Turkey has hosted joint "urban warfare" exercises with troops from Afghanistan and Pakistan, comprising sniper and anti-tank units from the three countries. A video, apparently from the exercise:
The number of troops was small -- apparently 128 -- but the meaning of the exercise was more political than operational. Turkey has long been NATO's point of contact for relations with Pakistan, and Washington and Brussels have been trying to get Turkey to help build relations between the militaries of Afghanistan and Pakistan. So this exercise -- agreed upon at a summit between the three countries in December -- is a step in that direction. From the Pakistan military press service:
It is pertinent to mention here that this is the first time that a Trilateral Exercise among the three countries is being conducted on the Turkish soil .It will play a pivotal role in cementing close military ties between the countries in the realm of combating the menace of terrorism and extremism being spearheaded by the inimical forces.
For all the hand-wringing about Turkey's "shift to the East," things like this are a reminder that Turkey is uniquely positioned to manage NATO's relations with countries to its east.
Is the U.S. military planning some sort of new facility in the Caucasus? The commander of U.S. European Command, Admiral James Stavridis, testified before Congress this morning and suggested that. In his written testimony (pdf), he described five ongoing "force posture" (Pentagon-ese for basing issues) initiatives:
The fourth initiative is developing a U.S. Transportation Command requirement for a Black Sea/Caucasus en-route location to further U.S. expeditionary capability. The European Command will meet this requirement while maximizing our basing efficiencies.
(Emphasis added.) Reading between the lines, it seems like that must mean some sort of facility in the Caucasus to help with the Northern Distribution Network, shipping cargo to Afghanistan (i.e., something comparable to the Navoi cargo hub). A significant amount of U.S. military cargo already goes through the main airport in Baku, but this suggests that the Pentagon is imagining a dedicated facility for that, whether in Baku or elsewhere. That's just speculation, though. I asked TRANSCOM public affairs officials for more information and they said they had none and referred me to EUCOM; I will update when/if I hear back.
One of the questions I hope to ask: what, exactly, is a "location"? Is this yet another euphemism for the b-word?
Is China planning a military expansion across Central Asia -- by railroad? An analyst in Jamestown's China Brief suggests so., in a piece provocatively titled "The PLA’s "Orient Express": Militarization of the Iron Silk Road."
The analysis notes two trends: China's ambitious plans to expand its international rail links to the west, including to Central Asia, Turkey, Europe and the Middle East; and the People's Liberation Army's increasing use of rail transport to move military cargo and soldiers around China. And when you put those two things together...
With China’s expansionist policy and infrastructure projects toward its neighbors, some analysts are beginning to sound the alarm on the militarization of these projects.
For example, Konstantin Syroyezhkin, in Kazakhstan’s Institute of Strategic Studies, points out the rapid development of road and railroad infrastructure in Central Asia with Chinese participation may be used for future PLA troop deployments in case of a serious conflict threatening China’s security or strategic interests. This concern is corroborated by the recent SCO Peace Mission 2010 military exercise, whereby China transported troops to Kazakhstan by rail.
There isn't any actual evidence to suggest that China's railroad expansion plans hide an aggressive military intention, only speculation. But this is still a reminder that it's not only the U.S. military that could benefit from a "New Silk Road."
Turkey is ratcheting up the tension with the U.S. over the purchase of next-generation fighter jets, saying that it is putting "on hold" its purchases of F-35s because the U.S. is refusing to share with Turkey some software codes that control aspects of the plane's operations. From Today's Zaman:
Defense Minister Vecdi Gönül said on Tuesday, following a meeting of the Defense Industry Implementation Committee (SSİK), that the negotiations over the F-35 procurement tender had not yielded “satisfactory results.” He said, “We will evaluate the order in the next meeting, in light of the progress made in the talks by then.” He said much ground had been covered in the talks in terms of technology sharing, but this was not enough for Turkey to accept the jets.
An earlier story in the same newspaper explained in more detail the so-called "code crisis":
Though Ankara plans at this point to purchase around 100 of these fighter jets, there is the awareness in the Turkish capital that without the codes in question, possession of the jet planes will only be partial. There are assertions at hand that the F-35s will be controllable from outside sources, that they may be defenseless against electronic warfare and that no changes will be able to be made to their software.
An anonymous Turkish official puts the issue in stark terms:
The U.S. tried to help Georgia lobby other countries against diplomatic recognition of the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- but it made an exception for Uzbekistan, which it didn't want to pressure for fear of endangering the military supply lines that pass through Central Asia. That's according to Spanish newspaper El Pais, quoting a Wikileaked U.S. diplomatic cable. Translation by Google:
Only three countries seconded to Russia's recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Nicaragua, in September 2008 and Venezuela and Nauru, in 2009. The fear that Belarus imitate the example of Caracas caused "great excitement" to the Georgians, despite a U.S. warning against "overreaction."
Georgia appealed to the U.S. and Spain to "American pressure on states" and prevent them follow the example of Venezuela and Nicaragua. The negotiations were "successful", although as warned Assistant Secretary of Defense, Alexander Vershbow, Georgia should understand that Washington had "a limited role in some countries." The White House refused to put pressure on Uzbekistan, for example, for fear that it influenced their negotiations on transit routes to Afghanistan.
(Emphasis added.) Unfortunately WikiLeaks hasn't released the cable yet, so we can't see it for ourselves. (And this report is from more than a month ago, but I don't see anyone reporting it in English.)
Mongolia is proposing to send 1,500 peacekeepers to Cote d'Ivoire, in what would be by far its largest troop contribution to an international mission (and, if we want to be cute about it, the largest troop deployment abroad since the days of the Mongol Empire).
The United Nations made the request of Mongolia last month, but bureaucratic wrangling appears to be holding up the deployment, according to the country's defense minister Luvsanvandan Bold:
The Government has approved the request but some high state officials’ bureaucratic attitude is stalling any further action, to the dismay of the Ministry of Defense. We can send a large contingent of 1,500 soldiers to help in peace keeping there but officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade are sitting on the issue. The UN request came more than a month ago, but no reply has been sent.
An earlier report suggested that Mongolia was asked to send 850 troops, and it's not clear what accounts for the increase.
This blog often neglects poor Mongolia, but the country is doing interesting things with its military, and is a useful comparison to other post-Soviet states, in particular Central Asian ones, which have similar cultures and histories. But Mongolia has been much more active than any of those countries in contributing to UN missions. Over 2,300 Mongolian peacekeepers have served in Sierra Leone alone, with contributions in several other UN missions, as well as in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Officials in Kazakhstan are working to solidify international backing for the country’s early presidential election on April 3. So far, Astana has found the international community to be generally supportive.
As U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is in Russia talking nice about cooperation over supply lines to Afghanistan through Central Asia, other U.S. officials are giving indications that Washington is interested in cooperating more with China in Central Asia. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia just visited China, where he mentioned that the U.S. might be interested in collaborating with China in Central Asia -- via the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. This would be a remarkable about-face for Washington, which has held the SCO at arm's length (to put it generously). And it would be even more remarkable if the SCO reciprocated, given its history as an organization basically dedicated to keeping the U.S. out of Central Asia.
Blake gave a press conference in Beijing, and this was in his opening statement:
In addition to our bilateral engagement we talked about the importance of greater engagement with relevant regional organizations. In Central Asia the Shanghai Cooperation Organization seeks to bolster security, economic and cultural cooperation between China, Russia and Central Asia. We see the potential for greater U.S.-China dialogue on areas of mutual interest such as counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism in support of the SCO’s efforts.
Through greater engagement with regional organizations across South and Central Asia we seek to facilitate spheres of cooperation among regional organizations that reflect the geopolitical and economic realities of a 21st Century Asia. China’s support will be critical in this effort.
And then later, in the Q&A:
QUESTION: [Inaudible] the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, so will it become a principle in terms of U.S. and China cooperation of Central Asia?
Georgia's government believes it's never too early to teach the youth about the importance of the Euro-Atlantic security architecture, and has been opening up "NATO Corners" in schools across the country. The corners are "mini-libraries" that include "informational materials on NATO, Georgia’s relations with NATO and other international organizations, papers on international politics, etc." There are even NATO-themed comic books, and a cartoon, “Ani and Rati’s Wonderful Journey to NATO." (Sadly, YouTube does not appear to have the cartoon.) The centers are sponsored by various NATO member embassies.
But Georgia apparently has gone one step too far with its latest NATO Corner, in a school in Ergneti, on the de facto border with South Ossetia, and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a stern statement:
“The choice of the settlement of Ergneti for carrying out the propaganda action was not accidental obviously, after all this is the venue for regular meetings within the framework of the mechanism on incidents prevention and response on the South Ossetian-Georgian border which Russian border guards and representatives of the EU Observer Mission also participate in.
“The Georgian side’s intention is clear - to try to get the North-Atlantic Alliance involved this or that way in settling the much talked-about “problems of territorial integrity of Georgia”. At that, as a matter of fact, for some reasons they forget to inquire about the opinion of neighboring states – the Republic of Abkhazia and the Republic of South Ossetia”, Russian MFA Spokesman adds.