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Building Cooperative Security Ties in Central Asia
Since the tragic events of September 11th, the long-overlooked region of Central Asia has received a great deal of attention. Many have been surprised by the unprecedented degree of military cooperation between the former Soviet-controlled Central Asian states and the United States. The deployment of units from the U.S. Army 10th Mountain Division to Uzbekistan, the use by U.S. forces of several Uzbek airbases, and the employment of additional airbases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in support of the American campaign against Osama Bin Laden, are of particular historic significance.
How did this happen in a region that was the forward staging base for the Soviet military in its failed struggle to dominate Afghanistan? The answer lies in events such as the first-ever training exercise between elements of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division and a combined battalion from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan in September 1997.
Flying nonstop on what was then termed by the U.S. Air Force as the worlds longest airdrop, American maroon-bereted paratroopers led by Marine General Jack Sheehan jumped into Chimkent-Sayram, Kazakhstan and moved on over land to a field training area at Chirchik, Uzbekistan. The exercise included soldiers and observers from many Eurasian states. At the time, this operation was controversial, with critics asking why the U.S. should bother training with countries that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. Of course, after September 11th, nowhere quickly became a pivotal location for the war against terrorism.
Often lumped together as the Stans, five Central Asian countries emerged a decade ago from the breakup of the Soviet Union: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. In the Soviet period, access to these remote republics was extremely limited and external relations were tightly managed through Moscow. In the immediate post Cold War era, this huge piece of land was essentially up for grabs. Although many of Russias leaders continued to view Central Asia as their backyard, the five new states endeavored to chart their own independent courses.
U.S. policy makers also needed a new paradigm for thinking about this part of the world. For years, the Central Asian republics formed the underbelly of the Soviet Union; now, seen from a different perspective, they were at the center of a region just taking shape. Key U.S. government security experts recognized that Central Asias strategic importance was enormous because of its location at the literal crossroads of civilizations, and because of its vast untapped oil and gas resources that might reduce Western dependence on Persian Gulf energy supplies.
In the mid-1990s, the Department of Defense launched a pathbreaking program to transform these states from former adversaries into future partners, and to build cooperative security relationships oriented toward meeting challenges of the future. At the time, opponents both within and outside the Pentagon did not see the logic or value of extending American resources to this part of the world. It seemed too far away and too unfamiliar to be relevant to U.S. national security. And yet with a relatively modest investment, the U.S. built strong ties upon which it can now rely in seeking to bring terrorists to justice.
Key to this effort was the establishment of bilateral military-to-military ties with all five countries, as well as the extension of NATOs Partnership for Peace to all of them. Defense ministers who had previously been generals in the Soviet Army were invited to visit the United States and travel to major American military installations. The U.S. Secretary of Defense at the time, current Stanford faculty member William J. Perry, made historic trips to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to hear first-hand about their security challenges.
Building on these first bold steps, the United States implemented full-blown military-to-military cooperation activities in the region. The September 1997 exercise gave the U.S. military the chance to test its skills on unfamiliar terrain both proximate and similar to the terrain upon which it may be asked to deploy soon. Reflecting its utility to the American military in both strategic and operational terms, a follow-on exercise, Centrazbat (Central Asian Battalion) 98, took place in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in September 1998. It involved 160 soldiers from the U.S. Armys 10th Mountain Division (the same division that is currently deployed in Uzbekistan) holding joint training exercises with more than 450 military personnel from Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Turkey, and Uzbekistan.1
Work has continued, albeit largely less dramatically, to assist countries in the region to reform their Soviet-style militaries, to learn to operate with those of NATO, and to pursue programs to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, oppose proliferation, and resist fundamentalist encroachment from the South. Centrazbat 2000 was held near Almaty, Kazakhstan, where personnel from the U.S. 82nd Airborne and the 5th Special Forces Group joined participants from Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Russia, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and Uzbekistan.2 Over the past few years, the U.S. and Uzbekistan have also been quietly conducting joint operations aimed at countering the Taliban and its terrorist allies, including stepped-up intelligence cooperation to track Osama Bin Laden and joint military training missions.3
Furthermore, overall U.S. political and economic support has played an important role in helping the Central Asian nations rebuild after years of Communist domination. U.S. involvement has also helped establish a new dynamic among the countries that formerly belonged to the Soviet empire. While their viability was far from assured a decade ago when they first gained their freedom, each of the five remains an independent entity today. Perhaps most remarkable is the fact that Moscow has come to recognize that its interests in the former republics of the U.S.S.R. are better served by moving beyond the traditional relationship of subjugator and subjugated. Indeed, Russian Foreign Minister Ivanovs statement following the September 11 attacks on the United States that each country will decide on its own to what extent and how it will cooperate with the U.S. is an explicit acknowledgement that U.S. policy in this region has succeeded.
The important role the Central Asian states are playing in the war on terrorism confirms their strategic significance as well as the wisdom of investing in security cooperation in peacetime. Since Septembers terrorist acts, some have asked whether the U.S. should reconsider military-to-military cooperation programs because they may help train future terrorists. Although careful scrutiny of participants has been and remains essential, the benefits of these initiatives across many years far outweigh the risks. These countries may lack sophisticated technology and weaponry, but their strengths balance some of our weaknesses. In particular, their human intelligence assets, first-hand experience with local forms of unconventional warfare, and intimate knowledge of largely unfamiliar terrain are of great value today.
Looking toward the future, we should redouble our efforts to work closely with militaries in strategically important regions such as Central Asia. It is precisely when geopolitical circumstances do not suggest immediate benefit to the U.S. that it makes sense to lay and solidify such foundations. Just as in human relationships, it is the relationships we cultivate in good times that support us when we face hard times. We should do all we can to ensure that we have strong ties that can be counted on in a crisis, and that we are capable of operating effectively in locations remote from the U.S. homeland when our national security is at stake.
1 Department of Defense News Briefing Thursday, September 10, 1998 - 2:00 p.m. Presenter: Mr. Kenneth H. Bacon, ASD (PA)
2 Fact Sheet on Centrasbat 2000, U.S. Embassy, Tashkent Web Site
3 Thomas E. Ricks and Susan B. Glasser, US operated secret alliance with Uzbekistan Washington Post, Sunday, October 14th, 2001, pg AOl
Copyright © 2006, Stanford Journal of International Relations
Department of International Relations, Stanford University
Last updated: 5/28/06, by Hammad Ahmed and Patrick Callier.