Kyrgyzstan has launched a series of military exercises aimed at testing and enhancing its anti-terrorist capabilities. Commencing on March 10, and scheduled to finish in late March, these two-stage command and staff exercises involved the use of the security agencies and emergencies department, clearly rehearsing multiple disaster management scenarios. Various tasks were assigned to the participants in these exercises, honing the skills required in liaison between Ministry of Defense subunits and subdivisions, improving the level of cooperation among the Ministry of Defense and other state security bodies in emergency situations in order to increase combat readiness and inter-agency cooperation aimed at countering or responding to possible acts of terrorism.
President Kurmanbek Bakiyev explained, “We should work seriously. If each of our ministries knows to some extent what to do in a particular situation, they may feel when they cooperate that such things have not been perfected. Therefore, I have instructed the defense minister, Lieutenant-General Ismail Isakov, to conduct the command and staff exercise” (Kyrgyz TV 1, Bishkek, March 10). Of course, for the Kyrgyz authorities, and the various security bodies, the bloody events in the Batken Region in 1999, when Tajik insurgents entered Kyrgyzstan, remain a stark warning concerning the lack of readiness and poor communication between security agencies.
In fact, Bakiyev believes this aspect is critical to the strengthening of Kyrgyz security, since the country is also prone to natural disasters such as earthquakes, landslides, and floods. Planning staffs are also endeavoring to learn lessons from the avalanche in Alay, southern Osh Region, in 2006. Rescuers were hampered due to the lack of equipment. Bakiyev has therefore concluded that the country requires greater inter-agency cooperation, and these exercises are designed to address some of these needs and highlight the existing gaps.
On March 14 the second and perhaps most critical stage of the joint command, staff, and mobilization exercises concentrated on dealing with the aftermath of possible natural disasters. Special Forces from the Interior Ministry and the National Security Service also coordinated with other agencies to locate and destroy terrorists that, according to the scenario, had seized a police station in Batken Region.
The exercises are designed to better protect the state borders and tighten border control. Based on experience from previous events, it envisaged setting up an outer ring to seal off a hotbed of tension or a disaster area. Moreover, police and special task forces conducted operations to find and arrest terrorists involved in a simulated terror attack on a regional center. Disaster management skills were also rehearsed, and Batken Region’s reserve formation rehearsed measures to deal with cases of a threat of an epidemic (Belyy Parokhod, March 14).
These exercises are a personal success for Defense Minster Isakov, who has sought to raise the prestige of military service after the battered reputation of the armed forces in the aftermath of the disastrous Batken campaign, which served to reveal manifold weaknesses in the military and highlighted the severe lack of communication among the security agencies involved. Marking Kyrgyz Army Day in Bishkek on February 23 Isakov said, “It is pleasing for us to realize that society has started to take pride in the defenders of the homeland. The attitudes of young people toward their constitutional duty before the fatherland have been changing. The word ‘defender’ is acquiring a real meaning. The prestige of military service is being restored. People wearing shoulder straps have begun acquiring a feeling of confidence for their future” (Kyrgyz TV 1, February 23).
A significant political precursor to these exercises came on March 4, with comments offered by Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Alikbek Jekshenkulov suggesting that the Bishkek government does not want the United States to use the air base for anti-terrorist coalition forces at Manas airport outside Bishkek if an armed conflict begins between Washington and Tehran. Manas must only be used in relation to Afghanistan, “The air base must not pose a threat to Central Asian countries and Iran. Its potential cannot be used against third countries,” Jekshenkulov insisted (Interfax, March 6).
Bakiyev clearly wants to stimulate the belief that Kyrgyz security forces can adequately react to and cope with any potential political or natural phenomena, in addition to paying reference to the terrorist threat in the region. Sensibly, he wants to promote greater levels of inter-agency coordination and thus demonstrate Kyrgyzstan’s credentials as an important and stable partner for its close allies within the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Equally, Bakiyev requires security assistance and revenue from the U.S. base in Bishkek, and he does not want to follow the Uzbek model of asking Washington to leave the region. His foreign minister’s comments place an important caveat on the extent of the future use of Manas, minimizing the risk that may ensue from any suggestion of the base as a forward operating base in hypothetical U.S. military strikes against Iran. Nonetheless, behind the politics and complex diplomacy, Western planners can take great comfort from Bishkek’s step away from aimless Soviet-style military exercises, towards practical anti-terrorist exercises that examine and assess carefully the level of inter-agency cooperation, essential in crisis situations.