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Kyrgyz Plan New Model Army

Plan for professional army jeopardised by funding and coordination issues, say analysts.
By Аsyl Osmonalieva
A major overhaul of the Kyrgyzstan military has been broadly welcomed as long overdue, although some defence experts say lack of funding could hamper its implementation.



Defence Minister Bakytbek Kalyev announced a set of sweeping reforms at a press conference on October 27. Under the plan, the military is to be transformed from a conscript force into a largely professional force. As Kalyev put it, real military strength depends not on the sheer numbers of troops but on their agility.



Defence ministry staff numbers are to be cut, and a new arm of service introduced – the Mobile Forces – together with a counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency centre. Overall, the new army will have fewer generals, fewer commissioned officers, and only a fifth of the rank-and-file will be conscripted, with the rest taken on as volunteer professionals, known here as “contract soldiers”.



The reforms will take place in three stages, the first of which will be completed by June 2009, the second by the end of that year, with the final work to be done by 2012.



The need for change stems from a watershed event in Kyrgyzstan’s recent history. In 1999 and 2000, the southern region of Batken was the scene of incursions by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an armed guerrilla movement whose raids showed up the limitations of a Soviet-style conscript army, trained only for conventional warfare and unable to respond flexibly as every move depended on instructions sent down the chain of command.



Although the insurgents were eventually driven out, the army’s sluggish performance and poor state of readiness sparked significant debate and criticism in Kyrgyzstan.



The Kyrgyz authorities took the lessons from Batken on board, and increased defence spending and began training troops in counter-insurgency techniques and mountain warfare.



When he announcing the reform, Defence Minister Kalyev referred explicitly to the Batken experience.



“Events in Batken [in 1999], when 50 militants infiltrated the south of the country and 5,000 troops were sent to fight them, illustrated clearly that we needed a mobile and professional army,” he said.



As a retired general, Abdygany Chotbaev praises the defence ministry’s plans and agrees that the Batken conflict demonstrated that “it is better to have a well-trained mobile army than gunfodder”.



However, he adds a note of caution, “The transition to contract service has been talked about for more than ten years but no concrete steps have been taken to achieve it.”



Chotbaev questions whether the government will have the funds to pay for what is going to be a costly process.



“To be effective, contract soldiers need to be provided with housing, their children need to go to kindergartens and schools, and the soldiers need to be paid a decent wage,” he said. “All that is going to need major expenditure.”



The defence ministry has proposed one method of funding the professional army – the large number of young men who will no longer be conscripted will be regarded as performing alternative service, and will have to hand part of their civilian wages over to support the defence budget.



Chotbaev says the numbers just do not add up. “You only have to look at the high unemployment in this country to realise that any money paid by those on alternative service isn’t going to be enough to support the contract soldiers,” he explained.



A serving member of the military, who asked to remain anonymous, told IWPR that while it was desirable to have a professional army, it was not going to be easy to recruit enough men.



“Even as things stand, only half the contract soldier positions are filled. No one wants to join a service that pays 3,000 soms [80 US dollars a month]. Introducing [near-universal] contract service may prove to be too big a burden for the government budget.”



This source also asked why only the regular armed forces controlled by the defence ministry were going to be restructured, thus excluding the many other agencies that have their own troops or paramilitary forces – the interior ministry, the National Security Service, the border troops, the National Guard and the ministry for emergencies.



There was, he said, too much duplication of functions among these various forces. He said that when a government commission had recommended bringing all of them under one general staff, the idea met with strong resistance.



“All the agencies and ministries remain as fragmented as before, duplicating each other in some areas and competing in others,” he said. “I wouldn’t call this a reform – it looks more like a shake-up within one agency.”



Аsyl Osmonalieva is an IWPR-trained journalist in Bishkek.

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