The Obama administration's nominee to become the new top diplomat dealing with Central Asia had her confirmation hearing in the Senate last week. And if it was anything to go by, Central Asia continues to fade further and further into the periphery of U.S. policymaking.
The nominee, Nisha Desai Biswal, would succeed Robert Blake as Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia. Biswal is currently the assistant administrator for Asia at the U.S. Agency for International Development, and during the hearing, she faced no tough questions and there is no indication she won't be confirmed.
In her prepared statement, the most detailed remarks were devoted to the U.S.'s New Silk Road Initiative:
We are clear-eyed about the challenges of promoting greater regional cooperation, but we also see the potential and opportunities. It’s telling that since former Secretary Clinton first articulated the “New Silk Road” vision in 2011, the region has adopted its own vision of greater connectivity and integration. The Administration welcomes partnership with other key players in the greater region, like China, to achieve this important goal that, in the end, will bolster peace, stability, and prosperity for all the peoples of South and Central Asia.
The impending attack by the U.S. on Syria has dominated the world's attention for the last week or so. And the powers surrounding the Caucasus and Central Asia -- notably Russia, Turkey, and Iran -- have been among the most active in discussing Syria, with Russia and Iran backing the government of Bashar al-Assad and Turkey one of the strongest supporters of the rebels. In spite of, or perhaps as a result, of that, the countries in between have taken a cautious approach to the possibility of U.S. military involvement in Syria.
Befitting its strong attachment to the U.S., Georgia's foreign ministry made a statement that appeared to endorse the American position that Assad's government should be punished for the use of chemical weapons:
“Georgia welcomes and supports readiness of the international community to play more active role in resolving humanitarian crisis in Syria and to hold the regime that committed this crime accountable for violating the fundamental international humanitarian norm."
Georgia's position is largely a factor of its ties to Turkey and the U.S., Michael Cecire, a Washington-based analyst of Georgia and the Caucasus, told The Bug Pit:
The Georgian government is happy to defer to their partners in the West and in nearby Turkey to take the lead on the issue. When it comes to Syria, Tbilisi's primary geopolitical concerns would be to ensure that the consequences from an intervention did not lead to destabilization in the South Caucasus. The Assad regime's closeness to Hezbollah and Iran, which both operate in the Caucasus to varying extents, makes this at least a possibility -- particularly in light of Hezbollah's alleged role in an early 2012 disarmed bombing attempt in Tbilisi.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel meets with Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania at the Pentagon (photo: defense.gov)
Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania is on a visit to Washington where he has met his American counterpart, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, among other officials. Hagel, after the meeting, gave the usual boilerplate statement that the two sides "agreed to continue to broaden U.S.-Georgian defense cooperation." But what might that mean?
When he talked with The Bug Pit in July, Alasania said that the meeting with Hagel would help clarify some of the defense cooperation agreements -- such as the provision of American military transportation helicopters -- that the presidents of the two countries discussed last January. But at a public event after his meeting with Hagel, at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, Alasania declined to give specifics of the discussion.
This is something we have been talking about for six months, how to implement, to fast-track the agreement that was made between our presidents. Today was a confirmation... [that the agreement] will be fully implemented, but it's not going to happen overnight.
In the public event, Alasania clearly saw his primary task as disproving the lingering suspicion in Washington that his boss, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, is secretly a stooge of the Kremlin. So he not only reiterated his government's strong commitment to joining NATO, but also spent some time discussing the continuity of his government's policies with those of the governments led by Mikheil Saakashvili and Edvard Shevardnadze.
The new head of U.S. Central Command has made his first trip to Central Asia, visiting Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and -- intriguingly -- not Kyrgyzstan. One source close to CENTCOM also pointed out to The Bug Pit that the commander, General Lloyd Austin, has been everywhere else in his area of responsibility before stopping into Central Asia, suggesting what sort of priority the region is.
The official statements about the visit were predictably vague: In Tashkent, "there was an exchange of opinions on the perspective of peaceful resolution of the situation in Afghanistan." In Dushanbe, Austin discussed "assistance in strengthening stability and security in Afghanistan and prevention of risk of spread of terrorism and extremism."
So, we are left to guess about what were the topics of discussion. No doubt at the top of the agenda was the logistical support that those countries provide to U.S. forces and equipment entering and leaving Afghanistan. A piece in Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta sees a sinister hand in the timing of Austin's visit to Tajikistan, coming just before President Emomali Rahmon's trip to Russia: "In recent years a practice has developed: on the eve of Russian-Tajik discussions, without fail, an American envoy appears." That doesn't seem likely; the U.S. government usually isn't efficient enough to pull of that degree of deviousness.
A delegation of high-ranking Georgian officials visited Washington last week, and at the top of their agenda was the defeat of a provision in the U.S. military budget criticizing the new government's human rights record and threatening relations to the country.
The delegation was led by Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze and also included the finance minister, chair of the parliamentary committee for foreign affairs, the chief prosecutor and several other members of parliament. The fact that the chief prosecutor -- whose brief doesn't really cover foreign relations -- was part of the delegation speaks to the fact that the Georgian government is worried about the perception that is being created by the large number of prosecutions of officials from the former government that the new government of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili has carried out since taking power last year. The amendment to the defense budget, passed last month by the House of Representatives, criticized the arrests for being "in part motivated by political considerations" and said that ""political, economic and security" ties between the U.S. and Georgia could be harmed as a result.
Members of the delegation said that their efforts to convince U.S. officials of their good intentions was successful. From Civil.ge:
The Georgian government officials are now lobbying for this amendment to be removed from the U.S. Defense Authorization Act before the final version of this voluminous bill is agreed by a House and Senate conference by the end of this year. Last month the Georgian government officials and some GD MPs suggested that this amendment was a result of lobbying efforts from President Saakashvili’s UNM party.
So now that Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev has signed the law annulling the agreement with the U.S. to host the Manas air base, what's the future of the base? It's still not clear that the law will have any legal impact, as the date it specifies for the U.S. departure was the date that the current agreement was supposed to expire anyway. While the law seems an obvious political signal, what is the government trying to say?
In a must-read analysis for the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, Erica Marat notes that until recently, Kyrgyzstan's parliament was poised to defeat the bill calling for the annulment of the base agreement. But then a number of events changed their calculation. From the U.S. side, the Department of Justice dropped charges against former first-son Maxim Bakiyev, to the dismay of many in the new government. Meanwhile, Russia -- which has long opposed the base's existence -- agreed to fund a strategic hydropower plant and to forgive $500 million of Kyrgyzstan's debt. Thus, the 91-5 vote in parliament in favor of annulment.
A statement adopted by the U.S. House of Representatives threatens that U.S.-Georgia "political, economic and security" ties may be harmed by the new government's zeal to bring to justice former ruling party members. The scale of arrests made since last year's parliamentary elections and the coming to power of Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition has indeed troubled many, even those who looked forward to a reckoning of the crimes of the former government. The irony is that these ostensible opponents of that overreach --arguing that it is "motivated by political considerations" -- appear to be themselves primarily motivated by political considerations.
The statement, passed last week and spearheaded by Representative Michael Turner, a Republican from Ohio, included a veiled threat to Georgia's NATO prospects:
[T]he measures taken by the Georgian Government against former officials and political opponents, apparently in part motivated by political considerations, may have a significant negative impact on cooperation between the United States and Georgia, including efforts to build a stronger relationship in political, economic, and security matters, as well as progress on integrating Georgia into international organizations... the United States must be unambiguous when democratic backsliding occurs in a key ally after a peaceful and democratic transfer of power between political parties.
The reaction from Tbilisi was as swift as you'd expect. President Mikheil Saakashvili, remarkably, took the side of the members of Congress threatening to cut support to his country:
Only four percent of cargo that the U.S. military is shipping out of Afghanistan is being sent north through Central Asia, a senior U.S. military official has said. In an interview with the American Forces Press Service, Scott Anderson, U.S. Central Command's deputy director for logistics and engineering, said the Northern Distribution Network is "not as viable" as the U.S. would like, but is still a vital option for the Pentagon. The problems seem limited to shipping cargo out: the NDN has accounted for 80 percent of cargo going into Afghanistan since Pakistan shut off its border with Afghanistan in November 2011, Anderson said.
He gave a number of reasons for the low amount of outward-bound traffic on the NDN. Part of it is just geographical:
One reason, Anderson explained, is that the vast majority of U.S. forces now are operating in eastern Afghanistan, which is closer to Pakistan than the NDN. “The majority of our cargo simply isn’t leaving the northern part of Afghanistan,” he said.
To get it across Afghanistan to the NDN involves crossing the towering Hindu Kush mountain range -- a logistical challenge that becomes monumental during the winter months.
There are political challenges, as well, which Anderson somewhat delicately addresses:
But there are other complications to making greater use of the Northern Distribution Network, particularly for many of the shipments that initially entered Afghanistan via Pakistan or by air, Anderson explained.
The U.S. State Department released its annual "Country Reports on Terrorism," which purports to summarize and analyze the "terrorist" threats around the world. Here is the report's summary of Central Asia in 2012:
Despite the absence of major terrorist incidents on their territory, governments in the five Central Asian states were concerned about the possibility of a growing threat connected to changes in the international force presence in Afghanistan in 2014. While some sought to reduce their countries’ vulnerability to the perceived terrorist threat, the effectiveness of their efforts was in some cases undercut by failure to distinguish clearly between terrorism on one hand and political opposition, or non-traditional religious practices, on the other.
On the occasion of last year's report, Myles Smith wrote on EurasiaNet that "For the most part, the report simply lists what authorities describe as terrorist attacks and as anti-terrorist operations, but uses qualifying terms – 'reportedly'; 'potentially' – that make it clear State is as in the dark on the nature of the events as the rest of us." A year later, there's really nothing to add to that analysis. But it's worth noting that, if the U.S. is spending increasing amounts of money, and making counter-terror assistance an increasingly large part of U.S. activity in the area, it might behoove Washington to be a little clearer about what exactly it is that this money and diplomatic effort are being directed at.
Looking at the individual country listings is instructive. Here is Tajikistan's summary:
Members of the U.S. Congress visit Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov in February 2013 (photo: president.uz)
The bombing of the Boston marathon has appeared to whet the appetites of some members of Congress to increase cooperation with post-Soviet governments in taking a strong hand against the threat of Islamist radicals.The House Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing on Friday, "Islamist Extremism in Chechnya: A Threat to the U.S. Homeland?" And it provided the opportunity for several members of Congress to tout not just greater security cooperation with Russia vis-a-vis Chechnya, but across the post-Soviet space.
In his opening statement, Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican and chair of the subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats, promoted the idea of closer security ties to Russia and Central Asia:
What outside forces have sought to transform the North Caucasus and Central Asia into a region of Muslin extremism which did not exist before?
Greater cooperation with Russia and the governments Central Asia should be explored in order to properly respond to this emerging threat. This part of the world is critical to the future of the human race. If it becomes dominated by a radical version of Islam, it will change the course of history in an extremely negative way.
Later in the hearing, Rohrabacher returned to a theme he is fond of, the notion that the Uzbekistan government's violations of human rights are necessary to maintain security there: