The head of United States Central Command has visited Uzbekistan as the U.S. works to "rebalance" its policies toward Central Asia, a policy which officials increasingly admit has been excessively focused on security.
General Lloyd Austin, head of CENTCOM, visited Uzbekistan and met with President Islam Karimov among other officials. There was no official word on what the visit was about. Voice of America Uzbek service's Navbahor Imamova, who has good sources on these issues, says that her sources say the visit was "purely maintenance" and included "no basing talk."
That didn't convince everyone, and the Uzbekistan news website uzmetronom reported that Austin was in Uzbekistan to negotiate a new U.S. military base there, and that the U.S. was offering Tashkent a billion dollars a year for the privilege, and that Germany was opposing it behind the scenes. That's all pretty unlikely, but it's interesting coming from uzmetronom; the site is well connected to the country's security services and in Uzbekistan there are obviously strict limits on what can be published. Whatever the reason, the report was of course eagerly picked up by the Russian media.
In March, Austin testified to Congress about the U.S. military's posture in the CENTCOM area, and said this about Uzbekistan:
Georgian soldiers take part in American training in Germany to prepare them for deployment to Afghanistan, 2012. (photo: Spc. Robert Sheets, U.S. Army Europe)
The United States is preparing a military aid package of about $35 million to help Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine defend themselves against Russia.
The money would be part of a much larger, $1 billion European Reassurance Initiative that the White House announced about two months ago. Part of the plan, as announced originally, would be to: "Build the partner capacity of close friends such as Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine so they can better work alongside the United States and NATO, as well as provide for their own defense."
At a recent Congressional hearing on the Initiative and other Pentagon funding programs, U.S. officials gave a little more detail about how that $1 billion would be apportioned. And they revealed that the largest amount of money would go to bolstering the presence of U.S. troops in Eastern Europe. From the testimony (pdf) of Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work:
Approximately $440 million will go to increase the U.S. military presence in Europe by:
• Enabling rotation of elements of an Army armored brigade combat team into Europe;
• Providing additional funds for expanded naval deployments in the Black and Baltic Seas;
• Augmenting NATO’s Air Policing mission; and
• Either temporarily delaying withdrawal of Air Force F-15C aircraft from Europe or increasing aircraft rotations to Europe.
And most of the rest would go to NATO allies in Eastern Europe:
The government of Kyrgyzstan is complaining that the United States is reducing its military cooperation in the wake of the eviction of the air base that the Americans operated there until last month.
In an interview with Interfax, Deputy Defense Minister Zamir Suerkulov said that "recently, the intensity of contacts between our sides in the sphere of military cooperation is decreasing." Suerkulov added that Kyrgyzstan would like to maintain the level of cooperation "but the Americans do it their own way. For the continuation of contacts the Americans proposed creating a legal base similar to the one which was implemented during the time of the [Manas] Transit Center, but we didn't want that."
According to most recent data on U.S. security assistance to Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan's has decreased, but not any more than in any of the other countries of the region. I asked the State Department to clarify what happened, and they provided this statement:
Our security cooperation has historically included bilateral work on key, mutually-beneficial areas of counterterrorism, counter-narcotics,border security, and building peacekeeping capability. The termination of the 2009 Agreement for Cooperation in July 2014 severely inhibits the ability of the United States to continue its military assistance and cooperation with the defense and security ministries of the Kyrgyz Republic.
U.S. General Paul Selva gets a tour of Tbilisi's historic sites during a visit to discuss broadening Georgia's role in U.S. military logistics. (photo: USTRANSCOM)
The United States's top military logistics official has visited Georgia to discuss the country becoming a bigger part of U.S. military transportation network.
General Paul Selva, the head of U.S. Transportation Command, took a three-day trip to Georgia last week and met with President Giorgi Margvelashvili, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and military and defense ministry officials. Garibashvili discussed with Selva the "modernization plan of Georgian railway, Baku-Tbilisi-Kars and Anaklia port projects. As the head of the United States Transportation Command, General Paul Selva said during the meeting, Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway gives the new opportunities for shipment by railway," according to a release from Garibashvili's office.
In May, Georgian officials said that the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad, currently under construction by Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey, would be finished by the end of 2015, several years behind schedule and seemingly too late to get much business from the U.S./NATO "retrograde" transit out of Afghanistan. Azerbaijani and Turkish officials have blamed Georgia for the delay. In late May, Turkey's Minister of Transport, Maritime and Communications, Lutfi Elvan said that "although the work on the railway's Turkish section has been completed by over 80 percent, work in the Georgian territory is delayed," Trend.az reported. "In particular, delays are observed in the construction of 2,700-2,800 meters long tunnels in Georgia," Elvan said. "He went on to add that Azerbaijan and Turkey have called on Georgia to complete the work in its territory."
U.S., Mongolian, and other militaries take part in Khaan Quest 2014 exercises in Mongolia. From top: U.S. Marines hold back simulated protesters in riot control training; Mongolian and U.S. troops practice riverine training; traditional Mongolian wrestling; soldiers from Tajikistan take part in riot-control exercises. (photos: U.S. military public affairs)
Over 1,000 soldiers, including about 300 Americans, took part in joint military exercises in Mongolia aimed at preparing for international peacekeeping missions. The annual exercise, known as Khaan Quest, is the biggest event in the U.S.-Mongolia military relationship, which has been gaining importance as Mongolia tries to diversify its foreign relations beyond its two immediate neighbors, China and Russia, and as the U.S. is happy to help.
In addition to Americans and Mongolians the participants in this year's version of Khaan Quest include troops from South Korea, India, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, France, United Kingdom and Germany. Several more countries sent observers, including Belarus, China, India, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. The exercises were held from June 20-July 1.
The military scenarios drilled include riot control, response to an improvised explosive device, and community outreach programs like renovating a school and operating health clinics.
Russia's turn will come in a few weeks; its annual joint military exercises with Mongolia, called Selenga, will this year take place in mid-August and will involve about 500 Russian soldiers.
A GM-400 air defense radar, recently purchased by Kazakhstan. (photo: ThalesRaytheonSystems)
During its big defense expo last month, Kazakhstan announced that it is buying air defense radars from French-American company ThalesRaytheonSystems.
Air defense radars aren't the sexiest piece of military hardware, but this was an interesting move given Kazakhstan's large dependence on Russia for air defense. Russia and Kazakhstan are in the process of setting up a joint air defense system under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization; in May, Kazakhstan's senate ratified the deal. And as part of this arrangement, Russia gave Kazakhstan several S-300 air defense systems in January. Other CSTO partners Belarus, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are in various stages of joining the system as well. “Such cooperation greatly enhances the defense potential of Russia and its partners, and contributes to strengthening peace and stability in Eurasia,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said last year.
The U.S. has substantially cut its aid for Central Asian security forces, according to newly released Pentagon data.
The report (pdf) details spending under Section 1004 of the National Defense Authorization Act, which allows the U.S. Department of Defense to train and equip foreign security forces involved in counternarcotics missions. In 2012, the Pentagon seemed to make Central Asia, in particular Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, a major focus. But according to the new data, that effort may have been abandoned.
The new data covers the first half of Fiscal Year 2014, from October 2013 through March 2014. Compared to the last full data (pdf), from 2012, there are big cuts across the board (even taking into account that the new numbers are for half a year, and the 2012 numbers for a full year):
Kazakhstan: $187,000 - from $8.7 million
Kyrgyzstan: $1.2 million - from $21.3 million
Tajikistan: $1.1 million - from $15.4 million
Uzbekistan: $156.000 - from $5.7 million
The training that took place under this program was directed less at the military and more at the security services like the GKNB; in 2012 the U.S. trained at least 350 GKNB officers from Tajikistan and 100 from Kyrgyzstan. (It was Tajikistan's GKNB, recall, which arrested political scientist Alexander Sodiqov and accused him of spying.)
Col. Mirbek Imayev, chief of staff of the Kyrgyz National Guard, with a symbolic key he received from U.S. officers at the formal closure of the Manas air base. (photo: Capt. Cory OBrien, 376th Air Expeditionary Wing)
As the United States shuts down its air base in Kyrgyzstan, people in the region are assessing the legacy of 12 years of American military presence in the country. And for the most part, the conclusion is: good riddance.
The reaction in Kyrgyzstan was muted, said Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta. "The news portals of Kyrgyzstan were silent about the news that caused such a lively reaction in Russia. It was as if there had not been 12 and a half years of the presence of a foreign army, painful incidents, corruption scandals and the 'strengthening of American-Kyrgyzstani friendship.'" (Scare quotes as in original.)
And indeed, according to an informal press review conducted by The Bug Pit, there did seem to be more commentary on the closure coming from Russia than from Kyrgyzstan itself. Russian website Lenta.ru ran an interview with Kyrgyzstan analyst Toktogul Kakchekeev, who described the base in thoroughly negative terms. He said that former president Askar Akaev allowed the establishment of the base as a "PR move ... so that Kyrgyzstan could be called an island of democracy in Central Asia. But the people wanted to be together with Russia."
The American warship USS Taylor makes a port call to Batumi, Georgia, in May. (photo: U.S. Navy)
The United States is planning a "stronger presence of U.S. ships in the Black Sea" as Russia accused the U.S. and NATO ships that have been on the sea recently as "spying" on Russia's own Black Sea Fleet. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Romania on Thursday, and he made a stop at the USS Vella Gulf, which was on a port call at Constanta as part of its tour around the Black Sea. The Vella Gulf’s port visit in Romania “a clear expression of [the] commitment" that the U.S. and NATO have expressed recently toward strengthening their military presence in the countries neighboring Russia "“which is becoming even more important in the wake of Russia’s actions in Ukraine." From a Pentagon press release:
Another example, Hagel said, is Obama's announcement this week that he will ask Congress for up to $1 billion to enhance the readiness of U.S. and allied forces in Europe, including more U.S. troop rotations for exercises and training and a stronger presence of U.S. ships in the Black Sea. “The U.S. has maintained a regular naval presence in the Black Sea since mid-March, with the USS Truxton, the USS Donald Cook and the USS Taylor all conducting port calls in Romania, and we will sustain this tempo going forward,” he said. “We are also stepping up our cooperation with other partners and allies surrounding the Black Sea, including Bulgaria, Georgia, Turkey, and Ukraine.”
Russia has repeatedly complained about the increased Western military presence on the Black Sea. On Wednesday, Itar-Tass quoted an unnamed source in the "military-diplomatic corps" as saying that a French frigate in the Black Sea was spying on Russia:
The frigate Surcouf is conducting maneuvers in the northern part of the Black Sea, periodically approaching 50-60 kilometers from the coast of Crimea. According to available data, the NATO warship is conducting electronic surveillance of military objects of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, deployed on the peninsula along the coastline, as well as of important administrative and strategic objects on the coastal territory."
The source added, helpfully, that Russia was watching the French ship, as well: "All the actions and maneuvers of the French 'uninvited guest' are being recorded, including its compliance with norms of international maritime law."
According to the expert's data, the frigate passed along the Caucasus coast, the coast of Crimea, lingered alongside Novorossiya and relocated to the northwestern part of the sea. "Now the French ship is heading in the direction of Odessa, but whether it will stop there is not yet known. In any case, the visit of the Surcouf to Odessa, if it happens, will not remain a secret."
The presence of foreign warships on the Black Sea is regulated by the Montreux Convention, which limits them to 21 days at a stretch. Recall that one U.S. warship, USS Taylor, stayed on the sea longer than 21 days because it needed repairs. That circumstance was never noted by Russian officials, who complained about the violation. But in a piece from RT on Thursday, headlined "NATO’s merry-go-round electronic surveillance in the Black Sea," they took a swipe at that assertion:
The USS Taylor actually became a rare example of a ship that violated the Montreux Convention by exceeding the limited time of deployment to the Black Sea by 11 days, as the crew claimed the vessel ran aground on February 12 and had to undergo maintenance in the Turkish port of Samsun.
The U.S. State Department is skeptical about how Central Asian governments perceive the threat of terrorism in their countries, according to the department's annual review of terrorism around the globe.
In language similar to last year's report, the State Department said that "The effectiveness of some Central Asian countries’ efforts to reduce their vulnerability to perceived terrorist threats was difficult to discern in some cases, however, due to failure to distinguish clearly between terrorism and violent extremism on one hand and political opposition, or non-traditional religious practices, on the other." But this year it added a bit of texture with a mention of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan: "[T]errorist groups with ties to Central Asia – notably the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Islamic Jihad Union – continued to be an issue even as they operated outside of the Central Asian states." (For some serious analysis of what threat the IMU poses, see this post at the Afghan Analysts Network.)