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Superpower Seeks Stable Country, Near Afghanistan

Visits by top U.S. officials to Baku may signal Washington’s search for an alternative to its base in Kyrgyzstan. From EurasiaNet.

by Shahin Abbasov 29 June 2010

With ongoing instability in Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan’s role as a logistics point for U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan could take on heightened importance, military and political experts in Baku believe.


A recent visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates to Baku underlined the importance of that role for Washington. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is expected to continue the official outreach with a visit to Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia sometime between 1 July and 5 July. An exact date for Clinton’s visit to Baku has not been released, but the Azerbaijani news agency Turan, citing an anonymous source, reported that the trip would occur 3-4 July.


At a 25 June briefing, Assistant Secretary of State Philip J. Crowley suggested the Clinton mission would focus on Washington’s interest in “normalized relations among Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.” Aside from that longstanding problem, however, Clinton’s trip, coming on the heels of Gates’ 6-7 June visit, is directing attention toward Azerbaijan’s role in the US and NATO campaign in Afghanistan.


Roughly a quarter of all supplies bound for Afghanistan travel via Azerbaijan. And since 2001, about 100,000 military personnel have also traveled through “the Caucasus spur,” a designation that includes Azerbaijan, on their way to deployment in Afghanistan, according to Pentagon data.


Aside from transit, Baku has a contingent of 90 soldiers serving in Afghanistan and is providing assistance with demining, rebuilding schools, and training Afghan doctors. The Azerbaijani government has recently expressed interest in increasing its troop presence and its humanitarian assistance.


Beyond possibly probing a larger transit role, American officials are looking into the possibility of using Azerbaijan as a supply source. The Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense Industry signed protocols in mid-May with three U.S. weapons manufacturers for the production of mortars, machine guns, grenades, and cartridges, the APA news agency reported. Defense Industry Minister Yaver Jamalov said on 14 May that the U.S. companies’ representatives will visit Azerbaijan soon to test the pilot products and possibly to sign contracts. He did not name the companies.


The Gates visit signaled to some Baku analysts that Washington has plans for Azerbaijan to take on a bigger support role in Afghan operations – particularly in the wake of the recent violence and instability in Kyrgyzstan, where the U.S. government has faced ongoing headaches over its air base at Manas, a critical supply hub for Afghanistan.


“Gates has delivered [U.S. President Barack] Obama’s message that Azerbaijan remains an important partner for the United States in the region,” said Jesur Sumarinli, editor in chief of the military digest.


Former presidential foreign policy aide Vafa Guluzade agreed, calling the unrest in Kyrgyzstan signs of “a possible major destabilization in Central Asia.” That instability is likely prompting the United States to hedge its bets by bolstering relations with Azerbaijan. “I would not exclude the possibility of a redeployment of part of the Manas air base to Azerbaijan as a backup part of [coalition forces’] military infrastructure,” he said.


Earlier in June, the Azerbaijani parliament adopted a new military doctrine that allows for the placement of foreign military bases on Azerbaijani soil “in exceptional circumstances.” This provoked local media speculation that the groundwork was being laid for a U.S. base in Azerbaijan.


Guluzade argued that Kyrgyzstan’s risks would make such an option “a good solution for Washington.” He recalled a 1999 meeting at which then-president Heidar Aliev, the father of Azerbaijan’s current leader, offered U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright a U.S. base in Azerbaijan as “a safeguard of the country’s national security and its independence.” Albright declined the offer, he added. Guluzade served at the time as an adviser to Heidar Aliev.


Spokespeople for the Azerbaijani foreign and defense ministries declined to comment on whether or not such basing-related issues came up in discussions during Gates’ visit. The U.S. Department of Defense has not commented publicly on the topic.


Ongoing headaches over the Manas fuel supply, however, have caused “weariness and wariness” of Kyrgyzstan’s provisional government within the Pentagon and State Department, one observer recently told The U.S. lease at Manas expires in 2011.


Sumarinli, the military expert, said it still seemed unlikely that Azerbaijani officials, under current conditions, would agree to host an American base. “One can imagine Russia’s and Iran’s reaction if this comes true. I do not think Baku is ready for such drastic moves,” he said.


Rather, Baku’s desire to strengthen its ties with the United States on Afghanistan stems from a more pragmatic interest – resolution of the conflict with Armenia over the breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh, Sumarinli said. “The Azerbaijani government says that it is willing to help the United States to solve its problems in Afghanistan. But it wants support in return, the support for resolution of Azerbaijan’s problems with Armenia,” Sumarinli said. “This is the main issue for [President Ilham] Aliev.”


Tension connected with the Karabakh peace process has been on the rise lately. Recent skirmishes along the so-called contact line left four Armenian and two Azerbaijani soldiers dead. The skirmishes took place after an 18-19  June trilateral summit between Aliev and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan that appeared to yield nothing in the way of progress toward a lasting peace settlement.


As a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe group of countries overseeing talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Washington would face clear limits on its ability to promote Azerbaijani positions within the talks.

Shahin Abbasov is a freelance correspondent based in Baku. He is also a board member of the Open Society Institute-Azerbaijan. This is a partner post from EurasiaNet.

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