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Gates brings reassurances to Azerbaijan leader

By Craig Whitlock
Monday, June 7, 2010; A09

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN -- This tiny country of 8 million people has two things that command attention in Washington: lots of oil and, perhaps more important these days, proximity to Afghanistan.

Thanks to an accident of geography, the United States relies heavily on Azerbaijan's railroads, ports and airspace to funnel troops, fuel, water and other materials to the war in Afghanistan. So when Azerbaijani officials complained recently that they were feeling a bit taken for granted by the Obama administration, the response was swift.

On Sunday, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates arrived in Baku to meet with Azerbaijan's ruler, Ilham Aliyev, and reassure him that he had friends in Washington. Carrying a personal letter from President Obama, Gates told reporters that he wanted to dispel "concerns in Azerbaijan that we weren't paying enough attention to them."

Officially, the Azerbaijanis had expressed displeasure in recent weeks with what they said were $2 million in unpaid bills from contractors who used Azerbaijan's airspace to get to Afghanistan.

Unofficially, according to U.S. defense officials, the Azerbaijanis were peeved that the Obama administration wasn't doing more to help settle their long-running feud with next-door neighbor Armenia over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory.

With the United States increasingly dependent on countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia to keep supply lines to Afghanistan humming, the Pentagon was quick to take notice. It promised that the debts would be paid promptly and pledged that more high-level visitors from Washington would follow Gates to Baku soon.

Of the 140,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, only 90 are Azerbaijani. But most of them -- about 100,000 last year alone -- flew over Azerbaijan's territory to reach or leave the war zone. Taking a more southern route, over Iran, isn't an option.

In addition, about one-quarter of the coalition's nonlethal supplies -- fuel, food, construction material -- go through Azerbaijan, cross the Caspian Sea and move through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan before finally reaching Afghanistan.

Asked if that gave such countries outsize political leverage, Gates replied: "Because of the multiple avenues we have developed, I don't think anybody in particular has us over a barrel."

But U.S. defense officials are frequently reminded of how reliant they have become on individual countries in the region. Last week, the new government of Kyrgyzstan -- which took power in a coup in April -- blocked fuel supplies to Manas air base, the only U.S. military installation in Central Asia and a critical hub for troops flying to and from Afghanistan.

The Kyrgyz government is seeking to renegotiate fuel contracts with the U.S. military after complaining that previous deals lined the pockets of the country's deposed ruler, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, and his family.

Azerbaijan also has a reputation for government malfeasance. In its annual human-rights report, the State Department noted the "pervasive corruption" of the government; the CIA World Factbook likewise describes corruption in the country as "ubiquitous."

Gates said the Pentagon's close ties to governments in the region are not a sign that the United States is abandoning its support for human rights and democratic values.

"We obviously have to balance our interests at the same time," he told reporters. "If you ask the leaders of these countries, they'd say we have not ignored these issues."

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