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US Military Aid Far Outpaces Democracy Assistance in Central Asia

Inter Press Service

Desperate to secure supply routes to Afghanistan, the United States has been spending at least six times more on military aid for the mostly authoritarian states of Central Asia than on efforts to promote political liberalisation and human rights in the region, according to a new report released here by the Open Society Foundations (OSF).

The 45-page report found that the full extent of military aid controlled by the Pentagon and the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and channelled through a bewildering variety of programmes is uncertain, but that it is at least three times greater than the State Department's military aid programmes which are subject to human rights and other conditions.

"Nobody really knows how much military aid the U.S. government is giving the Central Asian states," according to Lora Lumpe, the author of the report, 'U.S. Military Aid to Central Asia 1999-2009: Security Priorities Trump Human Rights and Diplomacy'.

"CENTCOM'S Directorate for Policy and Plans is likely to have the fullest picture of U.S. military assistance to the region, but those plans are classified," she noted, adding that Congressional efforts to obtain comprehensive and timely reporting on Pentagon spending in the region have been largely unavailing.

The report, which comes six months after the violent overthrow of the corrupt U.S.-backed government of former Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, is likely to spur new questions about whether the strategic benefits the military gains in securing access to bases in Central Asia outweigh the political and other costs in the long term.

In 2007, the Pentagon provided some 30 million dollars in a variety of aid programmes to the Bakiyev regime – mainly as compensation for access to the Manas Air Base, according to the report. That was roughly six times what it spent on democracy and civil society programmes.

The Pentagon also reportedly awarded exclusive fuelling contracts – now under investigation both in Bishkek and in Congress – for U.S. operations at the base to companies in which Bakiyev's cronies and son had substantial interests, contributing to the perception in Kyrgyzstan that Washington was backing a corrupt and increasingly authoritarian regime.

"Now that Bakiyev has collapsed, there are a lot of really angry voices in the new government," said Alexander Cooley, a Central Asia expert at Barnard College in New York. "The Pentagon's 'walking-around money' &may not actually guarantee access (to the bases) over the long term."

The "oversized impact" of the Pentagon – as opposed to the State Department – on U.S. foreign policy has become a major concern of human rights and other critics who claim that Washington's relations with much of the developing world have become increasingly "militarised" since the end of the Cold War.

Six months ago, for example, three Washington-based groups focused on human rights and Latin America policy published a report that found that nearly half of all U.S. aid was being channelled to the region through the Pentagon and that the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) had largely displaced the State Department as the de facto "lead actor and voice" for U.S. policy there.

And, although U.S. development aid to Africa still dwarfs military assistance, similar fears have been voiced about the Pentagon's three-year-old African Command (AFRICOM), which is providing counter-terrorist and counter-narcotics assistance to dozens of countries, primarily in the Sahelian region and in East and West Africa.

Washington has provided military and police aid at various times to the Central Asian states – Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan – virtually since their creation after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In the early 1990s, military and police assistance focused mainly on preventing the proliferation of nuclear and biological weapons, counter-narcotics trafficking, and border control.

By the end of the decade, aid had expanded in most of the five countries, as CENTCOM – whose writ runs from Egypt to China's southwestern border – sent Special Operations Forces (SOF) to train local troops in counterinsurgency in increasingly restive Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbek and Kazakh militaries were taking part in NATO exercises.

Most of the aid during this period came through traditional military and security programmes overseen by the State Department. Such programmes are subject to Congressionally imposed restrictions that ban, for example, any assistance to militaries that commit gross abuses of human rights or that overthrow democratically elected leaders.

The Pentagon and the combatant commands like CENTCOM, however, came to see State Department programmes as unreliable, driven more by politics than by what they regarded as the strategic needs of the U.S. military, according to the report.

In a trend that accelerated sharply after 9/11, the Pentagon developed a parallel system of "security cooperation" programmes to provide various forms of assistance that would not be subject to Congressionally imposed conditions.

"In the years following the 9/11 attacks, the DOD [Department of Defense] has sought, and Congress has granted, more than a dozen new legal authorities, increasing the ways that CENTCOM (and the other regional military commands) can spend funds from the Pentagon's general coffers to provide direct assistance to foreign militaries," according to the report.

As a result, the Pentagon provided at least 103 million dollars in military-related aid to Central Asian countries in 2007 – the last year for which the Pentagon provided relatively comprehensive figures, Lumpe said.

That was nearly three times as much as was provided under the traditional military aid programmes under the State Department's control. Total U.S. military aid, including the State Department's programmes, came to nearly half of all assistance provided by Washington to Central Asia in 2007, the report concluded.

Since 9/11, most U.S. military assistance has been geared to securing rights of access to military bases used to ferry U.S. troops and material into Afghanistan. That function has become significantly more important over the past two years as the Pakistani Taliban has attacked convoys transporting supplies from Karachi to Afghanistan.

Since the creation of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) in 2008, a land-based supply route for U.S. and allied forces that runs from Europe through Central Asia to Afghanistan, Washington has increased aid to the region's governments and militaries and, perhaps more importantly, awarded local companies – most often with close ties to local regimes – lucrative construction and supply contracts, including in Afghanistan itself.

The Uzbek military and security forces – some of them trained by the Pentagon – massacred hundreds of protesters in 2005, Washington cut off new assistance, and Uzbekistan is the one country in the region where Washington has spent more on democratisation programmes than on military assistance.

After the aid cut-off, however, the government of President Islam Karimov bought more than 12 million dollars in military equipment and training from aid credits that had already been approved. With Washington's approval, Tashkent subsequently bought more than 50 million dollars of weapons and training directly from U.S. companies, according to the report.

Despite the lack of improvements in human rights conditions, the restrictions on military aid "are beginning to be relaxed", according to the report.

Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to IPS Right Web (http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org/). He blogs at http://www.lobelog.com/.

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