Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili visits Afghanistan Feb. 20
A top Pentagon official is visiting Tbilisi this week, and high on the agenda will be hammering out the details of the much vaunted "new level" of defense cooperation between the U.S. and Georgia. As was the case during President Mikheil Saakashvilil's recent visit to Washington, there was a rhetorical disconnect between the U.S. and Georgian sides about what is the way ahead for military ties between the two allies.
The Georgian side again focused on the concept of "self-defense capabilities," i.e. weapons. “The United States is very much interested in increasing Georgia’s self-defense capabilities,” said Nino Kalandadze, the deputy foreign minister.
The American side, by contrast, focused on more institutional reforms in the Georgian military, as could be seen in the speech the Pentagon official, Celeste Wallander, gave at Georgia's National Defense Academy. While Wallander said that the two sides are "advancing our relationship into new areas of cooperation," she spent far more time lecturing the cadets on the need for the military to be apolitical, suggesting that was more important than any hardware:
A Russian Foreign Ministry official has said that the U.S. might use its air base at Manas to attack Iran. At a Moscow briefing today, spokesman Alexander Lukashevich echoed the recent claim of Kyrgyzstan's President Almazbek Atambayev that a U.S.-Iran war could embroil Kyrgyzstan:
"It cannot be excluded that this site could be used in a potential conflict with Iran," foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich told reporters. "We hope that such an apocalyptic scenario will not be realised...."
Lukashevich said using the airbase as a launch-pad to strike Iran would require "changes or rather violations" to the lease agreement between Washington and Bishkek.
"The statements from Washington which do not rule out a military solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis have caused serious worries in the Central Asian region," he said.
"The worries are shared not just by Kyrgyzstan -- where a debate has erupted about the risk of a retaliatory strike from Iran -- but other Central Asian countries," he added.
Now, if the U.S. wanted to attack Iran, it would have no shortage of launching pads. It has an air base in neighboring Turkey, an entire naval fleet in Bahrain, and of course a substantial military presence in Afghanistan. Why they would choose to use distant Kyrgyzstan, which would require crossing at least two other countries' airspaces along the way, instead of those far easier options, is something that neither Atambayev nor Lukashevich have explained.
Recall that the Iranian ambassador to Bishkek spoke out publicly to quash such speculation when Atambayev first voiced it. When it's the Iranian official who is the voice of reason, well...
Russia has reportedly convinced its allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization not to participate in a new U.S. counterdrug program in Central Asia, apparently concerned that it would give the U.S. too much leverage over the regional governments. The program, called the Central Asia Counternarcotics Initiative, would promote regional cooperation in countering drug trafficking by setting up task forces in all five Central Asian countries and hooking them up with similar task forces in Afghanistan and Russia.
But Russia has apparently taken a dim view of the proposal, reports the Russian newspaper Kommersant:
Moscow is convinced that the main objective of this initiative is strengthening the military and political presence in a region that Moscow regards as its area of special interests. As a result, Russia has managed to persuade the CSTO members to not participate in it.
The key problem, according to Kommersant's sources:
As planned by the United States, the task forces must have very wide powers, and most importantly, full access to secret operational information supplied to law enforcement agencies and intelligence services of the Central Asian countries. Moscow feared that this would give the U.S. an opportunity to gather sensitive information and then use these data to blackmail the governments in the region.
RFE/RL spoke with American diplomats involved in the effort, who confirmed that it was blocked:
A U.S. official familiar with the matter confirmed that Washington's delegation was unable to reach a final agreement at the meeting but said the plan has not been rejected.
Still, the official described the outcome as "a big surprise."
From top: Nearly all US troops going to and from Afghanistan transit through the airbase in Manas, Kyrgyzstan.; Barracks, or top-secret intelligence gathering facilities?; Wing commander headquarters.
Over the past year, the U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan has expanded its programs of outreach to the local community and to Kyrgyzstan's military and government, strengthening the base's role as a public diplomacy tool of the U.S. government.
Most of what the base (officially called the Transit Center at Manas) does has nothing to do with Kyrgyzstan. Its two main missions are serving as a transit and processing point for nearly all troops entering and leaving their tours in Afghanistan, and as a base for aerial refueling aircraft. Those are functions that can't as easily be carried out in Afghanistan itself. Most troops arrive to Manas on chartered civilian aircraft, which can't land in Afghanistan because of the security situation there. (At Manas, they transfer on to military aircraft for the rest of the trip into Afghanistan.) And the U.S. and NATO have maxed out Afghanistan's existing airport space with attack aircraft, as well as smaller transport planes and helicopters, requiring larger planes like the refueling tankers to be based outside the country.
As a result of Manas's sole focus on Afghanistan, there isn't any inherent connection between the base and Kyrgyzstan, other than the high-level negotiations that take place between Bishkek and Washington over the base's presence, rent and so on. And there remains a great deal of suspicion among Kyrgyz people and government officials about what exactly it is that goes on at Manas (suspicion enthusiastically fueled by Russian media). That, in turn, has fueled recurrent drama over the base's continuing presence in Kyrgyzstan; current President Almazbek Atambayev has frequently threatened to shut the base down.
The White House today released its proposed budget for the upcoming year, and the big news from The Bug Pit's area of interest is that the U.S. is now giving the same amount of military aid to Uzbekistan as it is to the rest of the Central Asian republics. Last year, Uzbekistan was budgeted a mere $100,000 in Foreign Military Financing aid, which allows countries to buy U.S. equipment. Still, that was the first FMF money Uzbekistan had been budgeted since 2005, because of Congressional concerns about human rights. But according to the budget documents (pdf) released today, in the current fiscal year Uzbekistan's aid has been bumped up to $1.5 million, and it is slated to get the same next year. That's still small potatoes compared to the big U.S. military aid recipients: Pakistan is budgeted to get $350 million, Egypt $1.3 billion and Israel $3.1 billion. And this also is dwarfed by the cash these countries get as reimbursement for being part of the Northern Distribution Network. But Uzbekistan's aid package is now the same as its neighbors': Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan also are budgeted to get $1.5 million, Kazakhstan $1.8 million and Turkmenistan $685,000.
The countries of the Caucasus get more: Armenia and Azerbaijan $2.7 million each, and Georgia $14.4 million (though we'll have to wait and see if any of that includes weaponry). Except for Uzbekistan's aid, and a doubling of Tajikistan's aid, there aren't many changes from last year. And the documents contain very little explanation of the aid packages for these countries. Georgia does get highlighted briefly:
Georgia's prospects in NATO, after being more or less left for dead in the wake of the 2008 war with Russia, have lately appeared to be improving. NATO has recently changed its rhetoric on Georgia, for the first time calling it an "aspirant" along with several Balkan countries. And U.S. officials have said Georgia is making "significant progress" that should be recognized at the next NATO summit, in Chicago in May.
So what does this mean? Does Georgia have a shot at NATO membership after all? As a story on EurasiaNet's main page today explains, not really: President Obama, after his meeting with his Georgian counterpart Mikheil Saakashvili, used the word "ultimately" to describe Georgia's entrance into NATO, which suggests he doesn't see it happening any time soon. And even if the White House were to again back Georgian NATO membership as strongly as the Bush administration did pre-August 2008, there would still be the matter of the big Western European countries who oppose Georgia's membership. So what to do?
The defense official quoted in the EurasiaNet piece had more thoughts on this (though there wasn't room in that piece). A Membership Action Plan, the holy grail for Georgia, is not a possibility. That subject won't even be discussed at the summit: remember, this will be in May of an election year. "It's about U.S. internal politics, so this summit needs to look good. We don't need a food fight like in '08, between us and the Germans, or the pro-Georgia camp vs. the camp that's not too keen on Georgia. We don't need that. So the whole Georgia issue isn't going to be raised," the official said.
Uzbekistan is slated to get some new night vision goggles, bulletproof vests and GPS equipment from the U.S., a State Department official has said. A couple of weeks ago, the U.S. formally notified Congress that it intends to again start giving Uzbekistan military aid, which had been halted since 2002 because of concerns about human rights. At the time it wasn't clear what exactly would be given to Tashkent under the waiver, but now the State Department has described in a little more detail what is under discussion here. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, at a press conference on February 1:
Examples of the kinds of things that this waiver was given for – this will enhance the Uzbeks’ ability to counteract transnational terrorism and all – things like night vision goggles, personal protection equipment, global positioning systems. It’s defensive in nature, and it’s also supportive of their ability to secure the routes in and out of Afghanistan.
It's not clear that there is in fact any significant threat to the NDN in Uzbekistan. The closest thing so far, initially called a "terror" attack by the Uzbek authorities, appears more and more to be looking like an inside job. More likely, this is the pretext that the Uzbekistan government is using to justify the aid, knowing that that will resonate with U.S. policymakers; their real interest is likely geopolitical, that is showing Russia that they have other options for security other than Moscow and the CSTO.
At the press conference, Nuland also addressed the question of human rights and this aid:
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: