What's the biggest "threat" emanating from the Caucasus and Central Asia? Every year the head of the U.S. intelligence community is required to give to Congress a "Worldwide Threat Assessment" describing all the things that could go wrong for the U.S. around the world. Yesterday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper submitted this year's version (pdf), and our humble region got four paragraphs in the 30-page report. The facts in the report won't be news to readers of The Bug Pit, but what threats the intelligence community chooses to highlight are worth looking at:
The unresolved conflicts of the Caucasus and the fragility of some Central Asian states represent the most likely flashpoints in the Eurasia region. Moscow‟s occupation and military presence in and expanded political-economic ties to Georgia‟s separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia account for some of the tensions. Meanwhile, Tbilisi charged Russia with complicity in a series of bombings in Georgia in 2010 and 2011, while the Kremlin has been suspicious about Georgian engagement with ethnic groups in Russia‟s North Caucasus. Georgia‟s new constitution strengthens the office of the Prime Minister after the 2013 presidential election, leading some to expect that President Saakashvili may seek to stay in power by serving as Prime Minister, which could impact the prospect for reducing tensions.
Still from video of Obama and Saakashvili's White House meeting
Presidents Obama and Saakashvili has their much-anticipated Oval Office meeting Monday afternoon, and their comments to the press afterwards suggested that differences of opinion remained over the question of the U.S. supplying weapons to Georgia. That has become the most fraught element of the U.S.-Georgia partnership, with Tbilisi pushing hard to get the U.S. to give or sell the Georgians "defensive" weapons, and the U.S. demurring. Congress recently tried to force Obama to restart a more robust defense cooperation, including arms sales, but Obama then declared his intention to ignore Congress, setting up the potential of a small crisis between the tiny Caucasus nation and its would-be superpower patron. At the White House meeting, in spite of the formal professions of strong cooperation, it wasn't hard to see cracks in that facade.
Obama spoke first, and made an unfortunate slip of the tongue: he praised the "institution-building that's been taking place in Russia -- in Georgia." (Saakashvili did display remarkable restraint during the second or so before Obama corrected himself, sitting stone-faced.) After mentioning the possibility of a free-trade agreement between the U.S. and Georgia, he then discussed defense cooperation:
We talked about how to continue to strengthen our defense cooperation and there are a wide range of areas where we're working together. And I reaffirmed to the president, and reassured him, that the United States will contnue to support Georgia's aspirations to ultimately become a member of NATO.
By contrast, here is what Saakashvili said about defense cooperation:
Earlier this week, the U.S. designated three men as members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), shadowy groups operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And U.S. agents arrested a fourth man in the U.S., charging him with supporting the IJU.
These moves have prompted skepticism about whether the IMU and IJU are in fact real threats, and questions about whether the U.S. is trumping up these charges -- or even selling out Uzbekistan's dissidents -- for the sake of Tashkent's cooperation on the Northern Distribution Network. These are worthwhile questions to be asking, even while there's still too little information to come to conclusive answers.
But if this is a sort of "payment" by Washington to Tashkent, it wouldn't be the first time. Political scientist Eric McGlinchey, in his new book Chaos, Violence, Dynasty: Politics and Islam in Central Asia, discusses how the IMU got on the State Department's official list of terrorist organizations -- ultimately making this week's arrest and sanctions possible:
Still from video purporting to show American Humvees during the unrest in Zhanaozen, Kazakhstan, in December.
American Humvees, given to Kazakhstan using U.S. military aid, appear to have been used by the security forces which violently quelled the December riots in Zhanaozen, killing at least 17 protesters. The U.S. gave the Humvees to the Ministry of Defense for use in its nascent peacekeeping brigade, and it's not clear who was using them in Zhanaozen. But their use there suggests either that the peacekeeping brigade, known as KAZBRIG, was used to put down the uprising in Zhanaozen, or that the Humvees are being used by some internal security unit rather than by Ministry of Defense forces. Neither of those options are likely to please the Americans who gave Kazakhstan the Humvees.
The involvement of the Humvees is shown in a citizen cellphone video, aired in this report from Russian television network REN-TV. At about the 1:35 mark, you can see three Humvees driving down the road, and at 1:42 a very fleeting image seems to show another one traveling in the opposite direction.
Obviously, that brief glimpse doesn't say much, but it does suggest that Humvees were on the scene at the crackdown (assuming this isn't some sort of elaborate disinformation campaign). So, what were they doing?
The U.S. began giving Humvees to Kazakhstan in 2002, and now, according to a 2010 diplomatic cable, the "Kazakhstan HMMWV fleet currently includes 114 vehicles (45 up-armored vehicles, the rest being primarily unarmored or ambulances). KAZBRIG uses the [Humvees] for training peacekeepers and is expected to deploy with them as part of a future PSO [peace support operation]."
Former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze is making some pretty inflammatory accusations against his successor, reports the website Gruziya Online:
To maintain power, Mikheil Saakashvili may involved in a war against Iran, says ex-Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze.
"I do not rule out that Saakashvili to keep his seat can turn to a military campaign against Iran that would be a disaster for our country," he said, stressing that the issue could be the subject of future negotiations between Saakashvili and U.S. President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on January 30.
"An anti-Iranian campaign should not be conducted on the territory of Georgia," said Shevardnadze.
The Russian media is full of speculation about an impending attack on Iran far out of proportion with the likelihood of such a thing happening any time soon. And it's unlikely that war with Iran will actually be on the agenda when Obama and Saakashvili meet next week.
This analysis from Messenger.ge seems (except for the Iran stuff) more on target:
The defense bill that President Obama signed into law on December 31 contained a provision by which the U.S. could again start providing military aid to Uzbekistan, if the Secretary of State certifies that there is a national security reason for doing so. It also requires the State Department to provide an assessment of the progress that Uzbekistan has made in human rights.
Today, the State Department for the first time used that waiver, State Department officials tell The Bug Pit. And they sent along the language of the human rights assessment, which will likely warm the hearts of human rights groups: despite several recent statements by U.S. diplomats suggesting that Uzbekistan's human rights situation might be improving, there is no such implication in this document. (Of course, this is also probably why the State Department volunteered to send the document along.) The entire assessment is below, and it summarizes the woeful state of political, religious and media freedom; prison conditions; torture; child and forced labor; and the lack of an independent investigation into the notorious Andijan "events."
I wasn't told what aid specifically the State Department was seeking to provide via this waiver, but presumably it is the $100,000 in border guard training that has been already discussed. Anyway, the takeaway here appears to be that the U.S. can provide military aid to Uzbekistan without saying silly things about human rights there.
President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan has said that the departure of U.S. and coalition troops from Afghanistan will bring "an increased threat of the expansion of terrorist and extremist activities, increased tension and confrontation" and "the creation of a permanent source of instability here." He made the comments in a televised address to the country's armed forces on the occasion of their 20th anniversary. Trend.az has reprinted a summary of Karimov's speech, but BBC Monitoring has the whole thing. This was the most intriuging part:
The Central Asian region, due to its geopolitical and geo-strategic importance and vast mineral resources in recent years become an object of close attention and the intersection of strategic interests of major states, is characterized by ongoing tension and confrontation in Afghanistan, where the war is under way already for more than 30 years.
The announced upcoming withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan and the International Security Assistance Force in 2014 could lead to an increased threat of the expansion of terrorist and extremist activities, increased tension and confrontation in this vast region as well as to the creation of a permanent source of instability here.
This will require reforms to the Uzbekistan's armed forces, Karimov continued:
[T]he drastically changed conditions and the nature of modern military operations, which differ with their suddenness, quickness and rapidity, using small mobile units, should always be borne in mind.
An analysis of military operations in modern military conflicts and local wars shows the use of radically new combat systems of special task forces; the wider use of non-contact forms and methods of warfare with the use of advanced information technologies and modern high-precision weapons.
A new U.S. law mandating a "normalization" of defense relations with Georgia won't change anything between Washington and Tbilisi, says a U.S. diplomat. Philip Gordon, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, gave a press conference for foreign press on Monday and a Russian reporter asked him about the new law:
[O]n Georgia, I don’t think it changes our approach so far. We have a security relationship with Georgia that has significantly been focused on education and training, and on Georgia’s hugely important commitment to Afghanistan. Georgia, on a per capita basis, is one of the most, either first or second, biggest contributors to Afghanistan. They have, even in recent days, taken casualties. And it underscores the risks that they are taking on our common behalf, protecting common security, and we will continue to work with Georgia on that basis.
Where specific weapons sales are concerned, we treat it like we do with other countries. They’re taken a case-by-case basis, taking a lot of factors into account. But we’ll continue that security relationship with Georgia in all of those ways.
This puts a little meat on the skeleton of President Obama's signing statement, in which he declared his intention to ignore the law. Civil.ge, reporting on Gordon's comments, notes that they are in line with what the Obama administration has been saying all along:
The presidential campaign in the U.S. has begun in earnest, with Republicans in New Hampshire going to the polls tomorrow to choose who they want to challenge Barack Obama in November. If, as expected, Mitt Romney wins there (as he did in Iowa last week) it will come pretty close to guaranteeing that he is the Republicans' candidate. So, what do we know about what a President Romney might do in The Bug Pit's world?
Not much. The biggest clue is his rhetoric on Russia which, not surprisingly, is hostile. From his campaign's foreign policy white paper (pdf):
Upon taking office, Mitt Romney will reset the reset. He will implement a strategy that will seek to discourage aggressive or expansionist behavior on the part of Russia and encourage democratic political and economic reform.
The two greatest impacts that the reset has has on the Caucasus and Central Asia are 1. allowing cooperation with Russia over the Northern Distribution Network to transport military materiel to Afghanistan and 2. holding Georgia at somewhat arm's length (at least compared to the enthusiastic embrace of Obama's predecessor, President Bush).
Romney suggests he'd be much less conciliatory on missile defense than Obama has been, which could put the NDN into jeopardy (Russia has frequently suggested that those two issues are linked). Would Romney risk it? One could plausibly argue that a missile shield encircling Russia would be more useful to the U.S. in the long run than a supply route to a doomed theater of war which the U.S. is supposed to start withdrawing from in 2014, anyway. But his military advisers would no doubt push him to not do anything to threaten the NDN.
Competing aid packages offered by the U.S. and Russia to either maintain or close the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan in 2009 were aimed at "buying" the re-election of former Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, U.S. diplomatic cables show. The embassy acknowledged that helping build up a "war chest" for a "corrupt and authoritarian government" could result in "political blow-back," but didn't appear to think that should necessarily outweigh the advantages of such a plan.
The Pentagon's role in fostering corruption in the Bakiyev government, via murky contracts to supply the air base with fuel, have been investigated. But the cables show that the State Department also was willing to funnel money to Bakiyev in ways that embassy officials themselves recognized would affect the election -- and then criticized the election afterwards for its "misuse of government resources" to aid Bakiyev's reelection campaign.
In February 2009, Russia offered Kyrgyzstan a $2.15 billion aid package, and Bakiyev immediately reciprocated by announcing the closure of the U.S. base. A few days after that announcement, on February 5, the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek wrote a cable arguing that Bakiyev needed the money for upcoming presidential elections. While a large portion of the Russian aid would go towards building a dam and so would be "irrelevant to Bakiyev's short-term need for campaign cash," the rest would make up a "slush fund" for him: