On January 14 Commander of United States Central Command (CENTCOM) General David Petraeus, visited Kazakhstan. Among the key senior Kazakh military officers he met with was Lieutenant-General Bolat Sembinov, the deputy defense minister responsible for cooperation with the West. Ostensibly they discussed progress in implementing the new five-year bilateral military cooperation program agreed on in February 2008. General Petraeus was especially interested in bolstering stability in Afghanistan.
He spent a significant portion of his time stressing Kazakhstan’s military “achievements.” As the new American administration has promised renewed focus on Afghanistan, CENTCOM will once again give high priority in planning to the Central Asian states; which had been neglected in recent years as Petraeus concentrated on fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at the same time and had come to view Central Asia as marginal or at best an “add-on” to the overall strategy. He noted that Kazakhstan was the first country that the U.S. delegation had come to during its tour of Central Asia. “This is recognition of the fact that Kazakhstan plays a very important role, not only at the regional level but also internationally. It is a great honor for me to be a partner of the Kazakh military,” he said. (Kazinform, January 14).
Petraeus also met Kazakh Defense Minister Daniyal Akhmetov and Marat Mazhitov, the deputy director of the border service of the Kazakh National Security Committee (KNB). They discussed cooperation in fighting narcotics traffic, focusing on the Caspian Sea as a drug-transit route. Petraeus used this opportunity to welcome the formation of a viable coast guard in Kazakhstan, which will allow future joint counter-narcotics programs to continue (Interfax-Kazakhstan, January 15).
He strongly denied any intention on the part of CENTCOM to seek basing rights in the country, although the coalition now has emergency access to the military part of Almaty airport; but he confirmed that Kazakhstan was proving crucial as an overland transit route to Afghanistan via Russia, as NATO sought supply routes circumventing Pakistan to support its mission in Afghanistan. Oddly enough, Petraeus made no mention of the fundamental importance of Uzbekistan, since any overland route will always involve Tashkent’s cooperation.
Petraeus and General Sembinov visited Kazakhstan’s peacekeeping brigade (KAZBRIG). Noting Washington’s appreciation for the five years of service in Iraq by a small engineering unit from the country’s peacekeeping forces, Petraeus awarded 25 members of KAZBRIG (around 10 per cent of the Kazakh personnel that has served in Iraq) with medals in recognition of their tour of duty (Interfax-Kazakhstan, January 14, Kazakhstan Today, January 14). This suggests that CENTCOM is now looking for the Kazakhstan government to “follow-up” by sending a KAZBRIG company to Afghanistan. Astana has been pressured by Washington and London since 2007 to make its peacekeepers available in this theater of operations. (The United States and the United Kingdom have been the primary trainers for Kazakhstan’s peacekeeping force).
On January 14 Petraeus thanked President Nursultan Nazarbayev for opening Kazakhstan’s airspace to coalition forces and for the recent agreements, similar to those with Russia and Uzbekistan, permitting the transit of nonmilitary cargo and goods to Afghanistan. He noted afterward that he had spoken with Nazarbayev about NATO’s problems in Afghanistan. “We also discussed Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s position and the necessity of ensuring security in this country, as well as problems encountered by members of the coalition in Afghanistan,” he said (Kazinform, January 14). The Kazakh media paid less attention to the fact that Petraeus’s talks about the Afghan situation with Kairbek Suleymenov, presidential aide and secretary of the Security Council of Kazakhstan, suggest that Petraeus was on more than a simple public relations visit.
Although General Sembinov claimed that continued attention would be given to reforming Kazakhstan’s armed forces, he singled out its peacekeeping forces for future development. This will prove a key testing area in Kazakhstan’s growing defense relationship with the United States and may prove the basis of refocusing the country’s strategic position toward the West, while preserving close and friendly ties with Russia. On the other hand, the priority attached given to the U.S.-Kazakh five-year military cooperation plan for strengthening peacekeeping capabilities also signals an emerging area of competition: Russia is making use of the multilateral mechanism of the CSTO to promote regional peacekeeping, which could result in a conflict of interests. As pressure mounts on Kazakhstan to deploy elements of KAZBRIG to Afghanistan, Moscow will ratchet up the diplomatic emphasis on building future CSTO peacekeeping capabilities.
Kazakhstan is likely to begin this process in 2009 in a low key manner by first sending KAZBRIG medical personnel and officers to Kabul. CENTCOM, however, in line with the “surge” the Obama administration is expected to announce in its Afghanistan strategy, evidently wants the deployment of Kazakh peacekeepers to Afghanistan. That could happen if Kazakhstan is convinced that a huge symbolic significance and political boost to the country and the alliance would accompany sending peacekeepers to Afghanistan. The biggest problem, as CENTCOM commanders know well, stems from potential objections or “game playing” by Moscow over policymaking in what Russian still regards as its closest ally.