Kazakstan: Afghan Peacekeeping Controversy

Many Kazaks are appalled at the prospect of their boys serving in an Afghan peace force.

Kazakstan: Afghan Peacekeeping Controversy

Many Kazaks are appalled at the prospect of their boys serving in an Afghan peace force.

There's growing public unease over the government's decision to send a battalion of peacekeeping troops to Afghanistan.

Five hundred men have already completed the first stage of selection for the new Kazbat force, which was agreed during a high-ranking visit by Kazak government officials to Kabul last December.

Preparations for the deployment have triggered bitter memories of Moscow's war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Several thousand Kazak soldiers were conscripted into the Soviet force - and many lost their lives.

"I don't understand why we should lose our people because of our politicians' ambitions," said Anatoli Eryomin, who served in the Afghan war. "Many of us came home in coffins - that's why people are indignant now."

"I'm against sending our boys to Afghanistan," said Oleg Rubets, deputy chairman of the Union of Veterans of the Afghan and Local Wars. "I have been through such a war and I am convinced there will be many unnecessary casualties."

Most former combatants take the same hostile line. "The families sending men are doing so for profit and I understand them," said Orken Niazbekov, who served in Afghanistan with the Soviet forces, referring to the fact that Kazbat recruits will be paid 600 US dollars per month, roughly five times more than they're paid here.

"The authorities have reduced people to such a condition that people are ready to risk lives for a decent wage," he said.

Many of those taking part in the selection procedure for Kazbat admit money was the main incentive.

"Six hundred dollars is a huge sum of money - I've been unemployed for five years, that's why I decided to try my hand," said Arsen Talanov.

"What else can we do? There's no work anywhere but kids need to be fed, so I applied for Kazbat," said Erlan Maulenov. "The issue is not Afghanistan. The issue is money and I'm ready to risk my life for my children to be able to live better. To be honest, though, I don't know why Kazakstan is sending a battalion to Afghanistan."

Political analysts believe the government's desire to strengthen ties with the US and have some leverage over Kabul were behind the move to provide a contingent of troops for the Afghan peacekeeping operation.

"Unlike Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, Kazakstan has not provided the US military bases in the wake of September 11," said Almaty political scientist Anatoli Ross. "But the authorities want to get closer to Washington - it needs American clients for Kazak oil. Kazbat may help in this regard."

In addition to the provision of troops, Astana plans to open an embassy in Kabul. Analysts say this will help land-locked Kazakstan to secure its participation in plans to run an oil pipeline through Afghanistan.

It wants to do this because currently the bulk of its petroleum is transported via Russian territory - and Astana doesn't want to be too dependent on Moscow.

An Afghan pipeline project was clearly unfeasible during the Afghan war. But recently, the American company, Unocal, is reported to have revived its interest in investing in such a project linking Central Asia to Pakistan via Afghan territory.

The foreign ministry, however, has refused to comment on the new diplomatic initiative in Kabul, insisting no official decision had been adopted.

Meanwhile, parliament will shortly sanction Kazbat's deployment in Afghanistan in early April. As for the 500 men who have gone through the first phase of selection, their ordeal has only just begun.

Erbol Jumagulov is an IWPR contributor

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