Azerbaijan set to agree accepting US bases – Russian daily

Azerbaijan set to agree accepting US bases – Russian daily

BBC Monitoring Caucasus
9 August 2005

Source: Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Moscow, in Russian, 3 August 05, p 1, 5

Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov’s three-day visit to
Washington has probably to do mostly with the talks on the future
deployment of US bases in Azerbaijan, the Russian daily has suggested.
It said that Uzbekistan’s decision to close the US base strengthened
Azerbaijan’s positions in these talks as President Ilham Aliyev could
now demand the lessening of pressure on his government ahead of the
November parliamentary elections. The following is a text of report by
Sohbat Mammadov and Anatoliy Gordiyenko in Russian newspaper
Nezavisimaya Gazeta on 3 August headlined “US bases will strengthen
Ilham Aliyev’s position. Pentagon set to transfer its aircraft from
Uzbekistan to Azerbaijan”; subheadings as published:

After several years of hesitation, official Baku is nevertheless
inclined to site US military bases on Azerbaijani territory.
Nezavisimaya Gazeta has been told by an informed source in Azerbaijani
security structures that several dozen US military instructors are
already working in Azerbaijan, without advertising their presence.
They have identified two facilities for future bases: one on the
Abseron peninsula, a 30-minute drive from Baku, and the other in the
south of the republic, near the border with Iran.

Gift From Karimov

Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov’s three-day visit to
the US, which ends today [1-3 August], has every chance of being
epochal in resolving this tricky issue for Baku. Moreover, strange
though it may seem, Uzbek President Islom Karimov has played an
important role in expediting the US-Azerbaijani accords. By demanding
that the USA’s Qarshi-Xonobod airbase, which the USA has been actively
using since autumn 2001 in order to support its antiterrorist
operation in Afghanistan, be removed from Uzbekistan’s territory
within 180 days, Karimov has forced the Pentagon to hastily seek
another springboard and a new, more reliable and predictable ally.

Not necessarily in Central Asia, but at least nearby. Everything
points to Azerbaijan becoming that ally. In the light of this, Islom
Karimov has unwittingly given a downright lavish gift to his
Azerbaijani colleague Ilham Aliyev by seriously strengthening his
position in the long-standing bargaining with the Americans.

As is well known, Washington has long been pushing the idea of
deploying a military base in Azerbaijan. There remains a minor detail
– a political decision by President Aliyev to give the green light for
implementation of the idea. An informed source in circles close to the
Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry has told Nezavisimaya Gazeta on condition
that he remain anonymous that the involvement of Mammadyarov in
discussing this issue “could signify that the problem is switching to
the political dimension”.

In the source’s opinion, the situation is that “the political decision
required by Washington is practically ripe, and President Aliyev will
eventually agree to deploying a US military contingent in the
country.” But not just for the sake of it, but in exchange for a
lessening of US pressure on Aliyev over very sensitive issues for him
concerning the observance of democratic standards in the forthcoming
November parliamentary election.

Wide Range of Issues and Secret Mission

Admittedly, officially Baku is insisting that Elmar Mammadyarov, who
hastily travelled across the ocean 1 August after an unscheduled
invitation from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, is discussing
in Washington “the widest range of issues, including the present
status of the peace talks on settling the Karabakh conflict, regional
problems, the development of interstate relations, and, finally, the
forthcoming parliamentary election in Azerbaijan”.

However, most local analysts note that official information about the
visit carefully glosses over the point in the schedule of meetings
relating to Elmar Mammadyarov’s talks with the Pentagon leadership.
However, analysts believe, the main subject of these talks will be not
only general prospects for military cooperation between the two
countries, but also an extremely specific issue – the possibility of
transferring the US airbase from Uzbekistan to Azerbaijan. Evidence in
favour of this theory is the fact that US Defence Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld is expected to pay another working visit to Baku in the next
few days.

However, as before the previous visits to Baku by the Pentagon boss,
Ramiz Malikov, head of the Azerbaijani Defence Ministry’s press
service, is stating that he “possesses no such information”. Touching
on the prospects of the US military base being transferred from
Uzbekistan to Azerbaijan, the head of the press service again confined
himself to a routine remark: Decisions of this kind, he said, are made
by the country’s political leadership, not the military
department. Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov also
essentially gave the same answer, telling journalists that Washington
“has not yet made any” such proposal to official Baku.

But this is not entirely true. During his “quiet and low-profile”
visit back in April at Baku’s Bina airport Rumsfeld closely discussed
the subject of an American military presence in Abseron with his
Azerbaijani counterpart, Safar Abiyev. It was clear even then that the
Pentagon has very specific plans in this regard. Experts from
Stratfor, the American-Israeli centre for strategic forecasts, claimed
at the time that during the initial stage the US military contingent
in Azerbaijan would act as “temporarily stationed mobile forces”. They
even named three local airbases where US fliers will be stationed –
Kurdamir [central Azerbaijan], Nasosnyy and Qala [both near Baku]. The
airstrips there have been modernized in good time to NATO standards
and are now capable of taking all types of aircraft.

According to Stratfor’s forecasters, the US bases in Azerbaijan will
be small, and it is planned to change their contingent “according to
US military needs in the region”. According to the Pentagon’s plans,
the centre’s experts noted, these forces “can be swiftly redeployed
elsewhere to fulfil a task…[ellipsis as published] and will be
capable of handling several strategic missions”.

Uzeir Cafarov, an authoritative independent military expert in Baku,
believes that the issue of these mobile forces is now being studied in
detail in the Azerbaijani foreign minister’s talks at the Pentagon.
“Until now the Azerbaijani leadership has managed by various means to
avoid giving a specific answer to this proposal from Washington. But
Tashkent’s anti-US demarche is clearly spurring both sides to make
urgent decisions,” Uzeir Cafarov has told Nezavisimaya Gazeta. In his
view, “during the first stage the Americans could transfer to Baku
their Qarshi-Xonobod airbase or part of it in the form of mobile
groups and thereby really make Azerbaijan an important Pentagon
bridgehead in the Afghan campaign”.

The likelihood of this development confirms that Azerbaijan has long
been part of the coalition for the antiterrorist operation in
Afghanistan. Admittedly, today this participation is confined to two
spheres: Azerbaijan has allowed its Qala airfield near Baku to be used
to refuel military aircraft transporting coalition humanitarian
freight to Afghanistan, and then sent a squad of its servicemen to
maintain order in Kabul.