Kyrgyz Army in Crisis

The lessons learned in two recent military campaigns have failed to usher major reforms of the cash-strapped Kyrgyz army

Kyrgyz Army in Crisis

The lessons learned in two recent military campaigns have failed to usher major reforms of the cash-strapped Kyrgyz army

Kyrgyzstan's standing army - which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year - is crippled by a shoestring budget, widespread corruption and a lack of political direction.

Two incursions by Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, fighters into the Batken province in 1999 and 2000 proved the Kyrgyz military ill-prepared to protect the country against attack.

And both politicians and military experts in Bishkek are calling for radical reforms in a bid to transform the army into an effective fighting force.

The Kyrgyz army was stripped of its major assets in the wake of independence. Russian pilots based in the former Soviet republic promptly flew their planes back home while the government sold military helicopters to India and armoured personnel carriers (APCs) to both warring sides in Tajikistan.

Left on the sidelines of state politics, the Kyrgyz armed forces have never had an official policy document. Alisher Abdimomunov, a former KGB colonel and now a parliamentary deputy, commented, "I have never seen this document just as I've never seen any other strategies for national security. I don't think it actually exists."

His opinion was echoed by Leonid Bondarets, a colonel of the reserve and a military expert at the Institute for Strategic Research, who said, "Nine years after independence, we have yet to establish a military credo or a command structure. There are no concrete guidelines for national defence or the actual role of the armed forces."

There is no doubt that the Kyrgyz government is well aware of the superior military potential of neighbouring states and the limits of its own economic, financial and even human resources. But, nevertheless, the army receives less than 50 per cent of the money it needs from the state.

In the 1998 budget, the government earmarked 0.52 per cent of the GNP for defence - a fraction of the 3-6 per cent spent on average by other countries worldwide.

Over the coming year, defence spending in Kyrgyzstan should total 525 million soms ($10.5 million) - enough to support the existing armed forces but leaving nothing for training reservists, buying new ordnance or repairing old equipment.

Experts agree that government funds are poorly distributed. In last year's autumn campaign, the defence ministry was granted an extra 236 million soms (around $5 million) - just under 50 per cent of the annual budget - which was spent on crushing a handful of Islamic guerrillas.

In the aftermath of the operation, which involved around 5,000 Kyrgyz troops, defence minister Esen Topoev claimed "three units, each consisting of 150 fighters, took part in the raid. Around 100 terrorists were killed." Each enemy casualty cost the government around $50,000.

Structurally, the Kyrgyz army has seen few changes over the last decade. Its backbone is made up of the Koitash and Osh brigades, formed in 1998 from the remnants of a Central Asian military district division. According to official figures, the armed forces currently number 12,000 men with another 3,000 in the border guard service.

Military analysts believe the army should be reformed around the concept of small, mobile fighting units acting with a large degree of autonomy from the central command structure. With more than 90 per cent of Kyrgyz territory covered by mountains, special forces should also be trained in mountain warfare with mounted cavalry deployed in areas inaccessible to tanks and APCs.

Currently, Kyrgyz troops operate according to Soviet army guidelines and the bulk of the officer corps is trained in Russian military institutions. However, the experts point out that Soviet strategy focuses on large-scale operations against regular armies rather than localised skirmishes against partisan units.

Guerrilla forces - such as the IMU - favour hit-and-run tactics rather than concerted thrusts aimed at breaking through a line of defence. Consequently, the reformers are calling for radical changes in Kyrgyz military strategy putting new emphasis on guerrilla warfare.

Alisher Abdimomunov, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, is presenting a bill to the Kyrgyz parliament which calls for local militias to be formed in mountain areas. "We need to use the experience of people who have been living in the rugged mountain regions all their lives," he said. "No special forces trained in mountain fighting can adapt to these conditions better than the people who actually live there."

Other proposed reforms include bolstering defences along the Kyrgyz state border which offered little resistance to the IMU fighters in 1999 and 2000 -- an initiative which would cost the government an estimated 74 million soms ($1.5 million).

The Kyrgyz Communist Party is urging the Bishkek authorities to accept military support from Russia which helped guard the Sino-Kyrgyz border until 1999.

Communist leader Absamat Masaliev said, "Only the Russian border guards can guarantee security on the border. Our overall strategy should place border defences firmly within the framework of military cooperation with Russia."

Meanwhile, a tentative alliance with NATO has proven disappointing. Kyrgyz military leaders hoped that participation in the Partnership for Peace programme would speed up the reform process in the army and obviate the need for substantial investment.

However, the defence ministry subsequently discovered that it was expected to pay dearly for the privilege - the cost of a NATO liaison officer alone was estimated at $50,000 a year.

Alisher Abdimomunov said, "There's no point in taking part just for the sake of it. And I don't believe this programme will have any positive reforming influence on our armed forces."

NATO military aid to Kyrgyzstan has also failed to live up to expectations. One analyst commented that it consisted of "old uniforms, boots and worn out socks" adding, "The Western communications equipment turned out to be incompatible with the Soviet models used by our army. It was free, I grant you, but it was also useless."

Russia, on the other hand, has been more forthcoming - and the current Kyrgyz defence minister, Colonel-General Topoev, is known to have a strong Russian bias.

Last but not least, corruption in the military commissariat has been blamed for severely weakening the Kyrgyz armed forces. Since wealthy families generally bribe officials to excuse their sons from military service, most conscripts come from underprivileged backgrounds and, as a rule, are poorly educated.

Abdimomunov commented, "In the old days, a family arranging a marriage would ask the groom's parents if he had served in the army. It was a matter of honour and they would only approve the union if he had completed his service.

"Now the very fact that a young man has served in the army indicates that he comes from a poor background. It means his parents were unable to buy him out. Our whole society is corrupt and the army is no exception. It's a symptom of the complete lack of reforms in the Kyrgyz military."

Certainly, most experts conclude that the Kyrgyz army has made little progress since 1998 and lacks the material and human resources to adequately protect the former Soviet republic. Even the two Batken campaigns failed to usher in any real changes in structure, strategy and tactics.

Military analyst Leonid Bondarets commented, "The two operations aimed at containing the conflict showed the armed forces to be largely ineffectual and failed to ensure against fresh incursions into Kyrgyz territory."

And Alisher Abdimomunov said, "The army is weak because our economy is weak. And also because the armed forces are led by people who have little idea what role the army should perform."

Igor Grebenshchikov is a regular IWPR contributor

Support our journalists