The Department of Defense will oversee a $130 million effort in the next six years to increase security in the volatile Caspian Sea region, according to European Command officials coordinating the effort.

The U.S. hopes to improve patrolling on the Caspian Sea and secure borders of countries in the area to stop the flow of terrorists, weapons and drugs, and to stabilize a region with significant U.S. political and business interests, officials said.

The program, called the Caspian Guard Initiative, focuses on Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan — the two most western-leaning countries in the area that lie on opposite sides of the sea — but could expand in future years, said Army Lt. Col. Scott Sweetser, who helped coordinate the program for European Command.

European Command Special Forces and contractors began training members of Azerbaijan’s Navy last year on intercepting terrorists, drugs and weapons trafficked on the Caspian Sea. Future training will include border patrol, Sweetser said.

In both countries, the U.S. hopes to build command-and-control centers — similar to the one used by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security — as well as centers to direct air and maritime security operations, Sweetser said.

The U.S. also built an interim maritime command and control center in Baku, Azerbaijin, which it hopes to expand, Sweetser said. The U.S. State and Energy departments also are taking part in the program.

Interest in the region developed as EUCOM officials looked at potential threats in their area after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Sweetser said.

“We started to look at where the threats were and realized this one was glaringly obvious,” Sweetser said.

Azerbaijan is a particular interest to the United States because it shares borders with Russia to the north — with the nearby region of Chechnya — and Iran to the south, making it potential transit point for terrorists, Sweetser said.

“You’ve got a central point, if you drew a line between those, that make Azerbaijan vulnerable to the movement of terrorists,” Sweetser said.

The new interest in the region also comes as Azerbaijan situates itself as a key player in the U.S. effort to reduce dependency on Middle East oil. An oil pipeline running from Baku to Tbilisi, Georgia, to the Mediterranean port city Ceyhan, Turkey, opened earlier this year and is considered crucial to that cause, according to news reports.

EUCOM officials were quick to downplay the role of oil in the Caspian Guard Initiative, saying that securing natural resources are only part of the overall strategy.

“The idea is to protect regional stability,” Sweetser said. “If you create regional stability, it makes the security of economic infrastructures that much [greater].”

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