The United States Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, visited Baku for two days on June 6. In a meeting with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, Gates and the president discussed increasing cooperation between the two allies in military and security issues, as well as the transit of Afghanistan-bound supplies via Azerbaijan and Baku. However, it is believed that another major issue – the creation of an American special operations base in Azerbaijan – was discussed behind the closed doors.
In a strategic plan issued by the White House, the creation of 75 special operations bases in 75 countries around the world has been pegged as a major defense priority. For this purpose, Robert Gates has allocated 100 million USD from the Pentagon budget for five years. The aim of the bases is to fight against Al-Qaeda and other terrorist and extremist groups. Even those states which are not known to have friendly relations with the USA are presented in the list of host countries of such bases. It should be mentioned that these bases already exist in some 60 countries today.
According to the New York Times, an agreement was signed as far back as 2009, which set the groundwork for a constellation of secret American bases to be built in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Uzbekistan for intelligence activities. The necessity of having special operations forces in these countries was caused by the fact that there is little monitoring of terrorist groups in Russia.
With regards to the political dimension of hosting US forces, Georgia and Turkey can easily keep such bases as American soldiers already have a presence in these countries. Uzbekistan, however, is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a known Russia-oriented mutual defense organization, and will be harder to gain entry. For its part, Azerbaijan may use the issue of bases to improve relations with the USA, which has taken a hit since the Obama administration came to office. Baku has been especially critical of Washington’s increasingly pro-Armenia stance and its active involvement in brokering an open borders agreement between Turkey and Armenia. The non-invitation of Aliyev to the nuclear summit, considered to be major snub to Azerbaijan, was answered by the cancelling joint military training with American Forces by the Azerbaijani government. Still, the US and Azerbaijan continue to have a number of shared interests, so renewing ties is a logical step. However, there is an obstacle. The national security strategy of Azerbaijan forbids foreign bases on in its territory.
One of the priorities of the US is to improve the increasingly difficult issue of Afghanistan, in which Baku could render significant assistance as a key supply route – something that has only become more important since the change in government in Kyrgyzstan. Most experts believe that the surest way to the new government of Kyrgyzstan passes through the Kremlin.
During Gates’ visit in Azerbaijan, the Russia-operated Gabala radar station was among the issues discussed. According to the agreement, Russia’s lease in Gabala expires in 2012. The issue of new tenants is on the agenda. Previously, Washington has refused to jointly operate the station with Moscow and is searching for a new partner to buy it.
It is worth mentioning that before Gates’ visit, the possible moderation of the law forbidding foreign military bases was discussed in the Azerbaijani parliament. The suggestions were made to compromise in case of “fundamental changes of political and military conditions.”