The Effects of Osama bin Laden’s Demise on Azerbaijan Appear to Be Minimal
My entire morning was derailed as I watched the New York Times‘ headline grow from a very small note near the top of the page saying something along the lines of an inauspicious and unassuming “Obama to speak soon,” to the entire page exploding into a massive “BIN LADEN IS DEAD” with coverage all over the place. The rapid explosion of coverage took place in the time it took me to get in a 5-mile run, shower, and make coffee. At that point, I was sucked in to the frenzy of internet coverage, which also included such commentary gems as “The girl married her Prince. The bad guy is dead. It’s a real Disney weekend here on Earth.” and “If this doesn’t end the NFL lockout, what will?”
My first thought was that the celebrations shown in Washington, DC and New York, piped to my computer via MSNBC, were both an understandable expression of relief and celebration, and also probably in bad taste. Obama’s announcement did a great job of bearing weights of the relief that we, as Americans, feel in the sense of justice and also the sober realities of which this day reminds us. While I want to say that bin Laden’s capture is a fantastic thing, I can’t imagine that the videos of Americans parading in the streets at the notice of his death is a good foreign policy move by the American people. I recall similar celebrations happening in foreign countries when 9/11 was perpetrated, and that didn’t feel so good for us. We’ll see what unfolds in the months, weeks, years to come.
Specifically dealing with Azerbaijan, there are a few things to note here. First, a general notice that appears to have gone out from all US Embassies, which happens to include our friendly embassy here in Baku:
The U.S. Department of State alerts U.S. citizens traveling and residing abroad to the enhanced potential for anti-American violence given recent counter-terrorism activity in Pakistan. Given the uncertainty and volatility of the current situation, U.S. citizens in areas where recent events could cause anti-American violence are strongly urged to limit their travel outside of their homes and hotels and avoid mass gatherings and demonstrations. U.S. citizens should stay current with media coverage of local events and be aware of their surroundings at all times. This Travel Alert expires August 1, 2011.
U.S. Embassy operations in affected areas will continue to the extent possible under the constraints of any evolving security situation. U.S. government facilities worldwide remain at a heightened state of alert. These facilities may temporarily close or periodically suspend public services to assess their security posture. In those instances, U.S. Embassies and Consulates will make every effort to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens. U.S. citizens abroad are urged to monitor the local news and maintain contact with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.
This might sound a little naive, but things in Azerbaijan should be fairly calm. Azerbaijan was among the first to join America’s War on Terror and stopping any terrorist activities in Azerbaijan is one of the top priorities of the government here. On top of that, the population here is not a Wahhabist-oriented group of people. There might be some pushes for stronger Islam in Azerbaijan from sources to the north (Dagestan, Chechnya) and to the south (Iran), but I have yet to meet an Azerbaijani Muslim who seeks to exact violence on America or any other country, in the name of Islam or not.
The second big concern for Azerbaijan regarding the excitement in Afghanistan and Pakistan is how this affects military ties to the US and NATO. I’m guessing that this one big find won’t move the focus of the War on Terror from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Azerbaijan’s role in the War on Terror, specifically, has to do with providing a transit route for the US Military to get to South Asia. As it stands right now, using anyone else’s airspace is no good. Iran and Russia won’t allow Americans to fly over their airspace, and the area around the Arabian Peninsula is off-limits, as well. At that, the US’s military relationship with Azerbaijan has been an interesting one over the last decade. The Pentagon launched a Caspian oil project to protect the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Pipeline in 2003, and followed that with a visit by Donald Rumsfeld in 2005. In 2009, a project called Regional Response 2009 was launched, in which Azerbaijan and US forces would coordinate training exercises in Azerbaijan. In 2010, those exercises were canceled by Azerbaijan in a seemingly reactive move to Azerbaijan not being invited to a Nuclear Security Summit in Washington (Azerbaijan has no nuclear weapons). Those exercises appear to be back on, and over the past 10 months or so, lots of visits from high level officials, including Hillary and Bob, have been geared towards maintaining the military relationship.
As a thought experiment, we could imagine a scenario where the capture of Osama bin Laden is the first step towards winding down the War on Terror on South Asia. We already know that military forces are supposed to be on their way out of Afghanistan in 2012. What does this mean for Azerbaijan? From what I can tell, it means that one of their two big ties to the West (Oil, Military) would be lost (that Military one). Drastic reduction in the US’s military needs in the region means that Azerbaijan would have less leverage in whatever they need out the US, and they might get less white-glove treatment from Western powers who currently need, but wouldn’t in the future, their corridor to South and Central Asia.
So, how will this affect me in my daily life here in Azerbaijan? It probably won’t. Today, I was out and about and didn’t get even one mention of the event from any friends or acquaintances. It looks like some Azeri friends on Facebook made a mention, but then moved on pretty quickly. I’ll probably get a few mentions at work tomorrow, as a whole day at the office is going to necessitate that various topics come up. This post will need updating after I get a feel for what the folks here think about it, but my feeling is that it is a fleeting moment. Azerbaijan will be much more affected on the government and military level than on the personal, day-to-day life level.