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Cancel the National Guards’ Azerbaijan Military Partnership

U.S Army Sgt. Matthew Fiore, a UH-60 Black Hawk crew chief representing the Marietta-based 78th Aviation Troop Command, Georgia National Guard, engages targets with the M2010 Enhanced Sniper Rifle at the sniper event during the 2022 Georgia National Guard Best Warrior Competition at Fort Stewart, Ga., March 21, 2022. The Best Warrior Competition tests the readiness and adaptiveness of our forces, preparing our Georgia Guardsmen to meet today’s unpredictable challenges. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class R.J. Lannom Jr.)

At the end of the Cold War, U.S. European Command stood up in the newly-liberated Baltics what would become the National Guard’s State Partnership Program. The idea was simple: The National Guard would pair units from individual American states to countries around the world. The program would marry people-to-people exchanges with the military development. The United States could enhance its allies’ military readiness and professionalism while, simultaneously, giving National Guard reservists a taste of international service. The State Department also chimes so that state and territory assignments can best further U.S. foreign policy goals.

Some of the assignments may seem random, but for others, there is an underlying logic. Puerto Rico, for example, partners with the Dominican Republic. Both have language and the Caribbean in common. Texas, one of America’s largest states, pairs with Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country. Likewise, California, America’s most populous state, pairs with Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country. Hawaii, an island state, partners with Indonesia and the Philippines, both archipelagos.

Oklahoma’s geology bestows it with a number of salt plains marked by saline groundwater dating back to fluctuating sea level changes during the Permian era. Just 150 years ago, salt production was among the most important industries for white settlers and many Indians in the then-Indian Territory. That changed in 1859, when Lewis Ross, a salt works entrepreneur accidently struck oil when seeking to tap a saline water deposit. It was a discovery that would transform the region and imbue the Indian Territory with new importance in Washington’s calculation. Long before Texas, Alaska, and North Dakota had theirs, Oklahoma experienced an oil boom. Today, energy remains an important industry in the state.  

This was the main reason why the State Partnership Program tied Oklahoma to Azerbaijan. Not only are the two states relatively close in population—Oklahoma has four million people, Azerbaijan about ten million—but energy, followed by agriculture dominates the economies of both.

If the goal of the partnership is to advance freedom, liberty, and democracy on one hand and U.S. national interests on the other, it is time to suspend the Oklahoma partnership.

As Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev pursues a campaign of ethnic cleansing if not genocide against ethnic Armenians, any military partnership with his regime is tone deaf. For Oklahoma’s National Guard to train with and seek to augment the capabilities of Azerbaijan’s military today is akin to helping Serbian President Slobodan Milošević as he sought to ethnically cleanse Bosnia, Croatia and, later, Kosovo. Likewise, while Aliyev claims the entirety of Armenia as Azerbaijani and questions Armenia’s right to exist, enhancing his military is akin to working with Saddam Hussein after the late Iraqi dictator claimed Kuwait and questioned that state’s right to exist.

In December 2022, as Oklahoma and Azerbaijan marked 20 years of partnership, Gov. Kevin Stitt spoke at the celebratory dinner. “One thing that I really appreciated about the Azerbaijani people is their values,” he said, relating a trip he had taken to Azerbaijan. “It was all about family; it was all about taking care of our kids and giving better opportunities for them. The liberty and the freedoms that we talked about are really what we talk about here in the United States.”

Just ten days later, Azerbaijani forces blockaded Nagorno-Karabakh and launched a campaign of starvation against a population Aliyev claims as Azerbaijan’s own. Starvation, genocide, and efforts to eradicate Christianity in the region are not family values.

To compare freedom in the United States and Azerbaijan, or associate liberty with Azerbaijan is risible. In 2022, Freedom House not only categorized Azerbaijan as “not free” but also ranked it among the worst of that club. The group ranks Azerbaijan worse in terms of civil liberties than the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, Myanmar (Burma) under that country’s military junta, or China under dictator Xi Jinping. For Stitt to describe Azerbaijan as he did suggests a breakdown of the State Partnership Program whose goal was never to paper over reality, let alone bestow false praise upon family-run dictatorships. That the Oklahoma National Guard focused its recent efforts on cybersecurity, likewise, should be an embarrassment to the Pentagon and State Department given Baku’s rank as one of the worst violators of user rights and internet freedoms.

Rather than continue business as usual as corruption permeates Azerbaijan and political freedom declines, perhaps a better signal would be for the State Partnership Program to suspend Azerbaijan until it ends its starvation of Nagorno-Karabakh, its blockade of Armenia, and reverses its democratic decline. It would be unfair to punish Oklahomans for Aliyev’s actions or deny the Oklahoma National Guard training opportunities, however.

Now that the National Defense Authorization Act has required the Pentagon and State Department to develop and report upon their relations with Somaliland, perhaps it would behoove the State Partnership Program to provisionally tie Oklahoma and Somaliland together for training. That Somaliland recently discovered oil makes the pairing even more relevant. Should Stitt go to Hargeisa as he did Baku, he might even talk about family, liberty, and freedom and have it be meaningful rather than diplomatic sycophancy. Under no circumstance, however, should Oklahoma partner with a war criminal.

About the Author: Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in Iran, Turkey, and the broader Middle East. A former Pentagon official, Dr. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, and both pre- and postwar Iraq. He also spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. For more than a decade, he taught classes at sea about the Horn of Africa and Middle East conflicts, culture, and terrorism, to deployed US Navy and Marine units. Rubin is a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor. 

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Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).