It appears that the Pentagon's propaganda outlet in Central Asia is going out of business. The recently passed U.S. defense budget bill eliminated funding for the Trans Regional Web Initiative, a program that published a variety of regional "news" websites, including Central Asia Online. American newspaper USA Today, which has done a lot of investigations into the TRWI, reports:
"None of the funds authorized to be appropriated for fiscal year 2014 for the Department of Defense may be obligated or expended for the Trans Regional Web Initiative," the annual defense law says. It makes an exception for a $2 million payment to pay for the termination of the program by the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and to transfer some capabilities to other parts of the military.
EurasiaNet's David Trilling wrote the definitive piece on Central Asia Online for Foreign Policy in 2011, noting that its Uzbekistan coverage "has shown a disturbing tendency to downplay the autocracy's rights abuses and uncritically promote its claims of terrorist threats." He added that the website sometimes "downplays abuses even contrary to concerns expressed by the U.S. government.":
Georgian Mi-8 helicopters perform during recent military drills. (photo: Ministry of Defense, Georgia)
Georgia is planning to "get rid" of its Soviet-legacy helicopter fleet and replace it with Western models, the country's defense minister, Irakli Alasania, told reporters at an end-of-the-year press conference in Tbilisi. From a Georgia Ministry of Defense press release:
According to Irakli Alasania, Defence Ministry plans to get rid of the Soviet, Russian military transport and attack helicopters. "We are planning to renovate and develop the U.S. utility helicopter fleet. We have negotiations with other countries and some opportunities also appeared after my visit to the Republic of France."
Defence Minister explained the reason for replacement of the Soviet helicopter fleet by the U.S. ones. "It is very expensive to maintain the Soviet helicopters. Procurement of the spare parts is problematic and in most cases it is practically impossible to get this service without corruption deals. Considering all the above-mentioned facts we took a hard but right and logical decision," declared Irakli Alasania.
Georgia's armed forces currently operate Mi-24 attack helicopters and Mi-8 utility helicopters of Soviet origin, as well as American UH-1H utility helicopters. It had already been announced that Georgia and the U.S. were discussing further utility helicopter deals, but Alasania's statement suggests a much more ambitious agenda.
The number one topic of conversation among Washington's small band of Central Asia watchers -- and the much larger band of Central Asian Washington watchers -- is about what will happen to U.S. policy in the region after the U.S. pulls its forces out of Afghanistan. U.S. policy in Central Asia over the last decade has been so dominated by the war in Afghanistan that's it's hard to imagine any more what the U.S. interest in the region might be absent that. And a couple of recent discussions in Washington provide a view both of the public and the behind-the-scenes conversations that are going on about this -- and highlighted the huge divide between what the U.S. says officially about its future policies toward Central Asia and what it is really thinking about.
One discussion, at the think tank New America Foundation, featured newly appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Fatema Sumar discussing "Regional Connectivity in South-Central Asia." As that title implies, it was all about the U.S.'s New Silk Road Initiative. The U.S.'s New Silk Road has taken enough beatings in this blog and elsewhere that there is little need to kick it when it's down. (Still, another takedown piece was published recently by Eugene Imas in The Diplomat, "The New Silk Road to Nowhere.") But one part of Sumar's presentation stood out:
The trend of U.S. training to Central Asian security forces since 2000. (credit: Security Assistance Monitor)
The United States has substantially increased its training of security forces in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, focusing on the State Committees of National Security (GKNB) of the respective countries, newly released U.S. government documents show.
The newest version of the annual Foreign Military Training and DoD [Department of Defense] Engagement Activities of Interest report shows a sharp increase in the number of activities in Central Asia under Section 1004 of the DoD authorization bill. Section 1004 provides funding for the Pentagon to conduct training of partner nation security forces for counternarcotics missions. According to the data, 411 members of the Tajikistan security forces and 225 in Kyrgyzstan were trained under Section 1004 in 2012, while in previous years only a handful or no troops from Central Asia were trained. Of those, at least 350 of the Tajikistani officers and 100 of the Kyrgyzstanis were from the GKNB. A full rundown of the data on the Caucasus and Central Asia, including some good graphs, can be seen at the new Security Assistance Monitor website.
The rub with this sort of training is that the GKNB, as the most capable units in post-Soviet security forces, tend to carry out both missions against serious external threats and also persecute legitimate domestic opposition. A case in point is the controversial operation in Khorog, Tajikistan, last year, in which the GKNB played a leading role. And yet, all evidence points to the fact that the Khorog events were more of a popular resistance than a terror threat.
U.S. forces drop supplies for base in Bala Marghab, Afghanistan. Coming soon to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan? (photo: Sgt. Seth Barham, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division Public Affairs)
In the wake of the U.S.'s announcement that it is moving its air base in Kyrgyzstan to Romania, the conspiracy theories continue to be propagated -- even in relatively respectable Russian analytical and official circles. A couple of weeks ago, The Bug Pit looked at one popular conspiracy theory: that the U.S. wasn't in fact leaving Manas, but was involved in an elaborate deception to cover up its aims of setting up a state-of-the-art intelligence-gathering operation in Kyrgyzstan.
But that's not the only theory being mooted as the "real" explanation for what the U.S. is doing (moving operations to Romania, if you're naive enough to believe the Pentagon). A piece in the Russian Ministry of Defense newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda, entitled "The Pentagon Intends to Stay," suggests that the withdrawal from Manas is merely a tactical retreat, and that the U.S.'s strategy in Central Asia is "to leave, in order to stay." According to this analysis, the small training centers that the U.S. has set up in Tajikistan and had planned to set up in Kyrgyzstan, as well as the military supply routes of the Northern Distribution Network, represent a foothold that the U.S. can use to maintain influence with a smaller footprint.
But that piece is relatively measured. Other analyses get more specific, and a lot more conspiratorial. One theory is that the U.S. is moving to Aktau, on Kazakhstan's Caspian Sea shore. This theory is promulgated by a number of people, including analyst Nikolay Bobkin, writing for the Russian think tank Strategic Culture Foundation.
The U.S. ambassador to Georgia has sparked controversy with comments that criticized Georgia's policy, in the early days of independence, toward the minority populations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Ambassador Richard Norland was speaking to a group of students at Tbilisi State University on November 15, and was asked about the possibility of Georgia regaining control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. His comments, apparently recorded by someone at the event, included the following:
If you ask me about my personal opinion I can tell you that when I was in Georgia 20 years ago I saw that Georgians were treating Abkhazians and Ossetians the same way as Russians were treating Georgians and Georgia will have to apologize for the mistakes of the past.
This isn't an especially controversial statement; Georgians frequently express similar sentiments as they rue the mistakes that were made in the 1990s that contributed to the loss of those territories. But it's apparently too sensitive for the U.S. ambassador to say such a thing in public. In American politics Norland's statement would be called a "gaffe," which is when a political figure accidentally tells the truth. And the predictable result was that Georgian officials lined up to criticize Norland's remarks, and Norland was forced to backtrack.
Some of the Georgian responses, from a report on Georgian television station Rustavi-2 (via BBC Monitoring):
Human rights groups in Tajikistan have released their long-awaited study looking at last year's military operation in the eastern city of Khorog. And while the overall findings are not surprising to anyone who has followed the story closely, having a public, authoritative description of how the operation happened -- that it was not a targeted operation against criminals, but a broad attack on the town -- will make it more difficult for the government and its supporters to promote their narrative.
In particular, it will likely give additional urgency to investigations currently going on inside the U.S. government about what should be done about the train-and-equip programs that the U.S. military has been conducting with the special forces units of Tajikistan -- the forces which carried out the Khorog operation. U.S. officials have been very tight-lipped about this question; a State Department spokesperson declined to comment on the report's release. But according to several people who have been following the question, the State Department's bureaus of South and Central Asia and Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor have both been very actively looking at U.S. security cooperation programs in Tajikistan in the wake of Khorog. That effort is being resisted, however, by the U.S. embassy in Dushanbe, which strongly supports the military's aid programs.
Russia's food safety czar has again claimed that a U.S.-funded biological research lab is in fact a secret bioweapons facility, and has warned that imports of Georgian food to Russia could be in danger if Georgia does not shut down the facility.
This is of course not the first time that chief sanitary inspector Gennady Onishchenko has made such a claim, issuing a similar threat in July. In between then and now he's been busy warning of the health dangers of other products like Moldovan wine and Lithuanian cheese. But he hasn't forgotten about the biolab -- known formally as the Richard G. Lugar Center for Public Health Research -- and the grave threat it poses to Russia. He addressed the issue again on Monday:
"We are pointing out again that we are extremely concerned about the activity of the laboratory that the Georgian authorities are not in control of," Gennady Onishchenko said.
"According to our estimates, the laboratory is an important element of the offensive part of the US military-biological potential," the Head of the Russian Service on Surveillance for Consumer Rights Protection said...
U.S. Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, returns a salute to Mongolian service members during Khaan Quest 2013 in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. ((U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Danny Hayes)
Chinese hackers have been planting malware in documents associated with U.S.-Mongolia military exercises in an apparent attempt to interfere with Mongolia's ties to the West, a private American cybersecurity company claims.
According to a recent report by the company ThreatConnect, Chinese hackers created a decoy "weaponized Microsoft Word document" appearing to be an official U.S. Army announcement related to the annual Khaan Quest exercise that Mongolia hosts, and the U.S. supports.
This activity represents Chinese Computer Network Exploitation (CNE) activity against organizations that China perceives to be jeopardizing its interests in Mongolia. As evidenced in the weaponized Khaan Quest document described above, Chinese APT groups will likely continue targeting US military entities involved in cooperation activities with the Mongolian military. Also, western European and other governments that engage with Mongolia diplomatically will be considered CNE targets as well.
Another document, in Mongolian and discussing a joint military exercise with Vietnam, was also found with the same bit of code. ThreatConnect suggests some sort of connection between this operation and the famous Chinese People's Liberation Army hacking operation, Unit 61398. It's hard to tell how seriously to take this -- threat inflation is endemic in the cybersecurity world -- but it's an interesting little look into how Washington and Beijing might be looking at this.
Most talk of security in Central Asia these days revolves around what will happen in Afghanistan after 2014. The widespread expectation is that after U.S. and NATO combat forces withdraw from the country, leaving behind some smaller training/advising force, security will deteriorate in Afghanistan, with unpredictable -- but probably not good -- results for Central Asia. But most scenarios assume some sort of U.S./Western presence in Afghanistan post-2014, minimizing the potential for chaos in that country. But what if the U.S. pulls out altogether? After all, few expected that the U.S. would entirely pull out of Iraq, but after political negotiations broke down over the status of U.S. forces, that's what happened there. Couldn't the same thing happen in Afghanistan? And what would that mean for Central Asia?
That scenario is looking increasingly likely. The New York Times has reported that negotiations between the U.S. and Afghanistan governments are close to breaking down, and time is running out:
The United States and Afghanistan have reached an impasse in their talks over the role that American forces will play here beyond next year, officials from both countries say, raising the distinct possibility of a total withdrawal — an outcome that the Pentagon’s top military commanders dismissed just months ago.
American officials say they are preparing to suspend negotiations absent a breakthrough in the coming weeks, and a senior administration official said talk of resuming them with President Hamid Karzai’s successor, who will be chosen in elections set for next April, is, “frankly, not very likely.”