Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, right, and Azerbaijani Minister of Defense Col. General Safar Akhundbala oglu Abiyev review the troops at the Ministry of Defense in Baku, Azerbaijan, June 7.
BAKU, Azerbaijan (June 6, 2010) – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates arrived here today to express U.S. gratitude to this former Soviet republic on the western shore of the Caspian Sea for its contributions to the coalition’s efforts in Afghanistan.
Azerbaijani servicemembers are part of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, and the country is a key part of the global air and ground network that resupplies ISAF and Afghan forces and brings in supplies for reconstruction of the war-torn nation.
Speaking with reporters today while en route here from Singapore, where he attended an Asia security summit, Gates noted the value of Azerbaijan’s participation in the war effort.
“Clearly, the ability to overfly Azerbaijan [and] the ability to use ground transportation through Azerbaijan – as with Russia, and as with Kyrgyzstan – is obviously important,” he said. “These are the most effective, the most cost-efficient ways to get supplies to the international coalition in Afghanistan, as well as the Afghan forces themselves.”
Azerbaijan and the other participating countries aren’t just doing the United States a favor, the secretary said.
“These transit systems are an important contribution to an international effort involving dozens and dozens of countries,” he explained.
This is the secretary’s first visit to Azerbaijan and the first visit by a U.S. Cabinet member in five years. He is meeting tonight with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and with Defense Minister Col. Gen. Safar Abiyev tomorrow, and he’s delivering a letter to Aliyev from President Barack Obama.
Part of the reason for his visit, Gates said, is a perception on the part of the Azerbaijani government – expressed during a recent visit here by Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy – that the United States is not paying enough attention to the country, given the importance of its contributions.
“I wanted to come through and meet with President Aliyev and reassure him that’s not the case,” Gates said. “I think there’s going to be other visits [between U.S. and Azerbaijani officials] in the future. … It’s important to touch base and let them know that, in fact, they do play an important role in this international coalition.”
About 25 percent of the coalition’s supplies bound for Afghanistan pass through what’s known as the Caucasus Spur, which includes Azerbaijan. Since 2001, tens of thousands of flights for the war effort in Afghanistan have passed through Azerbaijan’s airspace, a senior Defense Department official speaking on background told reporters, and about 100,000 troops have flown through Azerbaijani airspace in the past year en route to Afghanistan.