ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT, June 7, 2010 – Calling Azerbaijan an important partner in the coalition’s efforts in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he discussed a stronger military relationship between Azerbaijan and the United States in meetings with two of the country’s leaders yesterday and today.
After arriving in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku yesterday, Gates visited with President Ilham Aliyev, and met today with Defense Minister Col. Gen. Safar Abiyev. „They play an important part in Afghanistan, not only in terms of the troops they have there – and also a civilian presence – but [through] ground transportation and allowing over flights,“ Gates said, „so [the visit] was partly to express appreciation for that.“
Azerbaijani servicemembers are part of NATO’s 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 construction projects.
The secretary delivered a letter to Aliyev from President Barack Obama that expresses gratitude for Azerbaijan’s contributions in Afghanistan, saying such assistance has „strengthened your country’s stature as a steadfast security partner.“ The letter also conveys Obama’s desire for a broader and deeper future relationship between the two countries.
During his talks in Baku, Gates said, he and the Azerbaijani leaders discussed strengthening the bilateral military relationship and the possibility of further U.S. help with maritime security in the Caspian Sea. „We already help them there with several tens of millions of dollars, boats, radars and capabilities,“ the secretary said.
More military exercises and intelligence sharing also came up during the meetings, he added, and the discussions also touched on Iran and Russia. „These guys clearly live in a rough neighborhood,“ Gates said, „and I told them at the same time how much the international community appreciated what they were doing to help everybody in Afghanistan.“ The Azerbaijani leaders expressed concern about a lack of progress in a long-standing territorial dispute with Armenians in the Nargorno-Karabakh region, Gates said, and he promised to relay the message to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Obama also mentioned the dispute in his letter to Aliyev, saying a peaceful resolution is critical to the South Caucasus region and promising support for such an outcome would remain a U.S. priority.
„All in all,“ Gates said, „I would say it was a very positive visit, and I think it set the stage for further expansion of the relationship. We will have a bilateral defense consultation next month, where I think a lot of the things that we discussed will be put on the table and perhaps fleshed out.“ The secretary left Baku this morning, bound for London to meet with leaders of the new British government.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)