Someone alert Thomas Friedman -- or maybe Mullah Omar: As readers of this blog probably know, Orthodox Christmas was last week, and Georgian and American soldiers got to celebrate it in Delaram, Afghanistan, where the Georgians are based as part of the international coalition. The video report below, by a U.S. Marine Corps media team, shows a remarkably well provisioned Georgian "church" inside what appears to be a U.S. military tent, complete with icons, candles, incense and an impressively bearded priest:
The government of Tajikistan says it's close to wiping out the rebels who have been causing trouble in the Rasht Valley. According to a report on Central Asia Online, there are only a handful of rebels remaining, led by the elusive Mullo Abdullo Rakhimov and including some foreign "mercenaries":
“According to our intelligence, the Rakhimov group is now in the Rasht District,” Interior Ministry chief of staff Tokhir Normatov said. “They are 10-12 in number; the special services now are busy establishing the location of these militants, who could at any moment again destabilise the region.”
A source in the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) put the number of followers at 16, included one man said to be severely wounded.
“We are not taking any active measures right now; we’re just searching,” the GKNB source said. “At some point sooner or later, he and his men will descend into the (Rasht) Valley, and we’ll catch them then. That’s how it was with Ali Bedaki, whom we captured in Runob, when he came downhill. It’s hard to look for anyone in the mountains; there are so many burrows where one could hide. But sooner or later, hunger and cold will force them to descend.”
However, in addition to the usual reasons for skepticism about the official version of events, Asia Plus reports that the bodies of those killed in the recent operation in Rasht (which netted Ali Bedaki) have been taken to Dushanbe "for further analysis," won't be handed over to the relatives and in fact will be buried in a secret place:
That is apparently the claim of former top Turkish intelligence official Osman Nuri Gundes, who has published a memoir alleging that the Fethullah Gulen movement has been sheltering CIA agents in Central Asia since the 1990s. According to the Washington Post's SpyTalk blog, "in the 1990s, Gundes alleges, the movement "sheltered 130 CIA agents" at its schools in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan alone."
The Gulen movement already is a controversial one in Central Asia, with governments cracking down to varying degrees because of the group's alleged Islamist or pan-Turkic bent. And that's without allegations of being a CIA stalking horse.
SpyTalk's author, Jeff Stein, talked to a couple of former CIA officials involved with Central Asia and they poured cold water on the allegation:
Former CIA operative Robert Baer, chief of the agency’s Central Asia and Caucasus operations from 1995 through 1997, called the allegations bogus. "The CIA didn't have any ‘agents’ in Central Asia during my tenure,” he said.
It’s possible, Baer granted, that the CIA “turned around this ship after I left,” but only the spy agency could say for sure, and the CIA does not comment on operational sources and methods.
A U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, also said Gundes’s “accounts are ringing no bells whatsoever.”
But that's what they would say, isn't it... Anyway, Sibel Edmonds, the FBI-translator-turned-whistleblower, says that account doesn't go far enough, and the Gulen movement is an extremist Islamist one -- and that the CIA is cooperating with them nevertheless:
Got a question for Kazakhstan's Defense Minister Adilbek Zhaksybekov? Well, ask him on his website -- and he just might answer.
Defense ministries in Central Asia are not known for their open, transparent operations -- in fact, as far as I can tell, Kazakhstan is the only one of the five Central Asian republics to even have a website for its ministry of defense. Yet Kazakhstan goes a step further, and opens it up for anyone to ask the defense minister a question. The website was set up in January 2010, and according to the statistics published on the site, an average of 56 questions per month have been asked, and 43 of those are published.
Most are from soldiers or their families, and have to do with daily life issues for members of the army, like pay, pensions, education and especially housing. And Zhaksybekov acknowledges that housing is a problem. To one 58-year-old who is due to retire from the military but can't get the apartment he's been promised, Zhaksybekov replies (translation by Google):
Your appeal on the issue of housing, considered.
Despite the measures taken to provide housing for members of the Armed Forces, housing remains one of the most important.
Currently, the order of Minister of Defence of the Republic of Kazakhstan established housing commissions Akmolinskiy army and admission shelter, your question will be discussed at a meeting of the above housing commission.
Often, real accountability seems lacking. One person complains that soldiers are paid so badly they "have to beg for bread by the 20th of every month." Zhaksybekov responds, as he does in many such cases, legalistically:
As we head into the new year, it's a good time to take a look at the year that was, and what the upcoming year might offer. While it's a fool's errand to make predictions about what might happen in 2011, several trends over the last year emerged that seem likely to continue to develop over the next year.
The Northern Distribution Network continues to grow both in scope and in importance to the U.S. and NATO war effort in Afghanistan, and there's no reason to expect that to change. For example, the expected completion of the Uzbekistan-built railroad to Mazar-e-Sharif in 2011 will be a boon. What will be interesting to see is whether the U.S. is able to negotiate passage of lethal equipment -- as of now they can only send nonlethal supplies on the NDN, but the Pentagon would like that to change.
The drama over the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan will no doubt continue, and now that a government has been formed in Bishkek it's logical to expect that they will begin to press the U.S. for a renegotiation of the base rental terms.
Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and (to a lesser extent) Turkmenistan have been quite active in building up their militaries, and show no signs of slowing down. The Kazakhstan/Eurocopter joint venture, for example, is scheduled to start producing its first made-in-Kazakhstan helicopters by the end of 2011.
Turkey is betting that Central Asia will be a growing market for its weapons manufacturers, with plans to set up an office in either Azerbaijan or Turkmenistan to promote Turkish defense exports, reports Today's Zaman:
Turkey has decided to take yet another step in increasing its defense industry exports by launching three more promotional offices in Europe, Central Asia and the Gulf.
According to information Today’s Zaman received from Defense Ministry sources, Turkey has intensified efforts to that end in the past couple of months. The sources, who wished to remain anonymous, said the country already received an offer from Qatar to establish an office inside the country’s General Staff headquarters, while the remaining two offices will be opened in Belgium and either Azerbaijan or Turkmenistan. The first such office was opened in Washington, D.C., last month and retired Air Marshal Maurice Lee McFann was brought as the head of the office in the US capital.
It's telling that Central Asia is included among the far larger defense markets of Europe, the U.S. and the Middle East, and suggests that Turkey foresees a lot of growth there. Turkey's straight defense exports to the region have thus far been pretty scanty, though it is lately setting up a lot of joint ventures with companies in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Turkmenistan, however, is a curious choice for the site of such an office. The Turkmenistan government doesn't announce much about their military procurement plans, but does Turkey know more than the rest of us?
The Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led would-be NATO of the East, has generally focused on physical security threats, e.g. forming a "rapid reaction force" and holding joint military exercises among member militaries (Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan). But the organization is fighting the information war, as well: Last week CSTO General Secretary Nikolay Bordyuzha announced that it has "revealed" 2,000 objectionable websites across the CSTO space, and is moving to shut them down:
“This operation, which received the name of “PROXI”, was the first experience of fighting against criminals in the virtual space on a scale of the whole CIS,” Mr. Bordyuzha continued. “Thanks to our joint efforts, we’ve revealed about 2 thousand Web resources who spread information which may cause political damage to our states. They stirred national or religious hatred or supplied information for terrorist groupings. On the basis of the data that we’ve collected, about one thousand proceedings have been instituted.”
Bordyuzha is pretty blunt about the political nature of the operation:
“For some time past, practically all post-Soviet republics saw cases when certain political forces widely used Web resources to manipulate people’s moods - Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine, and, recently, Kirgizstan. Today, some people use the Web to stir nationalistic feelings – or, to calm down people whom they consider to bee too active. In fact, information can be a weapon now....
An information war against terrorism and drug trafficking is no less important than other forms of fighting against these evils. From now, operations to close extremist Web sites will be constantly held.”
What does NATO expansion have to do with the war in Afghanistan? Quite a bit, according to an article in the new issue of Foreign Affairs. In it C.J. Chivers discusses the "arms cascade," by which small arms make their way from richer countries to poorer ones, and rebel groups. The process is familiar to anyone who's pondered the history of a city bus in, say, Kazakhstan, that has stickers on the inside in Norwegian and Hungarian. As with public transportation, countries that upgrade their military equipment sell their secondhand equipment to countries lower down on the geoeconomic food chain. But the arms trade, of course, is a lot more secretive and carries a lot more potential for mayhem.
And in the case of the arms cascade, the causes are as much political as economic. In particular, ex-Soviet and Warsaw Pact countries that are joining NATO get rid of their Soviet/Russian equipment as they buy Western equipment. Those surplus arms have created a glut in the worldwide market:
While human rights advocates in the U.S. have been warning about U.S. cooperation with Uzbekistan over the Northern Distribution Network since the NDN was set up last year, these discussions have been going on much longer in Germany. The German military has used a facility in Termez, on the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan border, since 2002, as a rear supply base for their NATO troops in northern Afghanistan. But that could be ending. Last week, Germany's foreign minister said his country would start withdrawing troops next year.
Back in 2006, Der Spiegel reported on Germany's involvement in Uzbekistan, and the tension that created between Germany's devotion to human rights and its military strategy:
[H]ow many million Euros should Germany invest in a corrupt country, knowing full well that the population hardly ever benefits from the money? And is it acceptable that the commander of the German air force squadron is even barring German journalists from entering the base -- in response to "discreet pressure from the Uzbeks," as military officials in Potsdam in charge of the Uzbekistan mission coyly explain? Is it acceptable that in banning the journalists, the German military is exempting a mission from public scrutiny that is subject to parliamentary supervision at home?
Berlin's dialogue with the regime in Tashkent is "as immoral as its dialogue once was with Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, Serbian butcher Slobodan Milosevic or Iraqi criminal Saddam Hussein," says Uzbek journalist Galima Bukharbayeva, who fled to the West after barely escaping Andijan with her life.