BAKU (Reuters) - The United States sought to shore up a link in its supply chain to Afghanistan Sunday, sending Defense Secretary Robert Gates to Azerbaijan, a transit point that has complained about not getting enough attention.
Since 2001, tens of thousands of military aircraft and supply trucks have crisscrossed Azerbaijan by air and land, carrying U.S. and NATO forces and equipment to the war zone.
The Pentagon wants to make sure there are not any problems that could slow President Barack Obama’s 30,000-troop surge.
As part of the Obama administration’s campaign to keep Azerbaijan on board, Gates sandwiched a less than 24 hour stop in Baku, the capital, in between talks in Asia and Europe about the crisis on the Korean peninsula and the war in Afghanistan.
He said the trip was spurred, in part, by “concerns in Azerbaijan that we weren’t paying enough attention to them.”
“It’s important to touch base and let them know that in fact they do play an important role in this international coalition,” Gates told reporters on his plane before landing.
To underline the message that the United States was paying more attention to Azerbaijan, Gates hand delivered a letter to President Ilham Aliyev from Obama to make clear “we have a relationship going forward,” a senior defense official said.
Gates is the most senior U.S. official to visit Azerbaijan since Obama came to office last year, and he made clear more high-level exchanges were planned.
The United States wants to expand military-to-military relations, from training to exercises, officials said.
As part of the outreach effort, the Pentagon sent a senior defense official to meet with the Azeris and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spoken by phone to Aliyev.
Though the United States has expressed concern over Azerbaijan’s human rights record in the past, it was unclear whether Gates would press the issue in Baku.
CONCERNS ABOUT NAGORNO-KARABAKH
Aliyev has been particularly critical of Washington’s role in its festering conflict with Armenia over the breakaway mountain region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Azerbaijan believes that the United States has been siding with Armenia in the conflict over the rebel region, where ethnic Armenians backed by Armenia threw off Azeri rule in the early 1990s in a bloody war. A peace deal has never been signed.
Gates will try to allay Aliyev’s concerns about Nagorno-Karabakh, an official said without elaborating.
Azerbaijan is part of what the United States refers to as the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), which also involves Russia, Latvia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Disruption fears have risen in recent months.
In April, operations at a U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan, an important support hub for the war, were briefly suspended after violent riots toppled then-president Kurmanbek Bakiyev. It is unclear how long the new government will keep the base open.
Gates said the United States has “multiple avenues” to route supplies to Afghanistan to limit the impact of any disruptions in any one country.
Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton