In his testimony to Congress last month, the chief of U.S. Central Command, General James Mattis, said that he had instructed the U.S.'s intelligence officers to draft "releasable products" to give to its "most trusted partners" in regions including Central Asia:
As I travel throughout the [CENTCOM area of responsibility] and see the promise of new initiatives and the risk posed by numerous challenges, I receive requests from military leaders across the region to increase intelligence sharing between our militaries. Many show determination to make tough decisions and prioritize limited resources to oppose antagonists seeking to destabilize their countries or use them to plan and stage attacks against the U.S. homeland. With this in mind, and in order to demonstrate our commitment, I requested the Intelligence Community to begin drafting releasable products for our most trusted partners in the Levant, on the Arabian Peninsula, in the Central Asian States, and in South Asia as a standard practice rather than the exception.
I am encouraged by the personal attention the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is giving these matters. Director Clapper’s strong emphasis and encouragement for the intelligence community to produce intelligence in a manner that eases our ability to responsibly share information with our military counterparts creates a stronger, more focused front against our common enemies and builds our partner nations’ confidence. We are grateful for the nimble manner in which our intelligence community has strengthened our efforts to checkmate more of our enemy’s designs.
Screenshot from Pentagon Channel video report on Alaska National Guard C-130J training mission to Mongolia (http://www.dvidshub.net/video/284878/alaska-guard-travels-mongolia#.UVORwlvGSp2)
Mongolia is in discussions to buy American-made military transport airplanes, and is getting U.S. help in learning how to operate the aircraft. That ambitious purchase appears to signal that Mongolia has mining money to spend, and it's using some of it to upgrade its armed forces.
Mongolia is looking at buying three C-130J transport airplanes, manufactured by Lockheed Martin. The planes would likely be used to transport the country's armed forces on its increasingly ambitious international peacekeeping missions. From a press release by the Alaska National Guard, whose airmen recently traveled to Mongolia to conduct training on C-130 maintenance:
In a country as vast and open as Alaska, the Mongolian Air and Air Defense Force is tasked with transporting Mongolian Armed Forces, but with only Soviet-era helicopters that include the MI-24B, MI-8T and MI-171E, they lack the capacity to transport large numbers of personnel, making it impossible to meet all their mission requirements.
“This is a great professional exchange for us,” said 1st Lt. Bayasgalan Baljinnyam, platoon commander, Unit 337 Nalaikh Air Base, Mongolian Air and Air Defense Force. “Our national Air Force needs a C-130 because we need to participate in every mission and right now we have to call on civilian aircraft to transport our troops. We need to have our own C-130 so we can manage ourselves and transport our own troops to other countries.”
The U.S.'s growing military ties with Uzbekistan may be a strategic necessity, given the importance of the Central Asian country in the U.S.'s war effort in Afghanistan. But it is forcing the U.S. to confront an important, if little-discussed, complication: Uzbekistan is the least-trusted, most-feared country in the region. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have well-known border and water conflicts with Uzbekistan. Kazakhstan sees Uzbekistan as a regional rival. So is the U.S.'s military aid to Uzbekistan raising regional tensions?
U.S. military aid, after being suspended for several years because of human rights concerns, is steadily being ramped up. That the U.S. is giving small surveillance drones to Uzbekistan is the worst-kept secret in Washington (OK, in the narrow slice of Washington that The Bug Pit inhabits). It's also giving Uzbekistan's armed forces night-vision goggles, body armor, and GPS systems, and there are credible rumors in Washington of heavier military equipment being considered for Uzbekistan to either buy or be given. (And it's not just the U.S.: Uzbekistan has pledged to work more closely with NATO on training, and the U.K. is also planning to make some donations to Uzbekistan as well.)
In 2001, the U.S. made a deal with Tajikistan to set up an air base near the Afghanistan border, but backed out at the last minute in favor of the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan, said the man who was U.S. ambassador to Dushanbe at the time. The diplomat, Franklin Huddle, said that Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense who made the decision to use Manas instead of the Tajikistan base, agreed to fund a bridge to Afghanistan as a sort of consolation prize.
While it was reported at the time that the U.S. was looking at bases in Tajikistan, it hadn't been known until now that a deal had been reached. Huddle said that the government of Tajikistan had agreed to allow the use of the base at Kulyab, even going so far as to kick out the Russian troops who were then occupying it. It also hadn't been reported until now that the bridge at Nizhny Pyanj, funded by the U.S., was given to Tajikistan to mollify the Tajiks disappointed by losing the clout, and money, they would have gotten by hosting a U.S. military base. Huddle told the story at a conference this week in Washington. Here's how he told it:
“Rumsfeld had come to Tajikistan, he'd had orders from the president to get a base in Tajikistan. I sat in in the meeting and translated, in fact [for part of the meeting]. That base was then given to them, and the Tajik government asked the Russians to leave, which was a big deal. Well, then Rumsfeld changed his mind and decided to use Kyrgyzstan instead, just as the base was all ready to open, trains were coming to bring ammunition. That was Christmas Eve. So Christmas Day, I had to go in an tell President Rahmon what was not a very nice piece of news. The Tajik government, to their credit, took it like a man and didn't say anything about it and kept the relationship going.
The U.S. intelligence community believes that the greatest threat facing Central Asia is internal, rather than emanating from Afghanistan, in contrast to recent statements by State Department, members of Congress and Pentagon officials who have lately been emphasizing Afghanistan-based Islamist threats to the region.
In an annual ritual, the U.S. director of national intelligence delivers the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community to the Senate, and the current director, James Clapper, did so Tuesday morning. Obviously such a report can make the world sound like a very dangerous place (Micah Zenko, of the Council on Foreign Relations, calls it the "World Cup of threat inflation"). But the section of the report dealing with The Bug Pit's beat is remarkably sober. While last year's report emphasized the threat to Central Asia from Afghanistan, this year's makes no such mention, instead focusing on the region's internal dynamics:
The question of whether, or how, to give military aid to Uzbekistan is probably the hottest question among Central Asia policymakers in Washington these days. The U.S. has agreed to leave some equipment behind for its partners in Central Asia after its forces withdraw from Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan has made clear that it has high expectations for the sort of equipment that it will get. But some in Washington are concerned that giving military equipment to Uzbekistan would only abet the misrule of President Islam Karimov, who heads one of the most repressive governments on the planet. This question will undoubtedly be at the top of the agenda this week when a large delegation from Uzbekistan, headed by Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov, visits Washington.
Publicly, the U.S. says it can provide military aid to Uzbekistan while still respecting human rights. At a recent congressional hearing, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake said that "the approach we have taken with Central Asia helps proactively strengthen the region’s capacity to combat terrorism and counter extremism, while encouraging democratic reform and respect for human rights.” But Blake didn't provide specifics. And It's easy to say you can give military aid while respecting human rights, but the devil is in the details. Meanwhile, behind closed doors there are discussions about expanding donations or sales of U.S. military equipment to Uzbekistan.
Although Uzbekistan has been getting the most attention among coalition countries in Afghanistan looking for land routes to ship their equipment back home, Tajikistan also is encouraging western countries to do the same, and the United States and United Kingdom seem to be among the interested parties.
Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake visited Dushanbe last week and met with President Emomali Rahmon. After the meeting, Blake was asked if the U.S.'s withdrawal from Afghanistan would take place through Tajikistan. His response:
[A]s you all know, the President of the United States announced during his State of the Union speech that the United States would be halving the number of troops in Afghanistan by February of next year, but I don’t expect that that operation will take place through Tajikistan.
That appeared to be a shift in policy: the U.S. has been using the Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan (KKT) route as a complement to the more heavily used Uzbekistan route to ship equipment to Afghanistan. And some media reported it as such: Asia-Plus headlined its article "Washington does not plan to use Tajikistan’s infrastructure for Afghan withdrawal," while Nezavisimaya Gazeta wrote that his comments showed that "the U.S. doesn't consider Tajikistan to be a transit country."
A State Department spokesperson said Blake was only referring to troops, not to equipment, and referred The Bug Pit to the Pentagon for clarification of Tajikistan's status as a transit country. Commander Bill Speaks of the Office of the Secretary of Defense confirmed that "Yes, Tajikistan will be used as part of the NDN routes for retrograde of equipment." So that's cleared up.
The U.S. is proposing to cut State Department aid to the Caucasus by about 24 percent, while decreasing the portion of that aid devoted to security-related programs by about two percent, according to recently released budget documents (pdf). In Central Asia, while total aid would drop 13 percent, security assistance would remain roughly the same. The aid packages, if approved by Congress, would continue a pattern by the U.S. of increasingly placing a greater emphasis on security than on political, economic or health programs in the region.
Overall, State Department aid to Central Asia would drop from $133.6 million in fiscal year 2012 to $118.3 million in the current fiscal year, while aid programs under the rubric of "Peace and Security" would stay roughly steady at $30.3 million. (Programs in the "Peace and Security" category include not only military aid programs but also those targeting police, border control agencies and so on.) In the Caucasus, the aid would drop from $150.2 million to $121.6 million, with the security portion of that declining slightly from $35.6 million to $34.9 million.
Georgia would remain the largest U.S. aid recipient in the region, though its assistance package would drop from $85 million last year to $68.7 million this year. Most of the decrease would affect programs under the rubric of "Economic Growth." Aid programs in the "Peace and Security" category, meanwhile, would remain steady, at $21.7 million, with particular focuses on preparing Georgia's armed forces for NATO interoperability and retraining weapons scientists to work in counterproliferation.
The U.S. military needs to help the governments of Central Asia protect themselves against violent extremist organizations, says the likely next commander of U.S. Central Command, General Lloyd J. Austin, III. Austin faced a confirmation hearing on February 14, and while it seems that the question of U.S. relations with Central Asia didn't come up, Austin was asked about the region in written questions before the hearing. His responses (pdf) were notable for the emphasis that they put on maintaining military relations with the region even after the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan starting next year, and for the credence that he gave to the threat of extremism in the region.
In response to a broad question about relations with Central Asian states, Austin said that cooperation with U.S. partners in the region will gain importance after 2014:
As we transition in Afghanistan, securing access to the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) for logistical resupply and retrograde operations is of particular importance as we seek to promote stability and assure our partners of our continued commitment to the region. The development of the NDN has been a critical area of investment to that end and cooperation with our Central Asian partners will gain additional importance post-2014.
Relations with Uzbekistan are to be based on "mutual benefit":
Our relationship with Uzbekistan continues to improve in a deliberate, balanced way driven by regional security considerations, expansion of the NDN and mutual benefit.
Interestingly, Austin seems to take a bit of a defeatist attitude to Kyrgyzstan's stated desire for the U.S. to vacate the Manas airbase next year:
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake meets Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev January 16 in Bishkek.
The U.S.'s top diplomat dealing with Central Asia, Robert Blake, visited Kyrgyzstan last week and if we are to believe Press.kg, all over Bishkek, "even in schools and kindergartens, for three days they are saying 'Blake is coming! Blake is coming!'" Journalistic hyperbole aside, this was a highly anticipated visit, as it seems that negotiations over the U.S.'s Manas air base are starting in earnest. Before Blake left, he told Voice of America's Russian service that he would be discussing extending the lease for the base, which is now scheduled to expire in 2014. "Manas has a huge significance for the U.S. from the point of view of logistics," he said.
In Bishkek, Blake met with President Almazbek Atambayev and other officials, and while of course the details of the discussions were not divulged, Blake did make an interesting statement to the press after his meetings. He was asked if the U.S. might use the newly established French transit center in Shymkent, Kazakhstan, and he didn't say no. After it's determined what sort of U.S. troop presence there will be in Afghanistan after 2014, the U.S. will assess what sort of facilities it needs in Central Asia, he said:
Once those important decisions [on troop presence in Afghanistan] are made, then we’ll be in a better position to plan for ourselves what kind of facilities we might need either in Afghanistan or in the wider region. Again, I don’t want to speculate on the future of what those might be.