The Kazakh parliament’s May 13 decision to postpone the request for extending the deployment of the country’s peacekeeping battalion (KAZBAT) in Iraq highlights the question over the future deployment of Kazakh forces in Iraq.
Of the CIS countries, only Ukraine with its 1,800 troops in Iraq is well publicised, those of Kazakhstan among the international deployment are less known. The troops have gained operational experience, working within an international peace support structure placed under Polish command. Duties have included water-purification and de-mining activities.
The historic deployment of 27 servicemen from Kazakhstan’s peacekeeping battalion (KAZBAT) to Iraq in August 2003 has proven to be a major success. Not only have they gained invaluable operational experience, working within an international peace support structure placed under Polish command, carried out with professionalism and dedication their water purification and demining duties.
The deployment is significant in that it represents the first time any peacekeepers from Central Asia have been deployed beyond the region. The move also helps lay the foundation for future participation in international peace support operations.
KAZBAT was only formed in January 2000, based in Kapshagai, 70 kilometers north of Almaty. The battalion is commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Zhanibek Sharipov and exclusively staffed with professional troops serving under contract. (Bagdar, March 2004). Troops are drawn from the Air Mobile forces, operating under Kazakhstan’s president. (Krasnaya Zvezda, Moscow, 6 May 2004 p. 3)
Total cost of the deployment is estimated at approximately US$98,000 for the first six months, with additional in-country support from the U.S. The U.S. has vigorously supported the development of KAZBAT, sending 12-man Special Forces teams to Kazakhstan to train the battalion. Washington has clearly attached great importance to strengthening the operational capabilities of KAZBAT.
Politically, the move has not gone smoothly. The deployment is a risky situation for President Nazarbayev and Defense Minister Army General Mukhtar Altynbayev. Parliament has been vocal in its opposition to the deployment, echoing earlier concerns in 2002 that Kazakhstan would commit peacekeepers to Afghanistan.
Opposition reflects strong pacifistic sentiment and concern about the recent deterioration of security in Iraq. In the wake of the Madrid bombings and announcement of Spain’s decision to withdraw, opposition to the presence of troops increased.
In April, Altynbayev proposed that Kazakhstan not send additional troops to Iraq at the end of the current deployment. The government quickly denied that it was planning to withdraw troops ahead of schedule, but expressed concern about increased violence in Iraq. The government has asked the U.S. military to be more active in protecting KAZBAT troops because of their role as non-combatants. This culminated in a heated debate within Parliament on May 12, with Altynbayev taking a strong position in favor of the Kazakhstani presence.
Criticism to troop presence was heard from communist MPs, such as Serik Abrakhmanov, who alluded to Spain’s withdrawal of troops and fear of reprisals in Kazakhstan. Deployment is due to end on 30 May. However, some MPs are not satisfied to keep troops in Iraq until that date.
“Iraqi people view us as occupiers,” independent Deputy Valentin Makalkin maintained during the debate. (Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, 13 May 2004). In response, Deputy Defense Minister Abai Tasbulatov emphasized that the Kazakh contingent would continue to carry out their “exclusively” humanitarian mission.
Deputy Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tleuberdi defended the continued presence “It should be noted that Kazakhstan’s economic interests played a certain role in making the decision. The presence of the Kazakh peacekeeping mission as part of the coalition’s stabilization forces increases Kazakh companies’ opportunity to take part in economic projects to restore Iraq.” (Interfax-Kazakhstan, Almaty, 12 May 2004). Key to this, in Tleuberdi’s view, is future UN involvement after the handover to a sovereign Iraqi government. It appears that the presence of Kazakhstan on the U.S. list of countries that will take part in restoration of Iraq has shaped policy in Astana.
Consequently, parliamentary voting on the issue has been postponed until late May. Parliament would need to approve extension of the deployment, should the government seek to prolong its presence beyond May 30. (Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, Almaty, 13 May 2004).
In strategic terms, KAZBAT’s exposure to Iraq has been an invaluable mechanism to cement ties with the U.S., and in seeking international assistance in achieving its target of NATO interoperability.Kazakhstan is seeking economic benefits from its cooperation with the U.S. in Iraq and hopes to secure further support for expanding KAZBAT to a brigade.
The return of KAZBAT’s troops from Iraq, should that happen later this month, would be unlikely to damage Kazakhstan’s relationship with the U.S. However, by extending its presence in Iraq, Astana may be keen to demonstrate Kazakhstan’s commitment to the war on terrorism. The early signs are that the political risks taken in sending peacekeepers to Iraq will be successful — which has implications for Kazakhstan’s participation in future operations.