Kazakhstan’s Senate vote on June 9 to reject plans to deploy military personnel to Afghanistan seemed to mark an apparent blow to London and Washington hoping to persuade Astana to join the coalition. However, the nature of the political controversy in Kazakhstan, triggered by the announcement to send a small contingent of officers to Kabul confirms the deep sensitivity of the issue as well as an evident level of misperception that precipitated the decision by the upper house of parliament (Interfax-Kazakhstan, June 9).
In order to understand why the ratification failed and its possible implications, it is necessary to link the timing of the vote with Kazakhstan’s evolving partnership with NATO and the emergence of Afghanistan as a focal point in that cooperation process. Since 2003, NATO has provided training and assistance to Kazakhstan in order to develop the country’s capabilities to participate in international peace support operations (PSOs). The US and UK have been at the forefront of training Kazakhstan’s peacekeeping battalion (KAZBAT) and moving towards its expansion to a NATO interoperable brigade (KAZBRIG). Elements from this structure gained experience in Iraq over a five year period, by deploying a small number of engineers to conduct demining operations. Since this deployment ended in 2008, and a level of NATO interoperability was achieved within the formation, Astana has been asked to agree to send a company from KAZBRIG to Afghanistan.
Signs that Astana was considering such a request emerged in November 2008, when Kanat Saudabayev, the then State Secretary, told the plenary session of the NATO parliamentary session in Valencia that Kazakhstan was contemplating joining the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan (Interfax, November 22, 2008). Public comments by Kazakhstani officials in the following two years indicated the discussion was ongoing. President Nursultan Nazarbayev told the North Atlantic Council, on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Lisbon in November 2010, that Kazakhstan had reached an agreement with the Alliance to become the first Central Asian member of ISAF (Interfax, November 22, 2010).
On May 18, 2011, the Majlis (lower house of parliament) voted in favor of the agreement and sent the document for approval by the Senate as required by the constitution. Prior to the vote in the Senate, despite government officials seeking to allay concerns about sending members of Kazakhstan’s Armed Forces to Afghanistan, there were signs of growing opposition to such involvement. Officials stressed that the agreement entailed sending four officers on a six monthly rotational basis to the ISAF headquarters (HQ) in Kabul and judging by the various statements this included two intelligence officers, a logistics officer and a medical officer (Interfax-Kazakhstan, May 23, 27). In other words, the deployment did not anticipate any involvement in combat operations.
Astana could certainly have foreseen opposition to the plan from the Kazakhstani veterans of the Soviet-Afghan war, 1979-1989, and it came as no surprise to learn on June 1, that the Society of Afghanistan War Disabled had initiated a campaign under the misleading title “No to a new war.” The campaign promised to gather signatures in an attempt to overturn the decision by the Majlis, but at its heart was the impression that somehow Kazakhstan was being drawn into someone else’s war (Interfax-Kazakhstan, June 1).
In isolation, such campaigning stood little chance of success. What no official had foreseen was an unexpected terrorist incident in Aktobe, on the country’s Caspian coast. On May 17, the 25-year old Rakhimzhan Makatov blew himself up close to the local HQ of the National Security Committee (KNB). The motive was unknown, but this incident marked Kazakhstan’s first experience of a suicide bombing (VOA News, Interfax, May 17). Moreover, in this volatile context, the Taliban issued a direct threat against Kazakhstan linked to its decision to send military personnel to Afghanistan.
Naturally, Kazakhstani government officials downplayed the Taliban threat, and stressed that there was no link to the bombing. Nonetheless, the nature of the threat and its potential security risks divided the expert community. Some reasoned that the Taliban could not organize terrorist attacks within Kazakhstan, and that in theory they may target its embassies in Kabul or Islamabad. Others, such as the Almaty-based political analyst, Dosym Satpayev, argued that extremist or terrorist groups in Central Asia could use the Taliban appeal as inspiration to launch such attacks, in response to Kazakhstan joining ISAF (Interfax-AVN, May 23).
When the Senate voted to reject the NATO-Kazakhstan agreement on ISAF, such strands of thinking may have influenced senators. Aziz Arianfar, the Director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies and Research, believes the Senate refused to ratify the agreement on the grounds of national security. “The government of Kazakhstan wishes the soonest settlement of the Afghan problem but there are fears that the Taliban and other extremists may use the goodwill move by Kazakhstan as a pretext for listing Kazakhstan as an aggressor,” he said (Interfax-AVN, June 9).
Although some senators expressing outright opposition to any Kazakhstani military involvement in Afghanistan, according to Mukhtar Altynbayev, a member of the Senate’s International Affairs, Defense and Security Committee, and former Defense Minister, senators voted against the bill on his initiative. Altynbayev tabled a procedural issue, highlighting point 5, article 53 of the constitution which stipulates that such decisions require a joint session of both chambers (Interfax-AVN, June 9). The “rejection” when it came was neither final nor outright.
The confluence of several factors, partly predictable and unforeseen developments, influenced senators to draw back from approving the bill. In the hiatus between announcing the agreement and seeking to conclude the ratification process, explanations offered to the wider society did not eliminate the misperception that Astana may become a direct combatant. Yet, the four officers being prepared for service in ISAF HQ in Kabul indicates that this was more than one step removed from a combat deployment – not even combat support, but what in western terms would be considered as combat service support. In a country where symbolism has huge meaning and value, sending four officers to Kabul would demonstrate a willingness to deal with its past sensitivities and move on to offer deeper support for the stabilization efforts. Now, Astana must reassess the timing of the ratification, overcoming any hurdles it encounters on the path to pursuing such a sensitive historic policy decision.