The State Department has released its annual "Country Reports on Terrorism" reviewing terrorism activity from the past year and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the ISIS is the overwhelming focus throughout the report, but also in the former Soviet Union.
"The ongoing civil war in Syria was a significant factor in driving worldwide terrorism events in 2014," State wrote in the report's introduction. "The rate of foreign terrorist fighter travel to Syria – totaling more than 16,000 foreign terrorist fighters from more than 90 countries as of late December – exceeded the rate of foreign terrorist fighters who traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, or Somalia at any point in the last 20 years."
The report continues State's practice of describing governments' perceptions of the threat of terrorism, rather than Washington's own perception. The introduction of the section on South and Central Asia reads: "Central Asian leaders have expressed concern about the potential terrorist threat posed by the return of foreign terrorist fighters to the region in the wake of ISIL’s growth in the Middle East and the drawdown of U.S. and Coalition Forces in Afghanistan."
Last year's report expressed substantial skepticism about Central Asian government's claims about terror threats; that skepticism is less apparent in this report's newly written sections on ISIS. However, a senior State Department official testified before Congress earlier this month on ISIS in Central Asia and downplayed the threat, noting that the vast majority are not recruited in Central Asia but abroad, particularly in Russia.
The U.S. Navy has rejected claims that Russian jets forced an American warship to retreat after getting too close to Russian waters in the Black Sea.
The USS Ross has been patrolling the Black Sea since May 23, part of the U.S.'s stepped-up military presence in the region. And according to an unnamed source in the security structures of Crimea, Russian Su-24 aircraft forced the American ship to change course because it was nearing Russian waters and "acting provocatively and aggressively," reported RIA Novosti.
The Russian news agency Sputnik noted that: "The incident comes on the same day as fugitive Georgian ex-leader Mikheil Saakashvili's appointment as governor of Ukraine's Black Sea-bordering Odessa region." It did not elaborate on what the connection between the two incidents might be.
Over the past year there have been several similar minor episodes between the U.S. ships patrolling the Black Sea and the Russian military. In one such incident last April, a Russian Su-24 buzzed the USS Donald Cook, which the Pentagon called "provocative." And according to a story widely distributed in the less reputable parts of the Russian internet, the Russian jet managed to shut down all of the American ship's electronic equipment, an experience which so demoralized the crew that 27 of the sailors requested retirement shortly after. (An English-language version can be seen here.)
U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan Susan Elliott posing with two OMON officers in 2013. (photo: twitter)
The senior Tajikistan police official who apparently defected to ISIS had taken part in United States training on five seperate occasions, a State Department official has said.
Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov, the head of the Ministry of Interior special forces OMON units, claimed in his ISIS promotional video that he gone to the U.S. three times for counterterrorism training, including with American mercenary firm Blackwater. "Listen, you American pigs: I've been to America three times. I saw how you train soldiers to kill Muslims," he said. "You taught your soldiers how to surround and attack, in order to exterminate Islam and Muslims."
That claim was confirmed by the State Department on May 30. "From 2003-2014 Colonel Khalimov participated in five counterterrorism training courses in the United States and in Tajikistan, through the Department of State's Diplomatic Security/Anti-Terrorism Assistance program," spokeswoman Pooja Jhunjhunwala told CNN.
OMON has been one of the key elements of U.S. security cooperation in Tajikistan, which has focused on training and equipping the country's various special forces units. That training has been controversial, even before there was any ISIS connection: while the special forces are Tajikistan's most capable units and would be used to combat genuine security threats, they also are a key element of President Emomali Rahmon's repressive rule and have been implicated in indiscriminate force in suppressing internal opposition.
U.S. Army vehicles and soldiers arrive in Georgia for joint military exercises Noble Partner. The heavy equipment was ferried from Bulgaria across the Black Sea. (photos: U.S. Army)
The United States Army is conducting first-of-their-kind joint military exercises in Georgia to train for NATO rapid-response missions.
While the U.S. and Georgia have conducted plenty of joint military exercises befofe, this one will be the "most robust" one to date, according to Pentagon officials. One innovation: the U.S. shipped 14 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles across the Black Sea from Bulgaria to Georgia, along with several other support vehicles. While U.S. military officials reportedly thought that the presence of Bradleys on the Black Sea "might provoke a reaction by the Kremlin," so far that doesn't seem to have happened. (One also wonders whether they crossed paths with the two Chinese frigates now in the Black Sea.)
"This is the first time that the U.S. Army has deployed a mechanized company worth of equipment across the Black Sea," the U.S. Army said in a press release. As the old military cliche goes, amateurs talk about strategy, professionals talk about logistics. "[This] movement from Varna, Bulgaria, across the Black Sea to the port of Batumi in Georgia, opens new avenues for transport with partner nations. Expanding freedom of movement enables easier access to training with allies as well as responding quickly to contingency operations," said one American logistics officer, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Mark Shawen.
The Pentagon will provide Uzbekistan with patrol boats and vehicles worth up to $6.2 million to help the country in its counternarcotics efforts, the U.S. embassy in Tashkent has announced.
The short announcement didn't detail the number or types of boats and vehicles, but it did say that they will be allocated to Uzbekistan's State Border Protection Committee of the National Security Service and the State Customs Committee.
Security along the Amu Darya river, which separates Uzbekistan from Afghanistan, has long been a priority of U.S. security assistance to Tashkent; even in the period between roughly 2004 and 2012 when military aid to Uzbekistan was restricted due to congressional sanctions, aid and training for border forces continued.
"In early 2007, the Department of Defense sold the Government of Uzbekistan fourteen patrol boats to promote the security of the Amu River, part of which runs along Uzbekistan's southern border with Afghanistan," reported one 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable. "The Border Guards Termez Riverine Squadron maintains and operates these boats, and DOD conducts annual training on the use of these craft. Training includes basic small craft maneuvering, maintenance, shallow river patrolling techniques, night patrolling, interdiction techniques and radar-assisted patrolling."
The United States State Department has criticized its embassy in Tajikistan for its cooperation on an investigation into military aid practices there, suggesting that embassy staff in Dushanbe were giving a sanitized view of events to their superiors in Washington.
On April 7 the State Department's Office of the Inspector General released a report on the Dushanbe embassy's activities, and among the issues it investigated was U.S. military aid policy in the context of the controversial 2012 military operation in Khorog. In that operation, special forces units -- which have been the focus of extensive U.S. training and equipping programs -- opened indiscriminate fire in the town, killing about 20 civilians. That raised questions about whether the aid was in violation of U.S. laws that try to prevent military aid going to human rights violators.
When the State Department tried to look into the event and U.S. military aid policies in Tajikistan, the information they were given was written by the military officers of the embassy, rather than the diplomats who were supposed to be providing oversight, the OIG report says. That "frustrated" officials in Washington trying to investigate, and "undermined confidence that the embassy provides a full and reliable picture of local developments."
The United States State Department has laid out a new policy vision for Central Asia, with a greater focus on "countering violent extremism," harsh words for Russia, and a newly conciliatory line towards Iran.
The new vision was explained by two senior diplomats in speeches in Washington this week: one by Richard Hoagland, a longtime diplomat in Central Asia and now Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs; and another by Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.
In terms of details or specific new policies, the speeches contained little new: there was still an emphasis on the New Silk Road vision of promoting regional trade and transportation, still an focus on promoting security while also pushing for greater respect for human rights.
Perhaps the most newsworthy part of the new policy is that such a high-ranking official as Blinken laid it out; Central Asia's profile has markedly decreased in Washington over the last few years as the U.S. has begun to wrap up the war in Afghanistan.
And while there weren't new policies laid out, the speech did signal some new emphases for the U.S. in Central Asia, which may be reflected in new initiatives in the future. The essence of Blinken's speech was probably these two paragraphs:
Turkmenistan has approached the United States asking for military aid to help the country address instability on its border with Afghanistan, and Washington is trying to support the requests, a senior American military official has said.
The head of U.S. Central Command, General Lloyd Austin, testified before Congress this week and gave CENTCOM's annual "posture statement," which includes rare public pronouncements of the U.S.'s official military policy toward Central Asia. This year probably the most newsworthy statement was about Turkmenistan.
While noting that "Turkmenistan’s declared policy of positive neutrality limits our opportunities for substantive military-to-military collaboration," Austin also reported that "[t]he Turkmens recently expressed a desire to acquire U.S. military equipment and technology to address threats to their security along their southern border with Afghanistan. We will do what we can to support those requests." Austin did not provide details about what sort of equipment was being considered. There have been several recent reports of increased Islamist militant activity in the northern regions of Afghanistan bordering Turkmenistan, and Russia has been pressing Turkmenistan to allow it to provide military assistance.
Austin also pointed to the growing military relationship with Uzbekistan, highlighted by the decision to give more than 300 armored vehicles to the country's armed forces. "The U.S. military relationship with Uzbekistan has strengthened considerably over the past year," Austin testified. "And, expanded U.S. Special Forces training will further improve the Uzbek military’s capacity to meet security challenges."
NATO warships deploy to the Black Sea. (photo: NATO)
A six-ship NATO naval group is conducting joint exercises in the Black Sea, and the Russian military is taking advantage of the event to carry out war games of a sort.
The NATO group is led by an American admiral aboard the USS Vicksburg, and also includes warships from Canada, Germany, Italy, Romania, and Turkey. The training "will include simulated anti-air and anti-submarine warfare exercises, as well as simulated small boat attacks and basic ship handling manoeuvres," according to a release from NATO.
An anonymous source in the Russian naval base at Sevastopol, Crimea, told agency RIA Novosti that they are following the deployment and using it as an opportunity to practice testing the NATO forces' anti-aircraft systems. The probing is being carried out by Su-30 fighters and Su-24 bombers, the source said:
"Our pilots are mainly monitoring the direction of the NATO ships and monitoring the tasks that they are carrying out on their visit to the sea," the source said. "In addition, the ships' crews are no doubt conducting exercises with our planes to practice an air attack, which gives our pilots the opportunity to gain experience maneuvering and conducting aerial surveillance both in and outside of the range of the anti-aircraft systems."
Mikheil Saakashvili, now a Ukrainian government official. (photo: president.gov.ua)
Earlier this month, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was appointed to a post in the government of Ukraine, head of the Advisory International Council of Reforms. But while "reform" may be the international brand Saakashvili had adopted for himself, his efforts for Kiev so far have centered around more short-term goals: acquiring western arms.
"Mikheil will become a representative of Ukraine abroad and, simultaneously, a representative of the international community in Ukraine," said the president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, on the occasion of Saakashvili's official appointment. "We are confident that it is Mikheil who will establish a bilateral communication between Ukraine and the world on the issue of reforms. He will involve the best foreign experience and decently represent us abroad."
But since then, Saakashvili's focus has seemed to be elsewhere. "Helping Ukraine with weapons is the top priority right now," he told Ukrainian channel Espreso TV immediately after his appointment. "I will coordinate the issue in the coming days." He wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post this week in which he argued that (in addition to Kiev implementing unspecified "tough reforms") "the military cost for Putin must be raised by supplying Ukraine with defensive weapons, specifically antitank weapons that can halt the further advance of the Russian tanks and armored vehicles."