|A Mirage in Azerbaijan could be the real deal|
Last October, when it was first announced that the United Arab Emirates was turfing the Canadian Forces from the Camp Mirage air base in Dubai, I had predicted this would be a serious setback to our operations in Afghanistan.
Not so, claimed the Harper Conservatives who had triggered the diplomatic crisis by refusing to grant the UAE additional flights and landing rights for their national Emirates airline.
Sure, we had used the Camp Mirage facilities for over nine years rent-free, and the UAE even reportedly provided vital medical care for many of our wounded at no charge to Canadians, including flying several home, first-class, on Emirates airlines.
But in the opinion of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the very notion that we should provide commercial air access in exchange for all this made the UAE “bad allies.”
To be fair, it must be noted that Defence Minister Peter MacKay understood how vital Mirage was to maintain our battle group in Kandahar. However, Harper chose to ignore MacKay and instead accepted the counsel of then-transport minister John Baird. Rather than resigning in protest and confronting Baird in an open forum, MacKay chose to express his displeasure by quietly wearing a “Fly Emirates” baseball cap to the next Conservative Party caucus meeting.
In an attempt to convince the public that this whole affair was no big deal, the Harper faithful spread the word that Canada had plenty of short-term alternate options available to relocate Mirage. One was the German air base in Termez, Uzbekistan, the other the U.S. transit center in Manas, Kyrgyzstan.
A closer examination of the circumstances surrounding these two airfields makes it clear that neither is a likely long-term solution.
For one thing, the Germans are only barely clinging to their landing privileges and facilities in Uzbekistan.
In 2005, a furious President Karimov kicked the Americans out of their leased base in Khanabad and subsequently denied the US Air Force—and most NATO countries— the use of Uzbek airspace.
The German military presence in Termez remains a closely guarded media secret within Uzbekistan as President Karimov continues to publicly vow the expulsion of all “foreign rabble-rousers.” Only the payment of tens of millions of Euros and a low profile have enabled the Germans to keep operating out of Termez.
Coincidentally, some media pundits in Germany have commented on the irony of paying large sums of money to prop up the despotic rule in Uzbekistan in order to combat despotic insurgents in neighbouring Afghanistan.
As for the US transit centre in Manas, Kyrgyzstan, this former Soviet air base was, ironically, the major staging facility for operations in Afghanistan during the latter’s occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.
Dubbed the “Gateway to Hell” by Soviet soldiers, the moniker has been retained by the tens of thousands of American personnel who have transited through en route to combat posts in Afghanistan.
Since February 2009, the Kyrgyzstan government has threatened the Americans with expulsion from Manas. The political pressure from Kyrgyzstan has had the short-term impact of more than tripling the rental price to a whopping US$63 million annually.
In addition, the base was recently renamed a transit center as a cosmetic face-saving gesture to enable the Kyrgyz government to fulfil its public pledge of ridding the country of American bases. Again, this does not exactly seem like the sort of warm and welcoming campground in which Canada should be looking to pitch a tent.
That said, I hereby nominate Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, as the most suitable regional location for us to establish our next logistical staging area.
Although not a member of NATO, Azerbaijan has troops in Afghanistan and has been a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program since 1994. While not entirely without corruption, this oil-rich former Soviet republic is politically stable and eager to increase trade and development with the West.
Other NATO air forces are staging cargo flights through Azerbaijan, as evidenced by the Luftwaffe crews I saw eating breakfast in my hotel during a recent visit to Baku.
Of course, it might mean Canada has to open up a small, reciprocal diplomatic mission in Azerbaijan (the Azerbaijanis established an embassy in Ottawa in September 2004, but Canada still conducts its diplomatic relations with Azerbaijan from Ankara, Turkey, some 1,400 kilometres from Baku).
There is also the possibility that, as a “good ally,” we might offer to pay the Azerbaijanis some rent for their facilities. Even so, it would be a small price to pay compared to the current ludicrously expensive stop-gap measure of renting civilian airport use in Cyprus and having our soldiers stay in hotels.