US troop redeployment sparks speculation on Azerbaijani base

Eurasianet Organization
Aug 23 2004

Fariz Ismailzade: 8/23/04

News that the United States plans a massive redeployment of its armed
forces has Azerbaijanis wondering whether their country will soon
host US troops. Azerbaijani officials are coy on the base question,
prompting some local political analysts to say Baku is trying to
leverage the issue to achieve a breakthrough on the stalled talks on
a Nagorno-Karabakh peace settlement.

Speculation over whether the United States would establish a military
base in Azerbaijan began almost immediately after US leaders
announced August 16 that up 70,000 US troops in Europe and East Asia
would be redeployed. Most US soldiers appear headed back to the
United States, but some will staff new facilities, in keeping with
the Pentagon’s desire to create a more mobile armed forces. [For
additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].

A few days before the announcement, US Secretary of Defense Donald
Rumsfeld visited Baku for hastily arranged talks. [For background see
the Eurasia Insight archive]. The Azerbaijani government provided
only a vague description about the discussions. However, Zerkalo, an
independent daily newspaper, claimed that a tentative base deal had
been reached. “Moreover, the USA is interested in modernizing …
military airfields in Azerbaijan,” Zerkalo reported on August 17,
without citing a source.

Azerbaijani media have also seized on recent comments attributed to
Gen. Charles Wald, the deputy commander for US forces in Europe, who
reportedly indicated that US defense officials were considering
Azerbaijan, Uganda and the island state of Sao Tome as potential host
sites for US rapid deployment forces. According to the Azerbaijani
reports, the United States is seeking a base in Azerbaijan to ensure
the security of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline and to monitor
developments in Iran, which Washington believes is working hard to
develop nuclear weapons. [For additional information see the Eurasia
Insight archive].

While some Azerbaijani media outlets are treating an American base as
a fait accompli, the only public statements on the issue by
Azerbaijani officials have been non-committal. Foreign Minister Eldar
Mammadyarov has acknowledged that talks are on-going, but he stressed
on August 19 that “it is naive to think that military bases can be
set up overnight.”

Some analysts say it wasn’t coincidental that Mammadyarov made the
statement in Moscow. Russia is on record as opposing any US
redeployment that would place American troops in the formerly
Communist sphere, and a few observers believe the potential American
base is at the center of a geopolitical game being played by Baku.
The objective, from Baku’s viewpoint, is to secure increased
political support for a Karabakh peace settlement that is to
Azerbaijan’s liking. Azerbaijan has insisted that any settlement
leave the region under Baku’s jurisdiction. Azerbaijani officials
have grown restless in recent months over the lack of progress in the
peace talks. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight

Mammadyarov said in an August 19 television interview that the
Karabakh question topped his agenda during talks with Russian leaders
in Moscow. Some in Baku believe Russia, given Moscow’s close
strategic relationship with Armenia, is the key to achieving the
desired breakthrough on Karabakh. A trade-off involving Azerbaijan’s
rejection of an American base, effectively in return for greater
Russian support for Baku in the Karabakh peace process, could
possibly pressure Armenia into softening its Karabakh negotiating
position. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight

Some pundits say Mammadyarov’s attempt to use the base issue as a
diplomatic bargaining chip has so far failed. They note that both
Russia and the United States have given no public indication of
shifting their existing positions on the Karabakh peace process.
Given the apparent failure of what some in Baku describe as
Azerbaijan’s base “bluff,” officials are now left to weigh the
potential merits and liabilities of playing host to American troops.

Political analyst Rauf Mirqadirov, writing in an analysis published
August 19 analysis by Zerkalo, examined the pros and cons of the base
issue. On the plus side, Mirqadirov said the presence of US forces
would facilitate rapid economic development in the region. He also
downplayed the possibility of Russian retaliation, arguing that
Moscow “is not ready for global confrontation with the United

Mirqadirov, however, envisioned several potential negatives arising
out of a possible basing arrangement. An American presence, for
example, could make Azerbaijan a target of Islamic militant action.
It could also potentially limit Azerbaijan’s options in striving to
achieve its Karabakh settlement objectives.

In addition, Mirqadirov voiced concern about the possibility of
Azerbaijan becoming embroiled in the long-running feud between the
United States and Iran. “The Americans do not rule out that Iran is
their future target,” Mirqadirov said. “If all these statements are
made in order to frighten Tehran – then that’s one thing. But if the
Americans start another mess – moreover, one along our border – then
Azerbaijan, irrespective of its wishes, will be dragged into this

Azerbaijanis interviewed at random on the streets of Baku offered a
mixed view on the base issue. “We need to see, first, what is our
benefit from these bases. Will they help us in the war with Armenia?”
said Nargiz, a university student. Niyazi, an employee at a trading
house, suggested an American troop presence would “only bring us
trouble with Iran.” Others, however, said US troops would help defend
against potential encroachment by Iran or Russia against Azerbaijan’s

Editor’s Note: Fariz Ismailzade is a freelance writer on Caucasus
politics and economics. He has obtained his masters degree from the
Washington University in St. Louis and is currently based in Baku.

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress