When the U.S. ships military goods through Central Asia to Afghanistan, who gets paid? That's a pretty simple question, but several years after the establishment of the Northern Distribution Network, we still don't know. The Pentagon uses private companies to ship its equipment through Central Asia, but which private companies? How much do they get paid? People in Uzbekistan were asking these questions two years ago, and we still don't have answers.
Investigations into murky contracting practices around the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan exposed that relatives of two successive presidents were getting rich from base-related business. That resulted in a greater degree of transparency around Manas contracts. But as Jeff Goldstein, a policy analyst at the Open Society Institute, writes, the White House and Pentagon have actively sought to block measures that would illuminate who is getting paid on the NDN:
An efforts by U.S. lawmakers try to block the Pentagon from doing business with Russian state arms exporter Rosoboronexport has stalled, and likely will remain so until after the elections in November. But Russian officials are arguing that the fact that the U.S. military wants to buy helicopters from Russia, in spite of politicians' wishes, is "the best advertisement our helicopters can get."
Last year, the Pentagon awarded Rosoboronexport a contract worth nearly $1 billion to supply Afghanistan's armed forces with Mi-17 helicopters. U.S. defense manufacturers complained that the Pentagon was giving business to Russia that could be awarded to American companies. But the Pentagon's reasoning was that Russian helicopters are cheaper, and more importantly were already in service in Afghanistan, meaning that Afghanistan's pilots, maintenance crews, and so on, wouldn't have to learn an entirely new system.
Last month, though, the House of Representatives stepped in to try to put the kibosh on that contract. On a 407-5 vote, representatives voted to ban any funding for the contract. The Senate is unlikely to take up the issue before the election, but U.S. military are still advocating against it. That prompted one Russian defense official, Vyacheslav Dzirkaln, deputy director of the Federal Service for Military-Technological Cooperation, to brag a little bit:
"Despite this resistance, American military officials have made it clear that they need our helicopters, which are reliable and meet all of the requirements. This is the best advertisement our helicopters can get," Dzirkaln said.
The Russian newspaper Kommersant created a splash yesterday when it reported, citing "sources close to the Uzbekistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs," that the U.S. is planning to set up a Rapid Response Center in Tashkent. The Center would "coordinate actions in the event of deterioration of the situation after the American withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014" and would "essentially perform the functions of an American military base after 2014."
It went on: "'By and large, we are talking the largest American military object anywhere in the Central Asian region,' said a source."
Perhaps because Kommersant is a generally well respected newspaper, perhaps because of the apparent specificity of its report, the report was widely disseminated around the Russian-language internet. (UzNews.net went so far as to suggest that the U.S. was forcing Uzbekistan to allow a base by blackmailing Tashkent, threatening to "create problems" with the Western bank accounts of presidential daughter Gulnara Karimova.)
The U.S.'s top diplomat responsible for Central Asia just finished a trip to Uzbekistan, amid increasing speculation that the two countries are seeking to upgrade their relationship, in particular their military cooperation.
Robert Blake, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, visited Tashkent from August 15-18. His visit came after an eventful summer: in June, Uzbekistan suspended its membership in the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization. Many observers interpreted the move as motivated by Uzbekistan's intention to allow the U.S. to set up some sort of military base in the country. The CSTO requires members to get permission from other members before allowing foreign military bases; i.e., Russia gets a veto. Leaving the CSTO could free Uzbekistan up to allow a U.S. base. But then, earlier this month, Uzbekistan's parliament passed a new law forbidding foreign military bases.
That didn't stop many from continuing to speculate that the purpose of Blake's visit to Uzbekistan was to set up a military base. Most notably, the Kazakhstan newspaper Liter, an organ of the ruling Nur Otan party, reported that "We can dare to suggest that Robert Blake's visit will result in signing an agreement on deploying US troops on Uzbek soil." Blake, of course, denied that was on the agenda. And at a press conference in Almaty just before his trip to Tashkent, he said that while the U.S. will be leaving Uzbekistan some lefover military equipment after it leaves Afghanistan, that equipment likely won't include lethal weapons:
The U.S. military is conducting exercises with their counterparts from Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan on disaster response and emergency management. The exercises, called Regional Cooperation 2012, are taking place in Kyrgyzstan through June 29.
They're being run by U.S. Central Command, with some contributions from the Massachusetts National Guard, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Manas air base. Military officials from the Central Asian countries are participating, as well as some civilian agencies from the government of Kyrgyzstan, like border troops, the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of Emergency Situations.
The exercise Regional Cooperation (RC) is an annual event in Central Asia that focuses on coordinating military and civilian assistance to disaster response and emergency management. It's been held in Tajikistan twice before (in 2011 and 2009) and was supposed to be held in Kyrgyzstan in 2010, but the revolution and violence of that year caused the exercise to be moved to Germany. This is just a tabletop exercise, as opposed to the Steppe Eagle field exercises that the U.S. carries out every year in Kazakhstan. And the fact that it's coming just after the Shanghai Cooperation Organization exercises in Tajikistan, which featured many of the same participants, is accidental, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek tells The Bug Pit: "This takes place after the SCO exercise, but that is purely coincidence. The annual event usually takes place later (September), but in order to get several countries’ schedules to align, it is being done in June."
Russia considers the transfer of U.S. military equipment from Afghanistan to Central Asian armed forces to be "unacceptable," and contrary to agreements those countries have signed as part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. That's according to an anonymous Russian diplomat quoted in the newspaper Kommersant (and helpfully translated into English by RIA Novosti).
The U.S., recall, has said it is planning to hand over some of the equipment it is now using in Afghanistan to Central Asian militaries, as part of the U.S.'s Excess Defense Articles program. From Kommersant:
If implemented, this plan would allow Washington to expand its military cooperation with Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) member countries. A Russian diplomat said, on condition of anonymity, that Moscow considers this scenario to be “absolutely unacceptable....”
A Russian diplomat said this scenario ran counter to specific agreements with Moscow’s Central Asian partners and other agreements within the CSTO framework.
But the last two paragraphs of the Kommersant story gently suggest that Russia's objections may not really be about the legal issues of the CSTO:
A sizable U.S. presence might emerge on the Central Asian arms market, which primarily receives Soviet and Russian-made equipment. Moscow’s partners might eventually get used to having U.S. equipment.
It appears that CSTO members have every right to independently negotiate U.S. military equipment deliveries, all the more so as Moscow has recently turned Ulyanovsk into a transshipment center for NATO consignments being withdrawn from Afghanistan, without coordinating the decision with the CSTO.
Clinton and Saakashvili comission a new Georgian coast guard vessel
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton brought some goodies with her on her recent trip through Georgia: some "new areas of defense cooperation," which were possibly promised but not specified when Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvilii visited Washington earlier this year. While visiting with Saakashvili in Batumi (and before partaking of some of the local vintage) she outlined in a bit more detail what this new cooperation would entail:
We have also agreed this year on several new areas of defense cooperation. The United States will provide training and support for Georgian defense forces to better monitor your coasts and your skies. We will help upgrade Georgia’s utility helicopter fleet so it can more easily transport supplies and people throughout your country. We are also going to help Georgia give its officers the 21st century training they need for today’s changing missions. With these efforts, Georgia will be a stronger international partner with an improved capacity for self-defense.
She also commissioned a new Georgian coast guard vessel, one of three that the U.S. has helped Georgia modernize:
I’m delighted to help formally commission this Pazisi patrol boat, which will soon help guard Georgia’s coastline. This ship, with its advanced technology and capabilities, is a testament to the partnership between our two countries. Georgians and Americans worked together to modernize it. And I am proud that since 2009, the United States has contributed $10 million to help the Georgian Coast Guard become a sustainable, self-sufficient service capable of patrolling and protecting its territorial waters.
The U.S. State Department is considering allowing a sale of surveillance equipment to Azerbaijan, which supporters say is needed to help protect against Iran. But Washington's Armenian-American lobby and its allied members of Congress are objecting, arguiing that it could be used against Armenian forces in the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh, as well.
The equipment in question hasn't been precisely identified, but it is some sort of surveillance equipment that would be installed in Mi-35M attack helicopters that Azerbaijan has lately been acquiring from Russia. The State Department and Azerbaijan are saying that the equipment would be used by Azerbaijan's border service, and an "action item" by the U.S. Azeris Network emphasizes that the equipment is required to police the border with Iran:
[I]t is the moral responsibility of the U.S. Congress and Government to show their support to their strategic ally in that turbulent region and stand strong with Azerbaijan. Such support should start with statements and resolutions in support of sovereign, secure and independent Azerbaijan, to supplying it with defensive systems such as Patriot air-defense systems (PAC3), border protection equipment, helicopter protection systems, simulators, Command and Control gear, and any other defensive and border-protection military hardware and software that would protect Azerbaijan’s energy infrastructure, make it less vulnerable, and send a strong message to Iran to stop bullying and threatening. We should show our allies that we value their partnership and friends, and are not ignoring the threat Iran poses.
The Kremlin has not taken kindly to the U.S. ambassador's suggestion that Russia "bribed" Kyrgyzstan in 2009 to kick the U.S. out of the Manas air base. The controversy began Friday, when Ambassador Michael McFaul addressed a group of Russian students and reportedly told them that:
Russia had “bribed” Kyrgyzstan four years ago to prompt the country to shut down the U.S. military airbase in Manas airport near Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek. In his speech, he admitted that the United States had also offered a bribe to Kyrgyzstan, but ten times less.
The website of the U.S. embassy in Moscow, which posts texts of most of McFaul's public speeches, for some reason has only a slide presentation (pdf) of this particular address, which contains no reference to Kyrgyzstan or bribery, so it's not clear what his exact words were. But obviously he was referring to the episode when former Kyrgyzstan president Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced -- in Moscow -- that Kyrgyzstan was booting the U.S. out of the base. And at the same time, Russia announced a $2.15 billion aid package for Kyrgyzstan.
It took a few days, but on Monday Russia's Foreign Ministry reacted strongly, issuing a harsh statement:
The Russian Foreign Ministry was extremely bewildered by the U.S. ambassador’s statements… His estimates of Russian-U.S. cooperation go far beyond diplomatic etiquette and represent a deliberate distortion of a number of aspects of Russian-American dialogue...
Georgia's NATO aspirations didn't exactly get a ringing endorsement from a State Department official at a Congressional hearing Thursday previewing next month's alliance summit in Chicago. U.S. officials have been hinting that Georgia would get some sort of reward at the summit for their recent constructive steps, like compromising with the Kremlin on Russia's bid for the World Trade Organization. As the U.S.'s next ambassador to Tbilbisi, Richard Norland, said at his confirmation hearing last month:
"Serious efforts” were being undertaken by the U.S. administration to use upcoming NATO summit in Chicago “to signal acknowledgment for Georgia’s progress in these areas and to work with the Allies to develop a consensus on the next steps forward.”
That reward won't be a NATO Membership Action Plan, the holy grail for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, and a virtual guarantee of future membership. But Washington still wants to signal to Georgia that they are valued -- they are, after all, the highest per-capita troop contributor to the coalition in Afghanistan -- while continuing to press them on political reforms. Norland said that the conduct of upcoming elections would be a "litmus test" for Georgia's NATO aspirations: parliamentary elections will be held this year and presidential elections next year, and Saakashvili appears determined to throw up as many obstacles as he can to his main opponent.