Rumsfeld addresses security concerns on lightning trip to Azerbaijan

Eurasianet organization
Aug 12 2004

Camelia Entekhabi-Fard: 8/12/04

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, on a secretive and whirlwind
trip to Central Asia and the Caucasus, sought to keep the Afghan
election process on track and the Azerbaijani government in line.

Rumsfeld arrived with little prior notice in Afghanistan on August 11
to express US support for the Afghan election process. The country’s
presidential election is now scheduled for October 9. The vote,
originally scheduled for last June, has been pushed back twice
because of logistical difficulties. Officials have also voiced
concern that the country’s booming narcotics production could
adversely influence the electoral process. [For background see the
Eurasia Insight archive].

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has identified the narcotics issue as
among the biggest threats to Afghanistan’s stability. [For background
see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Bush administration officials have
long acknowledged the drug danger in Afghanistan, but the US
government’s efforts to date have been ineffective in helping to curb
burgeoning production. [For additional information see the Eurasia
Insight archive]. In Kabul, Rumsfeld indicated that Washington, after
witnessing two years of explosive growth in poppy production, was now
ready to make the anti-drug issue a priority.

Rumsfeld told reporters shortly before his arrival that Pentagon
planners were still working to develop a “master plan” for
counter-narcotics operations in Afghanistan. During a joint press
conference, though, he declined to elaborate on strategic and
tactical elements of the “plan.”

Earlier on August 11, Rumsfeld made a brief visit to the eastern city
of Jalalabad, located in one of the largest drug-producing regions of
the country. “It is increasingly clear to the international community
that to address the drug problem here is important,” Rumsfeld said in

During perhaps Rumsfeld’s most significant meeting of his lightning
visit, he discussed security issues with Afghanistan’s controversial
Defense Minister, Gen. Mohammad Fahim, who was recently dropped by
Karzai as his vice presidential running mate. [For additional
information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. A main topic during the
20-minute discussion was the slow pace of disarmament of Afghan
militias. The disarmament effort, known as DDR, was seen as a key to
reducing the influence of Afghan warlords who control many of
Afghanistan’s provinces. [For background see the Eurasia Insight
archive]. However, the program has lagged far behind expectations and
Fahim, the Afghan official responsible for implementation the
program, has faced criticism for obstructing efforts to disarm
militia forces under his direct control.

In recent weeks, US officials have pressed for a faster disarmament
pace. Some Afghan political observers consider the US stance to be
cynical, pointing out that since the opening of the anti-terrorism
campaign in Afghanistan, the United States has provided extensive
assistance to various warlords, playing a major role in sustaining
their private armies. These militia groups have been used effectively
as mercenaries in helping US forces hunt for Islamic militants.

A spokesman for Fahim, recounting the conversation with Rumsfeld,
said the Afghan defense minister blamed the United Nations for DDR’s
slow pace, claiming that it had not provided sufficient funds to
assist demobilized militia members. “The United Nations did not
remain faithful to its end of the bargain,” the spokesman, Mr.
Gulbuddin, quoted Fahim as telling Rumsfeld. “Without its (UN) help,
how can the [Afghan] Defense Ministry be expected to create jobs or
pay militia members to give up their weapons?” In addition, Fahim was
highly critical of the UN’s anti-drug strategy, Gulbuddin said.

Despite the concern hovering over the anti-drug and disarmament
initiatives, Rumsfeld proclaimed the Afghan electoral process to be
on sound footing. “I believe Afghanistan is on the path to having
successful, free and fair elections,” he said.

A sense of urgency also surrounded Rumsfeld’s brief stop in
Azerbaijan. Local political analysts characterized Rumsfeld’s trip to
Baku as “unscheduled.” The US defense secretary’s talks August 12
with top Azerbaijani officials, including President Ilham Aliyev,
were driven by “concern over the latest trends in Baku’s foreign
policy,” said a commentary published in the Zerkalo daily on August

Of late, the commentary indicated, Azerbaijani officials have shown
signs of wavering in their pro-Western foreign policy orientation, an
impression underscored by the visit of Iranian President Mohammad
Khatami earlier in August. [For background see the Eurasia Insight
archive]. Azerbaijan in recent months has sought to improve relations
with a number of states – in particular Russia and Iran — that are
seen as competitors of the United States for influence in the
Caucasus. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight

The diversification trend appears closely linked to mounting
frustration in Azerbaijan to the stalemate in the Nagorno-Karabakh
peace process. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Many
in Baku hold the United States responsible for the lack of progress
in the search for a Karabakh political settlement. Azerbaijan, the
thinking in Baku goes, has steadfastly backed the US-led
anti-terrorist campaign, including the military operations in Iraq,
but has not received a reciprocal level of support from the United
States on the Karabakh issue.

The Zerkalo commentary reflected the rising level of anger in
Azerbaijan towards the United States. “Washington’s main goal is not
to help the Azerbaijani nation to prosper, but to oust Russia from
the Caucasus and build a strategically important corridor between
Central Asia, the Caucasus and Europe,” it said.

Political analysts, including Vafa Guluzade, who served as an adviser
to former president Heidar Aliyev, suggest the Azerbaijani government
has felt compelled to reach out to Russia and Iran in an effort to
achieve a breakthrough on the Karabakh issue. “If the United States
continues to turn a blind eye to the situation, it can lose
Azerbaijan as a strategic partner,” Guluzade told Zerkalo.

Azerbaijani officials made a direct appeal to Rumsfeld for stronger
US support for Baku on the Karabakh question, according to local
reports. Rumsfeld was reportedly non-committal in his response.
Following their talks, Rumsfeld and Ilham Aliyev provided no public
hints that US-Azerbaijani relations were experiencing underlying
tension. Aliyev characterized bilateral strategic cooperation as
operating “at the highest level,” according to an August 12 report
broadcast by ANS television. “I am confident that in the future we
will further strengthen our ties to become a closer friend and ally,”
Aliyev added. Rumsfeld echoed the Azerbaijani leader’s comments,
praising Azerbaijan for its “major efforts in combating terror.”

Editor’s Note: Camelia Entekhabi-Fard has reported from Afghanistan
and Iran for EurasiaNet.

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress