Kazakhstan’s Emerging Role In The War On Terror

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 10

Kazakhstan has taken on an increasingly active role in the war on terrorism since its initial declaration of support after 9/11, promoting regional security and developing more effective means to protect its energy infrastructure and civilian population from possible terrorist attacks. Kazakhstan’s perception of the threat from Islamic militant groups and the changing nature of 21st century warfare have informed its reform measures. President Nursultan Nazarbayev has consistently highlighted Kazakhstan’s need for international cooperation in these efforts and the need to reform elements of the armed forces tasked with antiterrorist functions. Moreover, the security structures are increasingly aware of the need to create and train elite formations capable of responding rapidly, in multiple operational environments, to adequately counter any terrorist threat or incursion. In meeting these challenges, Kazakhstan has utilized a multilayered approach to foreign policy: acquiring security assistance from the U.S., Turkey, UK, France, Germany, China while also closely cooperating with Russia.

Kazakhstan has made important symbolic gestures of accommodation to U.S. interests in the region. Though Astana’s decision to allow overflight rights to coalition aircraft in support of Operation Enduring Freedom had more political than military value (air operations into Afghanistan were conducted primarily from bases in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan), Kazakhstan did joint its Central Asian neighbors in sending a liaison team of officers to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). Moreover, Kazakhstan has maintained this cell as part of its efforts to foster closer cooperation with the U.S. and its allies.

In addition to these symbolic steps, Kazakhstan prioritized the restructuring of its post-Soviet armed forces, constructed largely out of the remnants of the Soviet military. Kazakh Minister of Defense Mukhtar Altynbayev noted the fundamental military reforms that occurred in 2003 in a major article in Kazakhstan Sarbazy. The introduction of a three-branch system split the military into ground forces, navy and air defense forces. Kazakhstan’s Military Districts were transformed into regional commands to enhance their managerial efficiency, while a joint command structure was developed to perform the functions of a strategic command. Air Mobile Forces were also established.

These efforts to enact real military reform are based upon an awareness of the changed international threat perception, stemming from international terrorism. Incursions into Kyrgyzstan’s Batken region by Islamic militants in 1999, bombings in Tashkent in 1999-2000 by Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and the potential threat of cross border destabilization posed by such groups to throughout Central Asia have also been motivating factors. During the terrorist attacks in Tashkent in late March 2004, Kazakhstan implemented essential prophylactic measures, placing some units on alert and strengthening its border with Uzbekistan.

Analyzing the complex nexus between organized crime, drug trafficking and various violent militant groups, from al-Qaeda to the Islamic Party of Turkistan (IPT–the new name of the IMU) and disaffected members of avowedly peaceful groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation), demands the vigilance and professionalism of the intelligence services. The key to effectively combating these groups is rooted in successful intelligence. That Kazakhstan’s intelligence service, the KNB, is based upon the Soviet KGB has created problems. The KNB/KGB culture of privilege and methods of carrying out intelligence work differs enormously from their western counterparts. Answerable directly to the President, they have little sense of accountability, making intelligence cooperation even more difficult, given the natural reticence on either side to exchange information.

Though these intelligence structures are in need of reform, they are nonetheless vital in monitoring terrorists throughout the region and throughout Kazakhstan’s vast territory. Nartai Dutbayev, Chairman of the KNB, has prioritized an increase in the levels of surveillance carried out on suspected Islamic militants within Kazakhstan. Dutbayev has linked IMU remnants displaced as a result of Operation Enduring Freedom to Uighur separatists and the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM–based in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China). Furthermore, the KNB has arrested Uighurs in Kazakhstan’s eastern border areas and allegedly found weapons and explosives in their possession. This level of surveillance of indigenous extremist groups has been further fuelled by Uzbek assertions that some of the individuals involved in the Tashkent bombings in March 2004 had placed telephone calls to contacts inside Kazakhstan.

The KNB is aided through bilateral agreements with Russia, receiving information from the Russian intelligence service (FSB), while at the same time accessing the antiterrorist cell of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Tashkent and the CIS antiterrorist center in Bishkek. Central Asia does not have a good record in sharing intelligence amongst the other countries in the region. The current priorities of Kazakhstan’s developing antiterrorist infrastructure are based upon KNB and Kazakh Military Intelligence threat assessments, which result in frequent low-key arrests (allegedly members of Hizb ut-Tahrir with propaganda leaflets).

The Border Guard Service, currently a force of 30,000 (including the Maritime Border Guard), has also undergone reform. [1] While its future development is not exclusively linked to the terrorist threat, Kazakh officials recognize its potential impact on security. Effective border control demands a mixture of fixed-site surveillance systems with mobile surveillance and interception capabilities. Kazakh authorities plan to enhance their necessary response time by installing modern surveillance equipment at border areas. Appropriate tactics are being devised in conjunction with proper training to support these new technologies and optimize the use of modern surveillance and interception equipment. Border communication and information systems will also be procured and greater attention given to language training for border guards through participation in Western military courses. These measures will be enacted with the assistance of Kazakhstan’s international partners in NATO, principally the U.S. and Turkey, with additional assistance from other nations including the UK.

Thus, Kazakhstan’s perception of the threat posed by known terrorist groups, principally the IPT, and the unquantifiable threat from either disaffected Hizb ut-Tahrir radicals or the international organizations like al-Qaeda, has influenced its military reform policies. This perceived threat to large extent explains Kazakhstan’s recognition of the benefits from pursuing closer international security assistance, as Astana looks to the West for help while pursuing traditional security cooperation ties with Russia and China. Kazakhstan has gone from taking tentative steps towards supporting the war on terrorism to deploying elements of its peacekeeping battalion (KAZBAT) to Iraq, which carries out demining and water purification duties as apart of an international contingent under Polish command. In so doing, it has placed its own servicemen in harms way and continued to serve with care and skill–despite withdrawals by Spain and Honduras and the deterioration of the security situation within Iraq between March and April 2004.

Nor have these difficulties been hidden from a public still sensitive to the level of loss sustained during the Soviet-Afghanistan War (1979-88). On May 12, Minister of Defense General Mukhtar Altynbayev and Foreign Minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev faced a parliamentary debate on the question of maintaining KAZBAT in Iraq. The strong pacifist lobby pressed for withdrawal ahead of the scheduled end of its deployment on May 30. One MP posed the question: “No Kazakh has been killed there so far. Shall we wait until someone dies?” Officers and servicemen in the Kazakh armed forces remain well informed about the background and achievements of the deployment, the first of its kind by any Central Asian State, as evidenced by a March 2004 article by Colonel Igor Mukhamedov in the official Ministry of Defense (MoD) publication Bagdar.

Further promoting its antiterrorist capabilities, Kazakhstan signed its first five-year military cooperation agreement with the U.S. in September 2003. An aspect of the agreement involves the construction of a base at Aktau on the Caspian coast, to serve as an antiterrorist training center. This will be in conjunction with Turkey and will facilitate future specialist trilateral training. It is envisaged that a helicopter sub-unit equipped with Huey II helicopters will be trained and equipped to react rapidly to any terrorist threat at land and sea, promoting the security of the country’s energy infrastructure. Such agreements have resulted from serious work and an appreciation of the post-9/11 security environment within the Main Directorate of International Programs of the MoD. Altynbayev has been aided by the energy, drive and vision of Major-General Bulat Sembinov, Deputy Defense Minister, who facilitated the deepening of Kazakhstan’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) relationship with NATO. Sembinov also pushed for the Partnership Analysis and Review Process (PARP) in 2002, making Kazakhstan the first country in region to join the program. The following year, Kazakhstan joined NATO’s Maintenance and Supply Agency (NAMSA) and achieved the 19+1 relationship with the Alliance in January 2004 in the area of discussions on interoperability.

The dynamics of the war on terrorism have witnessed a gradual evolution in Kazakhstan’s policy. This, combined with its own threat assessment, have contributed to military reform and drawn attention to key formations and their role in the country’s antiterrorist capabilities. Indeed, security officials within the country readily acknowledge that the problems of trans-national terrorism, criminal gangs, drug trafficking and the risk from smuggling of WMD materials across borders, are unlikely to disappear from the region in the foreseeable future. Kazakhstan may pursue a more sophisticated approach to these issues, but this will depend on its willingness to cooperate closely with and learn from its international partners. Though its military formations, tasked with antiterrorist functions, will play a vital role in both deterring terrorist activities and repelling them successfully, more attention will be required for enhancing the intelligence services and promoting border security. In the final analysis, Kazakhstan’s military reforms cannot be understood outside the context of a region haunted by the threat of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s, the emergence of the IMU/IPT, growing militancy, the dramatic events of September 11, 2001 and the recent violence in Uzbekistan.


1. The Border Guard Service is subordinated to the National Security Committee though the Ministry of Defense, which would possess operational control in the event of a crisis or conflict.