. The most recent State Department human rights report does highlight a few areas in which Uzbekistan has improved. For example:
Russian officials think the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a bloc of friendly ex-Soviet republics, can develop into a security grouping on par with NATO. But recent CSTO military exercises show that Moscow lacks a clear vision for how to utilize the alliance.
Most of the coverage of the news that the U.S. has decided to resume military aid (specifically, money to buy equipment, or Foreign Military Financing) has focused on why the U.S. did it, including this story from yesterday on EurasiaNet. But another question is: what does Uzbekistan get out of it? An obvious answer is, money, but the amount of money in question (at least so far) is very small, $100,000.
Maybe this will just open the door to more money in the future. But looking at the Wikileaked cables that describe the back-and-forth between the U.S. and Uzbekistan governments over the question of FMF, it doesn't seem that Uzbekistan is particularly concerned about the stuff per se, but in a more symbolic significance. For example, this cable from February 2010, after President Islam Karimov called for strengthening relations with the U.S.:
The fact that Karimov has effectively tasked his government to advance the relationship with the U.S. presents an important opportunity at a critical time as the USG manages the Afghanistan plus up. Karimov and the GOU are seeking legitimacy and recognition in two ways: First, they want the recognition and prestige that would accrue from a visit by Secretary Clinton to Uzbekistan. Second, they want to see progress on the issue of military-technical cooperation and what they know would be the concomitant lifting or waiving of the Congressional restrictions on FMF and IMET. Our challenge is to leverage this opening to our best advantage, but we cannot assume that time is our ally. The GOU is clearly looking for "signals," and, as part of any additional NDN-related requests, we would be well-served to be able to offer tangible responses to the Uzbeks on the question of a high-level visit or military-technical cooperation.
That's the provocative conclusion reached by the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, which seems to have gotten a hold of a document discussing the scenario of the Tsentr-2011 military exercises between Russia and several Central Asian countries that wrapped up today. The newspaper printed a map, purportedly related to the exercise, which envisages a joint Russian-Kazakhstan force in the Caspian Sea repelling an attack from the south -- from the southeast, "up to 70 F-4s and F-5s" and from the southwest, "up to 30 F-4s, F-5s and Su-25s." Well, a quick look around the militaries of the southern part of the Caspian Sea that have those sorts of aircraft brings one to only one conclusion: it's Iran. (You can see scans of the documents, in Russian, here.)
In the scenario of the exercise, the political leadership of Iran's decides to carry out air strikes against the oil fields of the Mangistau region of Kazakhstan which are being developed by American corporations (especially Exxon-Mobil).
The paper does note, however, that the scenario "may not match the real concerns and intentions of Russian strategy." Which is probably an understatement.
It's true, however, that the unstated concern behind much of the recent Caspian naval buildups by Russia and the other post-Soviet littoral states is Iran. In a report on Kazakhstan television (via BBC Monitoring), the head of Kazakhstan's Navy noted the fact that the borders of the Caspian Sea have yet to be delimited:
A couple of weeks ago, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmahinejad visited Dushanbe, and Tajikistan's defense minister Sherali Khairulloyev made a statement that raised some eyebrows around the region:
"Today, if necessary, the Islamic Republic of Iran's Armed Forces can reach Tajikistan in two hours, and if a military presence of the Tajik side in the similar plans and programs of the Islamic Republic is necessary, the representative units of Tajikistan's Armed Forces are also ready to travel to Iran," Khairulloyev said...
"We support each other under any conditions and both friends and foes consider us as two friendly and brotherly countries," he added.
Say what? The prospect of Iranian forces intervening in Tajikistan is certainly an intriguing one. (The prospect of Tajikistan's forces doing the same in Iran is clearly just a rhetorical bone thrown to Tajikistan's dignity; it has enough trouble defending its own territory, let alone that of Iran.)
The website Asia-Plus asked a couple of Tajik analysts for their thoughts on what to make of Khairulloyev's statement, headlined "Tajikistan-Iran: Against Whom Are We Allied?" (in Russian, translation by BBC Monitoring):
Abdugani Mahmadazimov, chairman of the Association of Political Scientists of Tajikistan: "Tajikistan has no enemies, neither among the neighbours nor among other countries. However, there are problems in some issues in the region, in particular the use of border rivers for irrigation and for energy purposes. These issues should be solved through talks, not involving the military forces of foreign states. Of course, Iran has a strong air force that it can immediately deploy....
Mongolia's defense minister has said the country is planning to send 850 peacekeepers to South Sudan, according to Xinhua:
"Sending soldiers to South Sudan, which is a newly independent country with civil war, is a matter of honor," the minister said...
In the past, Mongolian peacekeepers had served in conflict zones such as Iraq, Sierra Leone, Chad, Sudan, Kosova and Afghanistan, according to the defense minister.
"The responsibilities of Mongolian soldiers are also increasing. Previously, our soldiers were guarding military bases. Now they are guarding airports," he said.
Earlier this year, Mongolia had announced that it was going to send 850 peacekeepers to Cote d'Ivoire, but then nothing more was heard about that, and the defense minister at the time alluded to some bureaucratic holdups. So it seems reasonable to assume that that mission is now off the table and that the soldiers are going to South Sudan instead. I've tried to contact some sources in Ulaanbaatar for some clarification and more information, but thus far no luck. Will update as I get more information.
UPDATE: I heard back from a Mongolian defense official, who said this:
Yes, we couldn’t send troops to Cote d'Ivoire due to some bureaucratic procedure at UNDPKO. This time we could overcome this procedure, and UNDPKO has confirmed its approval sending our battalion /850 soldiers/ to South Sudan.
Moreover, we are nearly doubling our troop contribution to Afghanistan. Our troop number there will reach 350 instead 190 starting from this November.