Major-General Bolat Sembinov, Kazakhstan’s Deputy Defense Minister, completed an important trip to Washington on November 19 that has served to reaffirm the long-term nature of U.S. military assistance to Kazakhstan. Sembinov, who has been a critical influence behind much of Kazakhstan’s military reform and its closer security relationship with Western states, met Richard Armitage, Deputy Secretary of State; Mira Ricardel, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy; and James MacDougall, head of Eurasia affairs at the Pentagon (Interfax-Kazakhstan, November 19).
The meetings focused on the nature of the five-year cooperation plan signed in 2003 between the two countries, which aims to strengthen military cooperation, as well as exploring the relationship between Kazakhstan and NATO, technical military matters, further work through the Cooperative Threat Reduction mechanism, and closer collaboration in the war on terror. Talks touched upon the security situation in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the latter used as an opportunity to talk up American efforts to secure the continued safety of Kazakhstani servicemen serving in Central Iraq within its small peacekeeping presence. The U.S. delegation was particularly interested in Sembinov’s report on the progress of Kazakhstan’s plans to further professionalize its army, with the aim of raising the numbers of contract personnel serving within a mixed manning system. Equally, Sembinov was keen to make real progress towards supplying C-130 transport aircraft to the Kazakhstani Air Force, which will provide vital airlift capacity and enhance air mobility within Kazakhstan.
Sembinov’s visit to Washington came at a vital moment, as Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Defense claims genuine progress has been made in 2004 towards many of its reform objectives. Army-General Mukhtar Altynbayev, Minister of Defense, addressed an operational and mobilization training session held on November 17 in the Astana regional command, highlighting his belief that training tasks were carried out successfully throughout the year, noting in particular the success of national and international military exercises held within Kazakhstan: Saryarka 2004, Rubezh 2004, and Steppe Eagle 2004. Altynbayev would like Steppe Eagle to be expanded in the future to include other Central Asian countries in addition to participation by U.S. and British servicemen (Kazinform, November 17).
He also envisages introducing psychological testing for senior officers, including those commanding Kazakhstani forces in Steppe Eagle exercises. As Altynbayev explained during a television interview: “We are going to test each commander’s psychological state, what they have in their minds, because, in addition to the fact that they have knowledge and their positions, they also carry weapons. That is why they should take a psychological test. That is why we want to test them for the first time,” (Kazakh Television First Channel, November 17). Such plans would clearly represent a radical break with the traditional pattern of selection and promotion, which bears some of the hallmarks of what Westerners would perceive as nepotism. Often, for familial reasons, or as a byproduct of state corruption, officers find themselves serving in posts for the wrong reasons. If psychological testing brings results that are taken seriously within the Kazakhstani Ministry of Defense, and plans to professionalize the military are developed with U.S. assistance and input, then it may compel changes in the system of personnel management.
Sembinov also had an opportunity to learn first hand the depth of the U.S. commitment to Kazakhstan’s security as part of wider American interests in promoting stability in the Caspian region. The military component is only one aspect in a whole range of U.S. initiatives aimed at achieving greater stability in the region. Although Kazakhstan looks towards the United States for the supply of weapons and equipment, there are aspects of its current military and security agenda that seem to confirm that the leadership in Kazakhstan takes seriously its own need to maximize its security potential.
Kazakhstan’s Prime Minister, Daniyal Akhmetov, addressed a government session on November 17 that discussed efforts to enhance the national security system. Akhmetov said, “The session discussed measures to be taken by relevant state departments to prevent terrorist and extremist activities, the creation of an effective cooperation system between state bodies in a crisis, the introduction of new technologies in the system ensuring border protection, and controlling migration flows,” (Interfax-Kazakhstan, November 17). Thus, making the cooperation and coordination of state security bodies a key part of the government’s plans to improve security, complements U.S. military efforts.
Sembinov’s visit to Washington has therefore developed greater awareness of the security concerns, as well as aims, driving bilateral cooperation. It may equally have tested the degree of staying power the United States has in Afghanistan and Iraq, since the security situation in the former will impact either positively or negatively on Central Asia depending on how the country is stabilized. The deployment of Kazakhstani peacekeepers in Iraq, at considerable political risk to Altynbayev, serves to strengthen, for the time being at least, mutual interests in safeguarding the operational theater. The greatest risk, however, to continued long-term military cooperation is the specter of dead Kazakhstani servicemen being returned to the country; Sembinov’s mind has been eased, a little, on this delicate concern. But an American commitment to helping Kazakhstan successfully reform its armed forces will demand recognition in Washington of the sheer scale of the task ahead.