Pentagon Chief In Azerbaijan: Afghan War Arc Stretches To Caspian And Caucasus
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates arrived in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, on June 6, meeting with President Ilham Aliyev on that day and on the following with Defense Minister Colonel General Safar Abiyev.
Gates was the first cabinet-level American official to visit the strategically positioned nation - located in the South Caucasus with Russia to its north, Iran to its south and the Caspian Sea to its east - in five years and the first U.S. defense chief to visit since Donald Rumsfeld did in 2005.
When Gates' predecessor was last in Azerbaijan his mission centered on "the transportation of Caspian oil and the security of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline" as the chief element of U.S. trans-Eurasian oil and natural gas plans "which [are] directly connected with Mr Rumsfeld's department"  to bring Caspian Sea hydrocarbons into Europe while bypassing Russia and Iran, both of which adjoin Azerbaijan.
Rumsfeld's visit of five years ago also focused on a related initiative, the Caspian Guard project the Pentagon launched in 2003. "Guaranteeing security to the pipeline...will be the prime goal of the Caspian Guard. The Caspian Guard will represent a network of police detachments and special military units in the Caspian region." 
At the time Rumsfeld's Defense Department planned to allot over $100 million for the Caspian Guard to operate at both ends of the inland sea - Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan - and to be based in Stuttgart, Germany where the Pentagon's new Africa Command is now based. In fact U.S. European Command was simultaneously elaborating plans for the Caspian Guard and a complementary Gulf of Guinea Guard in oil-rich western Africa to secure control over the 21st century's main new sources of energy supplies. 
Gates arrived in Azerbaijan the day after the ninth annual Asian security summit organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore and before his attendance at the NATO defense chiefs meeting in Brussels on the 9th.
He had intended to visit Beijing following the conference in Singapore, but his overtures in that direction were rebuffed by the Chinese government, presumably because of Washington's confirmation this January of plans to complete a $6.5 billion arms transaction with Taiwan, one whose latest installment includes 200 Patriot Advanced Capability-3 anti-ballistic missiles.
That Baku replaced Beijing on the Pentagon chief's way to the NATO meeting indicates the importance that the comparatively small nation - with a population of under nine million while China's is over 1.3 billion - has in American global geostrategic plans.
U.S. media reports highlighted efforts to mend fences with Azerbaijan after joint military exercises scheduled in the nation for last month were abruptly cancelled - evidently by the host country as a sign of dissatisfaction with Washington's moves to take a more balanced approach toward Azerbaijan's regional rival Armenia in a bid to lure all the nations of the South Caucasus into the U.S. and NATO orbit. Last December the Armenian government approved the deployment of troops to serve under NATO command in the Afghan war theater along with those of their Caucasus neighbors Azerbaijan and Georgia.
Received opinion has it that the U.S. intends to incorporate all three nations into NATO simultaneously. Armenia and Azerbaijan have NATO Individual Partnership Action Plans and Georgia a special, even more advanced, Annual National Programme.
The cancelled exercises were to have built upon last year's Regional Response 2009 in Azerbaijan, a NATO Partnership for Peace operation to advance the North Atlantic military bloc's Individual Partnership Action Plan with the nation.
To demonstrate that Rumsfeld's Caspian Guard plans are still alive, during his visit to Azerbaijan Secretary Gates discussed bilateral military ties, particularly "further U.S. help with maritime security in the Caspian Sea."
In his own words, "We already help them there with several tens of millions of dollars, boats, radars and capabilities." 
According to the Pentagon's website, "More military exercises and intelligence sharing also came up during the meetings," Gates added, "and the discussions also touched on Iran and Russia," with the American defense secretary saying of his hosts, "These guys clearly live in a rough neighborhood." 
Georgia borders Russia and Armenia borders Iran, but Azerbaijan alone abuts both. The same defense minister Gates met with on June 7, Colonel General Safar Abiyev, not long ago addressed the head of state Gates met with the day before and said: "Our armed forces are able to annihilate targets in all the territory of Armenia. Mr. President, I notify you that the Azerbaijani Armed Forces are able to hit any target in the territory of Armenia."