General John Abizaid, Commander of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), visited Kazakhstan on August 2 with the express purpose of discussing ways to strengthen military cooperation between the United States and Kazakhstan. He also discussed Kazakhstan’s partnership with NATO and explored ways in which this may expand in the future. Abizaid’s visit to Astana came shortly after the successful six-month rotation of Kazakhstan’s 27-man contingent from its peacekeeping battalion (KAZBAT) currently deployed in Iraq. The success of his visit and its timing all point towards a concerted U.S. effort to deepen its long-term military cooperation with Kazakhstan, promoting regional stability and cementing Kazakhstan’s role in the global war on terror (Khabar TV, August 2).
Abizaid certainly made every effort to lavish praise on his hosts. During meetings with President Nursultan Nazarbaev and Defense Minister Army General Mukhtar Altynbaev, he thanked Kazakhstan for sending members of KAZBAT to Iraq, praised its role in stabilizing Central Asia, and suggested that in this area Kazakhstan serves as a model for the whole region. Moreover, he made a point of meeting every member of both groups that have successfully served in Iraq, including those from the most recent rotation; he thanked each serviceman in person. Clearly the decision to deploy KAZBAT to Iraq has paid dividends, though it did entail considerable domestic opposition.
One reason for KAZBAT’s success is the exclusive selection of Muslim personnel to send to Iraq, resulting in mutual respect between these servicemen and the local population, allowing them to concentrate on fulfilling their humanitarian role in de-mining and water purification. Altynbaev has incurred considerable risk to his career, staking much on their success and continued safety. Major-General Bulat Sembinov, Deputy Defense Minister, visited Iraq in July to confirm that they are still in high demand. (Ekspress-K, July 21). For only a small contribution towards the peace-support operations in Iraq, Kazakhstan is receiving considerable return on its investment. Not only is KAZBAT the only contingent from Central Asia, but also it boosts the Muslim representation within the forces and has proven solid politically, while countries such as Spain, Honduras, and the Philippines have withdrawn from Iraq. In the longer term it would be less politically volatile for Nazarbaev if KAZBAT’s work in Iraq could be placed under the aegis of the United Nations.
Abizaid also highlighted the key areas in which both countries seek to foster long-term security ties, namely border security and the fight against terrorism. This is reflected in the five-year plan of bilateral cooperation signed in September 2003 between the U.S. Department of Defense and Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Defense. American aid is directed towards enhancing these aspects of Kazakhstan’s armed forces and strengthening its interoperability with Western militaries. Abizaid described his meeting with Nazarbaev as, “Very useful in terms of developing relations between the USA and Kazakhstan.” (Interfax, August 2).
Of course, Washington has a clear economic interest in protecting the Kazakhstani energy infrastructure in the Caspian Sea. This is recognized within Kazakhstan, as witnessed by the emphasis placed on the importance of the Caspian in its current military reform agenda. The Soviet leadership did not provide military infrastructure in the western region of the country, and Kazakhstan has relied on American assistance to overcome this deficit. Thus, on July 23 at a ceremony in Atyrau, the administrative center of the Atyrau region and an important oil location, a new military barracks was opened, constructed jointly by U.S. engineers and their Kazakhstani counterparts, including the Stroykompleks-Astana Company, and funded by the United States at a cost of $3.8 million. In fact, Washington has allocated around $19 million through Foreign Military Financing (FMF) for constructing military infrastructure in the western region of Kazakhstan. The base at Atyrau will be home to a special marine battalion drawn from the 2nd Motor Rifle Brigade, consisting of 300 personnel and initially staffed with 30% contract servicemen, tasked with protecting the border and combating terrorism. An anti-terrorist center is currently being constructed nearby which will be equipped with modern military equipment. (Kazakh TV Channel 1, July 24).
Abizaid’s visit to Kazakhstan underscores the growing importance attached to Kazakhstan in the U.S. vision for Central Asia. Given Kazakhstan’s decision to deploy its peacekeeping unit to Iraq and subsequent determination to stay the course, Washington sees the country as a stable, long-term security partner and thereby is fulfilling its commitments to support the development of military cooperation with Kazakhstan. The evidence, including U.S. spending on Kazakhstan’s military infrastructure, suggests the relationship will not prove to be temporary.