The operation against militants in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge two weeks ago may not be quite what the government in Tbilisi claims. That's according to some on-the-ground reporting by Nicholas Clayton for GlobalPost:
Tbilisi has blamed a deadly shootout last week on "armed subversives" it said took hostages after crossing the Caucasus Mountains from Russia.
However, interviews in this remote valley near the site of the gun battle with families of some of the 11 men reported killed by special forces troops indicate most and possibly all of them may have been Georgian residents.
They say the authorities are intimidating residents into keeping quiet about what may have been a sting operation gone wrong. Some believe the accusations against Russia may be part of an attempt to boost poll numbers ahead of upcoming parliamentary elections.
From the accounts of the locals with whom Clayton spoke, it seems that Islamist radicalism, which bedeviled the Pankisi gorge in the early part of the 2000s, hasn't really disappeared.
In the village of Duisi, Vano Margoshvili said that he learned on Friday that his 22-year-old nephew Aslan was among those killed. He said government officials informed family members on Sunday that Aslan had already been buried in an empty lot in their village and that they could visit his grave only at night. They were forbidden to gather people for a funeral, and were not allowed to see or prepare the body for Muslim burial rites....
Turkmenistan held its first ever naval exercise on Wednesday, and it was a rare attempt for the foreign press to get a glimpse of what's going on there. All the big wire services carried reports on the exercise, and AFP's was the most detailed:
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov observed the exercises through binoculars from atop a two-story structure built on the deserted Caspian Sea coast about 60 kilometres (40 miles) from the nearest city of Turkmenbashi.
In the war games, the aggressor was given the name of the “blue” state while Turkmenistan was the “green” nation.
“A ship from the ‘blue’ country penetrated Turkmenistan waters to seize a Turkmen tanker...and the coastal city with its oil refinery,” a pamphlet with the exercise scenario said.
Observers — who included various diplomats from Western states — witnessed a staged hijacking, the burning of a refinery and moves by Turkmen airforce and navy on a screen.
By pushing back the enemy, “the ‘green’ state (Turkmenistan) made the ‘blue’ state abandon their aggressive intentions, reinstalling control of the state border,” the military commentator declaimed to the audience.
Berdymukhamedov, who arrived at the exercises in a helicopter and was welcomed with a chorus and orchestra, told diplomats that “Turkmenistan’s military doctrine is defensive but we must protect our border as we are a maritime state.”
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev on their way to the joint press conference
NATO's Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen took a quick trip through all three south Caucasus countries this week, where he criticized Azerbaijan's pardon of a soldier who killed an Armenian while on a joint NATO exercise in Hungary. Rasmussen also voiced strong support for Georgia's (eventual) alliance membership.
Rasmussen's trip took place at a time of heightened tensions in the Caucasus, especially between Armenia and Azerbaijan, over the pardon of Lieutenant -- now Major -- Ramil Safarov. At a speech in Baku, he pretty strongly condemned the move:
I am deeply concerned by the Azerbaijani decision to pardon Ramil Safarov. The act he committed in 2004 was a crime which should not be glorified, as this damages trust and does not contribute to the peace process.
At a joint press conference with President Ilham Aliyev, Rasmussen was asked about the issue, and Aliyev answered too, defending the pardon as in line with the Constitution, which must have been a bit of an awkward moment.
Rasmussen used identical words at a speech in Yerevan, and they apparently weren't strong enough for a number of protesters at his speech.
The reception was warmer in Tbilisi, of course, where President Mikheil Saakashvili said that Rasmussen deserved to be named an "honorary Georgian." Rasmussen gave a fairly strong endorsement of the concept, at least, of Georgian membership in NATO:
A Tajikistan border guard, during a 2007 training program with the U.S. Army.
In all of the news coverage of the fighting that rocked eastern Tajikistan this summer, one angle that was rarely (if ever) discussed was the U.S. involvement in training and equipping the government security forces that conducted the the operations there. While everyone has been paying a lot of attention to the U.S.'s growing ties with Uzbekistan as a result of the war in Afghanistan, the aid that Washington gives Tajikistan has flown under the radar. But the aid to Tajikistan has been pretty substantial, including a good amount of lethal military aid, and the conduct of the Tajikistan security forces this summer should be raising questions in Washington about whether this sort of aid is appropriate.
It's difficult to find out exactly what military aid the U.S. gives to Tajikistan. An increasing amount of the aid is given not through State Department programs (like Foreign Military Financing) but through Defense Department counterterrorism and counterdrug programs. And the latter tend not to have as rigorous requirements as to what information has to be reported to the public or to Congress. So, although much of the information isn't classified, it's not easy to find. As part of a report on U.S. security assistance to Central Asia that will be released soon, I tried to dig up all I could to figure out what sort of aid the U.S. was giving. And one of the surprising findings was how extensive the aid to Tajikistan has been.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh meets with Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon in New Delhi
Tajikistan's president Emomali Rahmon has wrapped up an official visit to India, where leaders of the two countries agreed on a "strategic partnership." India has given plenty of signs it intends to be more active in Central Asia, including announcing a "Connect Central Asia" policy this summer, and the joint statement signed by both presidents calls for lots of new cooperation in trade, energy and security.
And what of the hottest issue between the two countries, India's perpetual hope for an air base in Central Asia? Not much, reports the Times of India:
"President Rahmon and I agreed that in view of the broad progress made in our bilateral relations, particularly in defence and security cooperation, we should elevate our relations to a strategic partnership,'' said [Indian Prime Minister Manmohan] Singh as he described Tajikistan as a key partner of India in the central Asian region.
Official sources said that the strategic partnership emanated mainly from Tajikistan's fear of the Taliban and the possibility of their comeback in Kabul after the drawdown of international forces in 2014. While there was barely any mention of the Ayni airfield, which India helped rebuilt, the two sides agreed that New Delhi would build a Friendship Hospital in southern Tajikistan for both military and civilian use.
The Indian Express has a bit more on the Friendship Hospital:
[T]he two sides said they agreed to set up an “India-Tajik Friendship Hospital” in Tajikistan.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a "vehicle for human rights violations," according to a report published Monday by the International Federation for Human Rights. The report, which was put together with the help of local human rights organizations in all six SCO member countries (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), is a follow up to an earlier paper by a group affiliated with FIDH, Human RIghts in China. This one focuses on how legislation on counterterrorism is influenced by China and Russia via the SCO:
The incorporation of SCO doctrines into member state domestic law extends China and Russia’s control over regional counter-terrorism policies and practices beyond their own national boundaries, by virtue of their status as dominant members of the SCO. This has grave implications for the protection of human rights in Central Asia. On 6 and 7 June 2012, at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit in Beijing, member states amended an agreement on mechanisms for responding collectively to “events that jeopardise regional peace, security and stability”.
“The recent agreement in Beijing reflects the shared fear among SCO governments of the kind of popular uprisings still unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa, said Souhayr Belhassen, FIDH President. “The security doctrines of the SCO will add potency to the already expansive and unchecked state power that is often used and abused to criminalize dissent and human rights defenders”, she added.
When the U.S. ships military goods through Central Asia to Afghanistan, who gets paid? That's a pretty simple question, but several years after the establishment of the Northern Distribution Network, we still don't know. The Pentagon uses private companies to ship its equipment through Central Asia, but which private companies? How much do they get paid? People in Uzbekistan were asking these questions two years ago, and we still don't have answers.
Investigations into murky contracting practices around the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan exposed that relatives of two successive presidents were getting rich from base-related business. That resulted in a greater degree of transparency around Manas contracts. But as Jeff Goldstein, a policy analyst at the Open Society Institute, writes, the White House and Pentagon have actively sought to block measures that would illuminate who is getting paid on the NDN:
An August 28 meeting of the heads of CSTO member militaries in Moscow
The Collective Security Treaty Organization has vowed to "seriously strengthen" its military capacity, the group's general secretary said Tuesday, after a Moscow meeting of chiefs of general staffs of CSTO member militaries. According to a report in RIA Novosti, CSTO General Secretary Nikolai Bordyuzha:
noted that in December of this year a meeting of the Collective Security Council will be held. "The main agenda item which will be proposed in December is first of all to consider military questions. This will be a discussion of the development of the military component of the CSTO," the secretary said.
"And today's discussion led to many decisions, which will likewise be presented to the presidents for approval. I think, if today's decisions are approved, this organization will take a very big step forward with respect to the strengthening of the force component of this international structure," Bordyuzha said.
The general secretary did not specify precisely what decisions were made.
The CSTO is led by Russia and also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- though no longer Uzbekistan. The military chiefs of Russia and Kazakhstan spoke approvingly of the unspecified decisions made at this meeting, but it looks like we'll have to wait until December to find out what they amount to. Until then, the CSTO is scheduled to carry out military exercises in Armenia in September, and in Kazakhstan in October.
An efforts by U.S. lawmakers try to block the Pentagon from doing business with Russian state arms exporter Rosoboronexport has stalled, and likely will remain so until after the elections in November. But Russian officials are arguing that the fact that the U.S. military wants to buy helicopters from Russia, in spite of politicians' wishes, is "the best advertisement our helicopters can get."
Last year, the Pentagon awarded Rosoboronexport a contract worth nearly $1 billion to supply Afghanistan's armed forces with Mi-17 helicopters. U.S. defense manufacturers complained that the Pentagon was giving business to Russia that could be awarded to American companies. But the Pentagon's reasoning was that Russian helicopters are cheaper, and more importantly were already in service in Afghanistan, meaning that Afghanistan's pilots, maintenance crews, and so on, wouldn't have to learn an entirely new system.
Last month, though, the House of Representatives stepped in to try to put the kibosh on that contract. On a 407-5 vote, representatives voted to ban any funding for the contract. The Senate is unlikely to take up the issue before the election, but U.S. military are still advocating against it. That prompted one Russian defense official, Vyacheslav Dzirkaln, deputy director of the Federal Service for Military-Technological Cooperation, to brag a little bit:
"Despite this resistance, American military officials have made it clear that they need our helicopters, which are reliable and meet all of the requirements. This is the best advertisement our helicopters can get," Dzirkaln said.
The Russian newspaper Kommersant created a splash yesterday when it reported, citing "sources close to the Uzbekistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs," that the U.S. is planning to set up a Rapid Response Center in Tashkent. The Center would "coordinate actions in the event of deterioration of the situation after the American withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014" and would "essentially perform the functions of an American military base after 2014."
It went on: "'By and large, we are talking the largest American military object anywhere in the Central Asian region,' said a source."
Perhaps because Kommersant is a generally well respected newspaper, perhaps because of the apparent specificity of its report, the report was widely disseminated around the Russian-language internet. (UzNews.net went so far as to suggest that the U.S. was forcing Uzbekistan to allow a base by blackmailing Tashkent, threatening to "create problems" with the Western bank accounts of presidential daughter Gulnara Karimova.)