Kazakstan Bolsters Defences

Having taken a good hard look at its neighbors, Kazakstan has decided to begin serious work on improving its national security.

Kazakstan Bolsters Defences

Having taken a good hard look at its neighbors, Kazakstan has decided to begin serious work on improving its national security.

Kazakstan President Nursultan Nazarbaev, concerned at a series of incursions by Islamic rebels in neighbouring states, is beefing up his armed forces.

Defence spending is to be raised. It will account for at least one per cent of gross domestic product next year, the first time a fixed minimum has been set in the budget. Other sources of financing have already been found for border and customs services.

A three year call-up of reserve officers has begun, many of them specialists who have already undergone military training at higher education establishments, according to the Russian agency ITAR-TASS, which quotes sources within the Kazak Defence Ministry. A program of army reform and construction is also under way, including the formation of military districts.

"New mobile armed units are being created in response to the specifics of conflicts in recent times," Nazarbaev told the opening session of parliament this month.

The measures are being taken following incursions by Islamic extremists in neighboring Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan at the beginning of August. In Kyrgyzstan's Batken region, the military says at least 24 soldiers have been killed in the fighting.

At the end of August a group of Islamic gunmen attacked border post in Bostanlyk district, 110 km from the Uzbek capital, Tashkent - bringing the fighting closer to Kazakstan.

The danger of Islamic militants entering Kazakstan is increased by the presence in the south of the republic of fundamentalist Wahhabi groups as well as Islamic spiritual establishments, adhering to orthodox Islam.

Founded on the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, Wahhabis reject the veneration of saints and holy places, calling for a purification of Islam. They are thought to be involved in the fighting in Batken. Southern Kazakstan is deeply impoverished and is seen as a fertile breeding ground for the Islamic militants.

"The internal affairs bodies in Southern Kazakstan have been put on alert. Special groups of the border and home armed forces are controlling the border territory of the region. During the course of training in the southern and eastern military districts, military actions in mountainous areas are being developed," Kazak Minister for Foreign Affairs, Erlan Idrisov, said.

The Kazak leadership has been paying a great deal of attention to developing its national defence this year. In February, a presidential decree introduced a new military doctrine for the country. This was reviewed at a session of the Security Council at the beginning of June, when army reforms and a state program for military construction up until the year 2005 were approved.

But the programme is likely to be fraught with difficulty. Kazak and foreign experts note the low levels of combat readiness, mobile resources and military training in the Kazak army. In their view, "the present, unprepared army, is incapable of effectively defending the interests of Kazakstan. There is a very clear absence of military training amongst the soldiers and officers."

The economic crisis has taken its toll on the defence industry. The armed forces are short of necessary arms and equipment. Increasingly, military equipment and weapons are being put into long-term storage and frequently sold off.

The management system of the army is inefficient. There is no clear distinction between the mandates of the Defence Ministry and the headquarters of the armed forces. The frequent changes in the leadership of the Defence Ministry and the armed forces headquarters have led to frequent changes in military construction policies.

The officer corps faces serious problems. Many qualified military personnel have either left for Russia or other CIS countries, or they have been retired into the reserve forces. Filling out the army establishment with graduates from higher education and military institutes has, as yet, not brought any serious results. The level of training in the military academies and institutes of Kazakstan is also a cause for concern.

There are also problems with the conscription programme. Many of those called-up attempt to avoid service by buying off military personnel, by using false medical exemptions, and by leaving for other states. The morale of the army is at a low ebb. Mistreatment of privates by officers is widespread, orders from commanding officers are frequently ignored, there is a worrying incidence of desertion, and crime is rife. Nationalism, regionalism and tribalism are also evident.

Military personnel endure poor financial and social conditions. The pay is low and previously available benefits and guarantees have been removed, leading to growing discontent amongst the officer corps, with many officers simply leaving the army.

The state lacks a clear vision on how to develop its armed forces. The newly adopted military doctrine of Kazakstan is largely a theoretical document, and contains little precise planning. Critics fear the programme will lead to a variety of unconnected and sometimes conflicting instructions.

The former deputy defence minister, Major-General Aitkali Isengulov, believes that the creation of military districts will not resolve the problems facing military construction in the republic. In his view, "the main bulk of financial resources will be used up on renovating or building the headquarters for the military districts, creating communications links, command posts and other support and servicing sites. If that is the case, then nothing will be left for military training and the supply of military personnel."

What is happening to Kazakstan's closest neighbors, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, should also be taken into account. The first serious confrontations between their forces and the Islamic militants have shown the weakness of the training of the government forces in mountainous terrain, and their poor manoeuvrability. As a result, this "little" war in Central Asia is beginning to take on a prolonged character. Kazakstan needs to take note of the dangers. Uzbekistan has 254,114 men under arms, with a total of 5,012,944 under full mobilisation. The corresponding figures for Kazakstan are much lower - 155,767 and 3,550,645.

There are serious question marks hanging over Kazakstan's national defence system, in terms of its ability to react in good time to threats to the state, provide for the security of its borders and the internal territories of the republic and resist potential attacks from military-political opponents. In order for these problems to be overcome a unified complex of measures needs to be adopted. Otherwise, there may be many who wish to test the soundness of Kazakstan's defence capabilities.

Andrei Chebotarev is analyst with the Agency for Political Research in Almaty

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