On January 24 U.S. Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Marie Yovanovitch gave an important indication of Washington’s long-term commitment to its deployment at Manas air base. Specifically, U.S. military personnel will remain in Kyrgyzstan as long as counter-terrorist operations continue within Afghanistan. Although these expressions of the longer-term interests in prolonging the stay in Bishkek have been aired previously, it has often been presented to assuage Russian objections to the U.S. military presence in the region; that is, setting limits to the deployment. However, with the political and security environment in Central Asia developing rapidly following the December 21, 2006, death of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, coupled with the political tensions that exist within Kyrgyzstan, U.S. officials are offering more tangible indications of commitment.
Yovanovitch explained that when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed a joint statement with Kyrgyzstan’s President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in October 2005 this linkage was made clear, namely that the presence of the U.S. base would depend on the completion of the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan. “The air base is extremely essential as an auxiliary element in the operation in Afghanistan, and as a partner of the anti-terror coalition forces, Kyrgyzstan plays a key role. I would like to recall the security situation in Kyrgyzstan before the deployment of the air base,” Yovanovitch commented. “In 1999-2000, Kyrgyzstan experienced armed incursions. Although it cannot be said yet that the situation has become completely stable, one can say confidently that security has improved. I am repeating local analysts’ views” (Kabar, January 24).
U.S. policymakers cannot risk having the security situation in Kyrgyzstan deteriorate into the chaos that typified the weak security response to the Batken incursions of 1999-2000 and the message that this would give to Islamic radicals. Allowing terrorists and other insurgents to exchange one former terrorist stronghold for another within Central Asia cannot compromise ongoing operations in Afghanistan.
Other NATO member states are actively supporting the transformation of the indigenous military forces, in order to strengthen the country against militant attacks. On January 24 the Kyrgyz Defense Ministry and the Turkish General Staff signed an agreement on giving logistical assistance to the Kyrgyz armed forces. Turkey plans to provide Kyrgyzstan with military and technical assistance worth 1.190 million Turkish liras (around $800,000) for buying uniforms and equipment for the Kyrgyz Defense Ministry as well as equipment for the National Guard. It also includes a plan to equip a showcase modernized border outpost (Akipress, January 25).
Representatives from the British and Belgian armed forces visited a Kyrgyz motor-rifle division in the town of Balykchy on January 16-19, in line with the OSCE Confidence and Security Building Measures. Colonel Rakhat Egimbayev, commander of the military unit that was inspected, offered details on the battalion’s history, service record, and structure and supplied details under the Vienna agreement on military equipment and armaments. The delegations visited a fleet of fighting vehicles, inspected a maintenance center, and also examined barracks and soldiers’ and officers’ divisional messes alongside other facilities. Such visits occur four times each year and show that the Kyrgyz are open and compliant with the OSCE. Western countries are therefore able to evaluate the relative strengths and weaknesses of these forces. NATO’s evaluation teams can equally gauge the effectiveness of courses offered through the Partnership for Peace and target the niche units and capabilities that would bring greater stability to the country (24.kg, January 24).
Specific and well-designed security assistance packages can raise the military capabilities within key formations. Joint Tajik-U.S. military training is scheduled at the training ground of the Fakhrobod military training complex (35 kilometers southwest of Dushanbe) from January 28 to March 9.
A team of U.S. infantrymen will teach subunits of the Tajik State Committee on National Security (SCNS) special task forces and the Tajik border troops anti-terrorist tactics aimed at coping with any future extremist groups that infiltrate the country. Major-General Sharaf Fayzulloyev, the SCNS chief of staff, and U.S. officials will observe the training. This joint anti-terrorist training will be the first of its kind in Tajikistan. Such ventures are of interest to Kyrgyzstan, and the Tajik example may stimulate greater interest in specialist anti-terrorist training (Asia-Plus, January 25).
The Kyrgyz Interior Ministry’s special rapid reaction subunit (SOBR) will be armed with additional Russian-made equipment. Authorities believe this is the most cost effective way to reduce losses among servicemen and help the subdivision successfully fulfill its tasks. Acting Prime Minister Felix Kulov familiarized himself with the SOBR’s armaments and equipment and consequently requested a list of items for partially re-arming the elite subdivision. The plan only envisages outfitting one SOBR unit for the time being (24.kg, January 23).
Russian equipment is easily accessible for Central Asian armed and security forces, presenting an attractive option when politicians want to be seen to enhance security. There is little that the West can do to change this situation, other than observing the propensity for Western and Russian security assistance to duplicate or compete in the region. Unscrambling this mess demands a long term and coordinated approach between the West and Russia, which is currently lacking. By linking the durability of the U.S. military presence in Kyrgyzstan to the security situation in Afghanistan, Yovanovitch suggests that the timescale exists to foster such an approach. The problem, however, is finding the political will and facilitating the creation of an information system that will actually improve regional security dynamics.