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.
Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov Meets NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Will he be shaking hands with Obama next?
U.S. President Barack Obama should meet with his Uzbekistan counterpart, Islam Karimov, at the upcoming NATO summit in Chicago, says the American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce. The AUCC has written two letters, one to Obama and the other to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, arguing that an Obama-Karimov meeting would improve opportunities for American businesses in Uzbekistan:
[T]he Republic of Uzbekistan is important to U.S. interests in ensuring stability and security in the region, and under the Partnership for Peace Program, NATO and Uzbekistan are developing practical cooperation in a number of areas through Uzbekistan's Individual Partnership Program and the Planning and Review Process.
The Republic of Uzbekistan's political stability as well as its determination and commitment to ensure peace in the region are important features for business success. For AUCC member companies, the positive political dialogue between the United States of America and the Republic of Uzbekistan pursued by your office reinforces the U.S. business community's ability to increase investments and exports to the Uzbek market.
The AUCC would welcome your support for the request that you meet Uzbek President Islam A. Karimov during the NATO Summit in Chicago, IL. The U.S. business community believes that such a meeting with further enhance our bilateral relations, reiterate the U.S. commercial interest in this resource-rich country and strengthen our companies' business stance in the region.
The Bug Pit obtained copies of the letters, you can read the entire letter to Obama here. (The letter to Clinton is almost identical.)
The person who sent me the letter wasn't sure if Karimov was already planning to attend the NATO summit, but if he does, that will certainly be a bit of a spectacle.
A top U.S. military official has finished a trip around Central Asia, and while most of the official news about his visits with the region's leaders was prettyvague, there were a couple of interesting items from Kyrgyzstan.
After meeting with the U.S. official, CENTCOM commander General James Mattis, the chair of Kyrgyzstan's national security council Busurmankul Tabaldiyev suggested that Kyrgyzstan is open to keeping the Manas air base open after 2014. That would be a shift from recent public rhetoric from Bishkek, which has stressed the need to close the base as soon as the current agreement expires in 2014. From 24.kg, quoting Tabaldiyev:
Kyrgyzstan is interested in ensuring security and stability in the country and is ready to participate fully in the efforts of the international community to assist Afghanistan. The Kyrgyz side expressed its readiness to assist the U.S. government to continue after 2014, but in the interests of the country, the views of the people and the security of Kyrgyzstan.
In his meeting with Mattis, Tabaldiyev also apparently broached the topic of getting drone aircraft from the U.S., reports RFE/RL:
Tabaldiev told RFE/RL the request was for U.S. drones to be left for Kyrgyzstan during the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan due by the end of 2014.
...Mattis, leader of the U.S. delegation, reportedly replied that Washington is ready to consider the request.
Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad discuss railway projects in Dushanbe.
This week, Dushanbe hosted the fifth meeting of the Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan, and the U.S., as expected, used the occasion to promote its "New Silk Road" vision of a future in which Afghanistan is a hub of commerce between Central and South Asia. "The region’s wealth of natural resources, nascent trade agreements, and a burgeoning network of transport and energy connections underscore the great economic promise of a more integrated South and Central Asia," said Robert Blake, assistant secretary of State for Central and South Asia, the U.S.'s senior representative at the meeting. "ut achieving greater economic cooperation – the essence of the New Silk Road vision – will not be easy or happen overnight. It will require strong buy-in and coordination by governments in the region, its international partners, and investment from the private sector."
So when participants announced that they would "accelerate" plans for a railway from Kashgar (in far western China) and Herat (in western Afghanistan), you might assume the U.S. would be thrilled. It doesn't get much more Silk Road than Kashgar and Herat, and getting China, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan on the same page for a regional project is no small feat.
The catch is that Iran is a driving force behind the Kashgar-Herat railway project. And the U.S. can't abide any cooperation with Iran, New Silk Road be damned. Blake was asked about this at a press conference after the meeting:
Question [BBC Persia]: Mr. Blake, we know that the United States and European countries likewise, you promote integration projects in the region between Central Asia and South Asia. How is it possible without Iran’s participation?
Ohanian, Panetta and other U.S. and Armenian officials meet in Washington
Armenia's defense minister Seyran Ohanian has wrapped up a three-day visit to the U.S., as military relations between the U.S. and Armenia quietly strengthen. Ohanian's visit was his first to the U.S. since he became defense minister in 2008, according to Armenian Reporter, which reported that he met with his counterpart Leon Panetta and CIA director David Petraeus, among other officials.
Last month, the two countries agreed to carry out their first-ever joint military exercises in April. And Wikileaked U.S. diplomatic cables show that Ohanian is someone the U.S. likes working with, Armenian Reporter notes:
Although this was Ohanyan's first visit to U.S. since his appointment as defense minister in 2008, Ohanyan is known to have a good rapport with Americans, meeting Petraeus and other senior U.S. officials during visits with Armenian peacekeeping units in Iraq and Afghanistan and to NATO headquarters in Brussels.
"The better we get to know Minister Ohanian, the more we like him as a partner in political-military efforts," U.S. Charge in Armenia Joseph Pennington wrote in a 2009 cable made available by Wikileaks. "He seems a straightforward interlocutor, who is respected in the Armenian government and within the Defense Ministry. His credibility as a soldier is very high, given his long experience commanding NKSDF [Nagorno Karabakh Self Defense Forces] troops."
"We are pleased to find General Ohanian interested and committed on Armenia's NATO-related defense reform efforts and Euro-Atlantic ties," Pennington wrote.