The General Atomics "Avenger" UAV, which may soon be based in Central Asia. (photo: General Atomics)
The U.S. is making plans to set up drone bases in Central Asia in the case that the government of Afghanistan doesn't allow U.S. troops to remain in that country past this year, the Los Angeles Times has reported. The military wants to maintain the ability to carry out attacks against militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan even if it has no military presence in those countries, and the next best options are the Central Asian states. The officials interviewed didn't specify which countries were being considered: "There are contingency plans for alternatives in the north," said one official quoted by the paper.
So which would it be? The story's publication prompted much speculation among Central Asia watchers as to where the putative base might be located. Each of the three Central Asian states bordering Afghanistan would have serious downsides from the U.S.'s perspective. Tajikistan is highly susceptible to Russian pressure, and the Kremlin is surely not inclined to let the U.S. reestablish its military presence in Central Asia. Uzbekistan might be willing to host a base and is relatively immune to Russian pressure, but is a bit of a bete noire in Washington and setting up a drone base there would surely face resistance from human rights-inclined members of Congress. And Turkmenistan would have some of the same problems as Uzbekistan, but also has a proudly held neutrality that would seem to preclude hosting U.S. drones.
One wrinkle that could affect the decision is whether the bases are run by the military or the CIA. As the Times notes, the current drone program in Afghanistan and Pakistan is operated by the CIA, which can remain covert. President Barack Obama has said he wants to shift U.S. drone programs to the military, but in this case that would require the bases to be relatively public:
The U.S. Congress has again given the State Department the go-ahead to give military aid to Uzbekistan in spite of concerns about the country's poor record on human rights, a State Department official has told The Bug Pit.
Congress imposed restrictions on military aid to Uzbekistan in 2004 after the country's government failed to implement promised political reforms. Those restrictions remain in place today. But two years ago Congress, at the urging of the Obama administration, agreed to allow the Secretary of State to waive those restrictions if it were necessary for national security reasons. That waiver needed to be renewed every six months, and the ability to waive expired in October 2013. But Congress renewed the provision and last month the waiver was exercised again, a State Department spokesperson said.
"This waiver will allow the United States to provide assistance to the central government of Uzbekistan, including equipment to enhance Uzbekistan's ability to combat transnational and terrorist threats," the spokesperson said in an email to The Bug Pit. "Examples of this equipment include night vision goggles, personal protective equipment, and Global Positioning Systems. Enhancing Uzbekistan's defensive capacity improves the security of the U.S. supply transit system to Afghanistan and our ability to support our troops there." The new authority to waive will expire September 30, 2015.
The equipment in question includes not just the examples the spokesperson noted, but also tactical surveillance drones. Uzbekistan is also lobbying for some of the used mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles the U.S. is looking to offload as it pulls its troops out of Afghanistan.
The USS Mount Whitney passes through the Bosphorus en route to the Black Sea. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Collin Turner.)
Two U.S. warships have entered the Black Sea in preparation for the Winter Olympics, kicking off Friday night in Sochi, Russia. The USS Mount Whitney passed through the Bosphorus into the Black Sea on February 4, and was followed the day after by the USS Taylor. The official announcement of the deployment from U.S. European Command did not mention Sochi: "Both ships will perform routine operations in the Black Sea to establish and enhance cooperation, mutual training and interoperability with regional partner nations and allies."
But it's clear that the visits to the Black Sea are timed for Sochi. The website Black Sea News reported that on February 6 the Mount Whitney reached a point about 20 miles off the coast of Sochi and began patrolling. The Mount Whitney is primarily a command-and-control ship, and Daniel Goure, a Washington-based defense analyst, told Military.com that "the communications assets of the USS Mount Whitney and the helicopter landing ability of both ships could provide a lily-pad type of presence in the event of crisis. 'You could deploy something off of the back of these ships if you had to operate,' he added. 'You also have command and control if you had to communicate with the Russian Navy and Coast Guard.'"
The United States intelligence community has released its annual "worldwide threat assessment," which for the first time highlights Central Asia's "unclear political succession plans" and Georgia's prosecutions of former government officials. The 27-page report (pdf) contains three paragraphs on the Caucasus and Central Asia, as it has for the last several years. Last year's report was notable for not even mentioning the possibility of "spillover" of instability from Afghanistan, the favorite bugaboo of regional leaders, Russia, and many parts of the U.S. government. This year's report does mention the possibility, but says that still represents a smaller threat than those generated within Central Asia itself. It also somewhat downplays the threat of interstate conflict compared to last year, the recent flareup of violence on the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border notwithstanding.
Central Asia continues to host US supply lines that support operations in Afghanistan, and its leaders remain concerned about regional instability after the Coalition drawdown in 2014. Central Asian militants fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan will likely continue to pose a threat, but sources of potential internal instability in Central Asia will probably remain more acute than external threats. Unclear political succession plans, endemic corruption, weak economies, ethnic tensions, and political repression are long-term sources of instability in Central Asia. Relations among the Central Asian states remain tense due to personal rivalries and disputes over water, borders, and energy. However, Central Asian leaders’ focus on internal control reduces the risk of interstate conflict in the region.
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):