Islamic Rebels Threaten New Mountain Offensive

Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan are preparing to repel an expected offensive by Islamic insurgents

Islamic Rebels Threaten New Mountain Offensive

Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan are preparing to repel an expected offensive by Islamic insurgents

At the Kazakstan Military Academy, cadets training for mountain warfare are pushed through vigorous psychological and physical tests. "We run 10 kilometres carrying 40 kilograms of equipment" said one "During field exercises our ears are battered by intense noise."

Another cadet complains about the amount he has to carry "Even a sniper's equipment weighs 55 kilos. You get a helmet, two ice-axes, a rifle with grenade launcher, a hammer, a rucksack - once you put all that on you don't feel like going anywhere but you have to."

The armies of Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan are being instructed in mountain combat in the hope of crushing Muslim guerrillas.

The Kazak army has yet to confront the rebels. Kyrgyz forces have done so twice, beating off incursions in 1999 and 2000. Intelligence sources say the next attacks by warriors trained in Afghanistan and Tajikistan may be much more ferocious and could penetrate Kazakstan

Hampered by inadequate funding, military experts in Kazakstan have resorted to overhauling old Soviet equipment to make it suitable for mountain combat.

Samples of new communication technology have been purchased from major international companies. Special battalions have been created with civilian rock climbers as instructors. And manuals on the art of mountain warfare have been issued to troops

Meanwhile, commanders of the Kyrgyzstan's armed forces - who, according to experts, have a lower level of readiness than Kazak troops -are also trying to reshape their formations to take on a more mobile role.

Because the Kyrgyz military lacks any serious military-scientific base or military colleges, it is seeking foreign assistance.

Twelve American specialists are teaching 150 Kyrgyz Soldiers guerrilla warfare. Turks and Russians train them in mountain combat mine warfare respectively. And officer cadets are studying at colleges in Kazakstan and Russia.

A particular weakness of both the Kyrgyz and Kazak armies is the quality of their military manoeuvres. Critics say these exercises are nothing like realistic enough.

By comparison, the training of Islamic warriors in Afghanistan and Tajikistan is much more determined business. Analysts say the emphasis is to imbue the recruits with fanatical zeal.

Kazak serviceman Dauren Akhmetov, who served at the Afghan-Tajik border, explained, "They fight like crazy. They never surrender and show no mercy. Each one carries a grenade and, when their situation becomes hopeless, they pull the ring."

Most of these fighters were brought up in mountain villages, so high altitudes hold no terrors for them. They skip nimbly around with light equipment and ammunition and fade skilfully into landscape. Their food (dried apricots, dried cheese, raisins, almonds) is nutritious, light and practical.

A main strike group usually consists of 30-40 men, divided into three platoons, with three or four sub-groups. Snipers act independently. Members of each unit know nothing about what other groups are doing. To get any useful information, you have to capture the "field commander" who alone knows the full picture.

Because there is no front line, the guerrillas can easily conceal themselves among local residents. The fanatics win over shepherds, forest-guards and farmers, who know every mountain path, enabling them to conceal ammunition and hide.

As strict Muslims, they do not smoke or drink but do use drugs, particularly a light cannabis-type substance called "Nasvai" and the strong narcotic "Chars". According a doctor at a narcotics clinic in Almaty, Tatiana Mashkevich, the former concentrates the mind, while the latter creates a euphoria which eliminates fear.

The weakness of the guerrillas lies in their small numbers, lack of long-term strategy and the absence of any secure base.

Military specialists suggest that in future fighting, the main weapons against guerrillas will be artillery and air-strikes. Troops will be highly mobile. In this way, Kazak and Kyrgyz military leaders hope and expect to inflict crushing losses on their Islamic foes.

Eduard Poletaev is a regular IWPR contributor

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