Posts Tagged ‘Central Asia’

Russia’s presidential tag team continues, the U.S. plans to build new military sites in Central Asia and China’s growth hastens

The expected has happened, which somehow has stirred a lot of speculation about the future of Russia. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said he would consider taking back the country’s presidency during the 2012 elections.

“Naturally, I am already thinking about this issue with President Medvedev but have decided not to make much fuss about it, not to let ourselves be distracted by this problem,” Putin said to French media.

It appears that the Medvedev-Putin duo are working out plans for the next round of elections and are likely not going to run against each other but manage a deal in which they can together govern Russia as they have been doing after Putin stepped down from the presidency in 2008 and picked Medvedev as his favoured successor.

And it seems that Russia is playing with both Iran and the U.S. by sending mixed messages on its sale of anti-aircraft missiles. Iran wants what is called a S-300 missile defence system from Russia. The order has long been placed, and delayed. Shortly after UN Security Council sanctions were passed against Iran, a Russian arms supplier was quoted saying the missiles would never be delivered.

Russia’s Foreign Minister, on Thursday, responsed to Iran’s complaint and publicly gave hollow assurances. So the official line is that there are no legal constraints holding Russia back from selling S-300 milles (the fourth round of sanctions against Iran really didn’t add much that is new). But, this is a far cry from saying that Russia is prepared to complete delivery. So, it seems the ball is still in play on this one, and Russia is likely using this in negotiations with the U.S. and perhaps to make sure the U.S. keeps its end of any bargain in the long term.

Just a reminder, the U.S. is still set to implement and expand covert military activity inside and around Iran. A directive signed by General Petraeus in September 2009 is still in play, deepening related plans that began under the Bush administration and continue under President Obama.

“The seven-page directive appears to authorize specific operations in Iran, most likely to gather intelligence about the country’s nuclear program or identify dissident groups that might be useful for a future military offensive,” writes Mark Mazzetti in the New York Times.

More recently, it was revealed that the U.S. is indulging in a small building binge: it will be setting up new military facilities in all Central Asian countries. There seems to be a jostling for such facilities between both the U.S. and Russia.

China, meanwhile, is stamping its presence in the same Central Asian countries economically instead, such as by taking majority shares in a Kazakh oil venture in exchange for a US$10 billion line of credit to Kazakhstan. This sort of lavish spending and economic investment is made possible by its fast growing economy, and, maybe, we might also say that its fast growing economy is a little aided by its economic investments.

Numbers just came out: China’s exports have risen by almost 50% over the past year (no that’s not a typo). It rakes in US$1.2 trillion in export revenues in a year. The economy as a whole has grown at a rate of 11.9% in the first quarter, and all this heat is pushing up housing prices very rapidly which could be leading to a real estate bubble in China. Workers have been increasingly demanding that they get a fair share of all of these profits and have staged various actions including strikes. The most famous case, in a Honda plant, has seen wage levels for its workers rise by between 24% and 33%.

As for Turkey, it seems to expect to reap some economic rewards from the sanctions against Iran. Today’s Zaman writes:

“Strategic Thought Institute (SDE) President Professor Yasin Aktay said the sanctions bring advantages that outweigh any damage that they could present for Turkish-Iranian trade. ‘The sanctions are more concerned with weapons and [Iran’s] Revolutionary Guards; there’s not much activity between [Iran and Turkey] in these fields. Our trade with Iran is concentrated in oil, natural gas, industry and consumer products,’ Aktay said. He further commented that sanctions had above all a strong psychological effect and that this could lead to increased trade with Turkey in fields not covered by the sanctions. ‘It’s an important position to be in when you are a country that can say ‘no’ and remain on its feet; there’s no better public diplomacy than this,’ he said.”

Currently, a natural gas pipeline delivers US$1.5 to US$2 billion of energy from Iran to Turkey each year, and there is talk of more such ventures. In various statements in the early part of this year, Turkish leaders have suggested significantly multiplying trade with Iran, which is at the moment focused on transfers of energy.

(First published at


Kyrgyztan: rebellion and international fallout

April 22, 2010 Leave a comment

Map of Central Asia

Political authority remains tenuous since the 7 April ouster of Kyrgyztan’s former president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev. The former president fled to the nearby country of Kazakhstan, before recently receiving asylum in Belarus, along with some members of his family.

Bakiyev had taken power during the 2005 Tulip Revolution, then supported by popular anger against a family-run government that maintained gross inequality in the face of general poverty. This most recent rebellion follows a failure of Bakiyev to ameliorate social and economic conditions. The Bakiyev family ran the government as a clan operation, refusing to deliver on promises of fair government.

More recently, economic conditions in Kyrgyztan deteriorated, and the very many poor faced mounting costs to basic necessities. Under these circumstances, the Bakiyev government seems to have made a gross error in judgment by arresting many opposition leaders. Without a political leadership that could have acted as a constraint on people’s unrestrained actions, the situation exploded.

It seems that the initial stages of popular rebellion was decentralized, undirected by the political elite of the opposition. Madeleine Reeves covers the conditions leading and following the recent rebellion. She indicates the key role of poverty and poor governance in sparking violent unrest. Reeves writes that:

The anger that brought people to the streets was borne of inequality.  The gulf that has emerged between the small group of politically-connected “haves” in Bishkek and the masses of “have nots”, many of whom are recent arrivals to the city’s sprawling migrant districts (novostroiki) has reached colossal proportions in recent years, and it greets the urban dweller at every turn.  But it is poverty, in an absolute sense, as much as inequality that brought people out to demonstrate.  In the last few months, inflation in the cost of basic goods and services; a steep rise in the price of telecommunications, and an overnight doubling in the rate of electricity earlier this year (the latter widely rumoured as facilitating the quick-and-fast privatization of the electricity sector which followed suspiciously soon after) has pushed many families who were struggling to stay above the poverty line back down below it.  For many households the choice this winter has been a simple and stark one of cutting down on heating or cutting down on food.  At the same time, the single primary source of income for many rural and peri-urban families – the remittances sent by family members working in the Russian construction sector – has declined dramatically this year.  Many of those who travelled to Russia in search of work in 2008 or 2009 are “working on empty”.

Russia was quick to recognize the interim government of Roza Otunbayeva and various international news outlets have generally reported overall Russian support for the emerging new government. The latest news reports coming out of Russia have been more cautious, however, indicating some skepticism from Moscow.

A number of Russian news reports indicate suspicion that the Kyrgyz interim administration may have ties to drug cartels and also allege possible ties to covert US activity. The US was one of the last major countries to recognize the interim government, and was notable in its early calls for calm from both the ousted political family and the current interim government.

Kyrgyz media has covered news of sporadic mob attacks against Russian nationals and people of Turkic descent. 700,000 Russians are estimated to live in the country. Attacks have included beatings and attempts at land seizure. This event may well have contributed to Russia’s cautious attitude. There have been accusations that law enforcement has not given any protections during these assaults, however, this may well be explained by the collapse of law, with the police force essentially disintegrating.

Meanwhile, some Western news reports and think tanks claim that there was a Russian hand in the rebellion that overthrew the previous Kyrgyz government.

Poppy cultivation in Kyrgyztan has increased over the years and has begun to rival Afghanistan’s productive capacity. According to MK Bhadrakumar, some Russian and Chinese news have reported ties between the US military air base in Manas, Kyrgyztan, with drug barons. Bhadrakumar also notes that “Iranian intelligence captured the Jundallah terrorist leader, Abdulmalik Rigi, when he was traveling in a Kyrgyz aircraft en route to an alleged rendezvous in Manas.”

The capture of Rigi was a coup for Iranian intelligence. The intelligence operation that led to the capture of the Jundallah leader appears to have been a flawless multi-month operation that has weakened one of the more serious insurgency threats to Iran.

Kyrgyztan is important to the US occupation of Afghanistan since the Manas air base serves as a key supply route. The base is north east of Afghanistan and a little west of China. Russia also has a military base in Kyrgyztan. Both countries are likely using the bases to extend their influence in the region beyond tactical requirements such as NATO supplies through Manas. Such bases can, for example, be used as listening posts to electronically survey the region.

Kyrgyztan borders China’s Xinjiang province, where reside the Uighur. Uighur resistance to current Han rule is a very sensitive subject for China, which has accelerated its efforts to integrate the culturally and religiously distinct province into the nation. Xinjiang is important as a transit route to any natural gas pipelines that bring energy from central and west Asia into China, so its stability is seen as vital to Chinese energy security.

China has taken the lead in developing Pakistan’s Gwadar port city as an emerging energy hub with oil refining capacity, tanker capacity, and transit point for the recently announced Iran-Pakistan natural gas pipeline. It is expected that China seeks to take full advantage of the Gwadar facilities by establishing a network of pipelines to Xinjiang in order to reduce its dependence on the long and insecure sea route that it must currently rely upon for some 80% of its energy imports.

The interim Kyrgyz administration is itself facing at least sporadic violent resistance and is faced with the very real struggle to establish its legitimate rule. At least from outside observation, the extent of lawlessness seems unclear and the strength or tenuous hold of the interim government is uncertain. The uncertainty is echoed in a statement on Tuesday made by Russia’s president, Medvedev:

Essentially, we need to revive the state, the state does not exist at this time, it has been deposed. We are hoping that the interim administration will make all the necessary measures to achieve that, as anarchy will have a negative effect on the interests of the Kyrgyz people and also their neighbors. Legitimization of the authorities is extremely important, which means there need to be elections, not a de facto fulfillment of powers. Only in this case can [Russia’s] economic cooperation be developed.

This statement, made in Uzbekistan, presents a shared regard between Russia and Kyrgyztan’s largest Central Asian neighbour, suggesting that the interim government tread with care and not consider its hold on power as receiving unmitigated support from two of its most important regional neighbours.

The deputy chair of the interim government, Omurbek Tekebaev, has outlined three core tasks for their administration during a meeting with the special representative of the UN Secretary General. Tekebaev identifies these as “establishment of legal order and legitimacy in the territory of Kyrgyzstan, solution of socio-economic problems exacerbated as a result of the latest events, as well as legitimization of state power.”

Order, the enforcement of laws, and the legitimacy of the government are here key, since the situation remains tenuous and political power still fluid.

Part of the drive to legitimate the government has been in drafting a new constitution. The interim government has established a constitutional committee for this purpose . The Kyrgyz news outlet,, claims to have a list of the members of this committee on its site.

Tekebaev, the deputy chair of the interim government, on 19 April, outlined the desired amendments to the constitution. The amendments focus on the nature of presidential, parliamentary, and government power.

Tekebaev claims that the new constitution will make it impossible to concentrate power into any one office, such as that of the president. The president will no longer have legal immunity. The news outlet, has the following on this:

The President will not influence the personnel policy: he will sign the decrees about the appointment of judges, government members and the leaders of state administrative bodies, but he will not be able not to sign these decrees. The candidates for the above-mentioned positions will be selected by other authorities, but not the president. “The Ministers’ Council will be formed by Jogorku Kenesh (the parliament). The judges will be elected by National Council for judicial affairs. The heads of local authorities will be elected by the local deputies’ council”, Tekebaev shared.

The president will sign the law; upon strong arguments, he may send it back to the parliament for additional expertise. “The President should not personally participate in the operational management”, Omurbek Tekebaev noted.

The draft constitution also places a limit on the power of any single political party. No party can hold more than 50 seats in the 90 seat parliament, no matter what share of the vote it may receive during elections.

The US is very concerned over the future of its air base in Manas. This base not only provides support to NATO soldiers in Afghanistan, but it is also practically and symbolically important to the US strategy to maintain and deepen its influence in the region. The outcome of Manas will have impact also on the future of NATO, as it plans yet another meeting during which the alliance is expected to review the nature of its contemporary existence. NATO has been undergoing a conceptual transformation following the end of the Cold War, and there has been a real push to expand its membership and mandate eastward, beyond Europe, and into the Asian heartland where once the Soviet Union held sway. has recently published a document from the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, that it says is signed by John Kerry. The statement highlights the importance of Manas and confirms that the US is ready to work with the interim government:

[…]There has been a growing worry within Kyrgyzstan that the United States cares more about its security needs than those of the Kyrgyz people. We must prove this perception false, with actions rather than with rhetoric –and we have an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment under the new government.

Much of the concern stems from the drawn-out and intensely public debate surrounding our access rights at Manas. It is true that the transit center operated by the United States at Manas International Airport is critical to U.S. interests. The center provides vital logistical support to coalition forces in Afghanistan and is an important contribution by the Kyrgyz Republic to security, stability, and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and the region. After complaints that American payments did not adequately reflect Kyrgyz contributions, the two governments renegotiated the terms of the deal last summer. The new agreement provides a valuable source of support for the Kyrgyz economy.

At the same time, the United States increased cooperative activities with Kyrgyzstan in a number of areas. For instance, the United States increased counternarcotics and counterterrorism assistance and provided significant additional assistance to upgrade air traffic safety and other civilian facilities at Manas Airport. All of these steps contribute to Kyrgyzstan’s long-term economic development.

[…]While the transit center at Manas is important for security across the region, so are the democratic aspirations of the Kyrgyz people. We see no conflict between these priorities because both are served by a Kyrgyzstan that is prosperous and free.

[…]The new leaders of Kyrgyzstan have a responsibility and opportunity to bring stability and prosperity to their country. They will need to take concrete action to help liberalize their political and economic systems. Already, provisional government leaders have taken a bold step by restoring Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty programming, which was taken off national airwaves nearly two years ago for political reasons. We hope to see many more such steps in the coming weeks and months. And we will be there as partners along the way.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is funded by the US Congress and had a US$90.2 million budget in FY2009. It runs such outlets as Radio Azadi (Freedom) in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s budget almost entirely financed by foreign countries

February 2, 2010 4 comments
Afghanistan, Kabul market

Afghanistan, Kabul market

Afghanistan’s national budget is 90% financed by foreign governments despite the fact that it has increased its share of income from tax and customs revenues by 50% over the past year.

The Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit has written the following on the Afghan economy:

Consistent with the current consensus on development held by the donor community and international financial institutions (IFIs), the privatisation process has gained increased momentum in Afghanistan. The government has committed to the privatisation agenda in its Interim Afghanistan National Development Strategy (IANDS) and in the Afghanistan Compact agreed upon with the international community in January 2006. This followed the November 2005 approval by the Cabinet to amend the State-Owned Enterprise Law, allowing for the divestment of state enterprises by various means. Fifty four fully state-owned enterprises (SOEs) have been slated for privatisation as going concerns or through liquidation by the end of 2009.

The report states that the total value of these sales is estimated to be US$614, which is small by international standards.

However, the total government budget of Afghanistan in 2008 was around US$685 million, so the sale of public assets amounts to a large share for a country whose assets and resources are very small. The government revenue estimate was provided by Afghanistan’s Minister of Finance, Anwar-ul-Haq Ahadi, during an interview with foreign press.

With a national budget that is so small, many foreign infrastructure projects have only added to the problem because of their large price tags, which are more suitable to high priced markets in the developed world. Although, at the time of construction, the projects may be fully funded by foreign donors, the maintenance cost of the same infrastructure may be prohibitive, impracticle, or even impossible for the Afghan government to afford without taking loans.

Consider the Louis Berger Group’s contract to build 1,000 schools, each costing US$274,000.  In this case, the Afghan government not only has to worry about maintaining the schools, they might not even be usable. In January 2009, Ann Jones, who for years worked in Afghanistan as an aid worker, says that Louis Berger, “already way behind schedule in 2005, had finished only a small fraction of them when roofs began to collapse under the snows of winter.”

Sustaining an Afghan government financially on foreign life support requires multiyear planning from all donors involved. This requires that Afghanistan’s needs be incorporated into the budgets of NATO countries, and that many of the political decisions on funding be made by foreign governments accountable to their own people. There is not much room for self-reliance in this scenario.

Rubin on Afghanistan

January 28, 2010 Leave a comment

Barnett R. Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan, is interviewed on the subject, providing some background on US-led military presence as well as the general context in the country. This video is from 2008, but still pertinent. Rubin is also the author of a very well researched book, The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and Collapse in the International System.

Militias and dialogue in Afghanistan

January 28, 2010 Leave a comment

Afghan villagers in the north of the country, around Kunduz, have been forming their own militias. They say this is required to protect them against Taliban attacks since the Afghan Army and international forces are not able to do so. This is a very busy week for me, so, unfortunately, I’m not able to go into detail into these reports.

Meanwhile, talks have taken place between the Afghan government and insurgents.

Interview with Hamid Karzai

December 24, 2009 Leave a comment

Newsweek has posted its interview with Afghan president Hamid Karzai.

Excerpts below:

Q: But reportedly, the Pakistani Army will only take on the Pakistani Taliban, not the extremists in Pakistan who are the enemies of the United States. A: There is speculation [to this effect], but I think we should give Pakistan time to show that it will go in that direction as well. At this point we have no reason to be negative.

Q: Is a lot of what is going on in Afghanistan a Pashtun rebellion, in the sense that the Pashtuns, who used to rule Afghanistan, feel left out as power has been ceded to the Tajiks and other groups? A: It is not that. The Pashtuns have been victims of terrorism all along for the past 30 years—just like the rest of Afghanistan and the rest of Pakistan. What we must do is provide the Pashtuns with protection, with resources, with reconstruction, and an environment in which they can send their children to school and educate them. They are actually victims.

The petulance of international handlers in the Afghan army

April 15, 2009 Leave a comment

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The relationship between US instructors embedded within the Afghan army and police is not good. The US and NATO instructors seem more like petulant handlers that have failed to form strong ties of trust and common cause with the Afghans under them. And that’s part of the problem, the Afghans are under them.

The cost of the Afghan army and police is greater than the entire government revenue of Afghanistan, and the US government has OKed doubling of this already too expensive and sadly incapable army. The US and Europe pays for most salaries, siphoned through UN agencies, they call most of the shots and seem to stifle any sense of independent pride, independent decision-making, independent responsibility, and collective identity regarding defence of a country they have had little to no hand in creating.

This video seems to suggest some sort of cultural deficiency on the part of Afghan soldiers: as lazy, lacking discipline, and drug addled. Afghanistan, however, has had centuries history of fighting and pushing back major armies: the Soviets once, the British Empire twice. The Northern Alliance’s disparate groups of fighters under regional warlords were more effective despite lacking a coherent overall strategy. The Taliban and Mujahideen were able to continue fighting the Soviet army of 100,000 soldiers for a decade until that world power was forced to retreat. The Taliban and insurgents of today continue to conduct effective irregular warfare and have been retaking ground they lost in the 2001 invasion.

The problem then cannot be as presented in the video as what is at best a cultural slur against Afghans in the current army being inherently incompetent and in need of Western tutelage to learn basic tactics of fighting. It seems more that they don’t want to fight. They have next to no opportunity to establish their own principles of combat; many oppose the Taliban but do not support their government which is domestically seen as hamstrung by and often fully dependent on foreign powers, and they have no clear notion of what they are fighting for.

It’s not enough to fight against something, like the Taliban. What’s to come next? What do these Afghan soldier wish to see realized in their country? It seems they feel they don’t have a say in this, nor does it seem clear what sort of state Afghanistan will be after the US mission in Afghanistan is completed (or defeated).

In the video, one of the US handlers tells the Afghans that they should fight in disciplined fashion and realize that they could be a global player. A global player? Is this what Afghans want? It seems to me that the handler was rather expressing the importance of Afghanistan in US global geostrategic plans. Afghanistan needs healthcare, a sustainable economy. People need jobs, education, clean water, and food.

The same handler tells the Afghan soldiers that they need to be independent so they can stand up to countries like Iran. Again, this is an expression of US desire thrust on the locals. Many of the Afghans in the army, especially in the north, have close ties to Iran. Local markets in the west are tied to Iranian ones sometimes even more so than central Afghan ones. Many of the people speak the same language as Iranians and share a common culture and history. They don’t necessarily see Iran as a hated enemy nor can they afford to have a cold or hot war with their neighbours on whom they depend for access to international markets (Afghanistan is land-locked).

Click on the links below to for more information on:

Imposing Peace and Prosperity on Afghanistan

Afghanistan Asks for More Say Over Military Deployments in its Territory

Video Brief: Afghan Refugees, NATO Air Strikes, and Early Elections

Fatal Incoherence in Afghanistan

Afghanistan on life support – background on the current war

History of the Taliban and the current war in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Video: Child Labour in Afghanistan: 37,000 in Kabul Alone.

The Taliban’s Sanctuary in Pakistan: the FATA

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