Accessibility links

Kazakhstan: Analysis From Washington -- Not Refighting The Last War

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 14 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakhstan has begun restructuring its military away from a Soviet-era model in order to meet the new and very different challenges that country now faces, a process now taking place among all former Soviet republics in Central Asia.

Speaking to his generals last Friday, Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev said the army must change and change quickly. In Soviet times, he said, the army was prepared for a big war. "We were ready to fight NATO, then we were ready to fight China, and everything that officers were taught and all the training soldiers received were aimed at fighting an all-out war," he said.

But "today's necessities are very different," he continued saying the army must respond both doctrinally and organizationally. It must be prepared to meet "dangers arising from terrorism, extremism, and armed groups as well as crime related to drug trafficking."

On the one hand, Nazarbayev's efforts at military reforms represent an entirely natural attempt to avoid refighting the last war. Most field-grade officers in his army rose through the ranks of the Soviet military and continue to view the world with the mindset of that now-defunct institution. As a result, Kazakhstan's army increasingly has become more of a burden to the state than an asset the political elite can use.

But on the other hand, Nazarbayev's call for redefining and refocusing his country's military raises some disturbing questions about how he and several other Central Asian leaders view the current situation in that region and where they plan to try to take their countries in the near future.

Most of the challenges Nazarbayev outlined -- preventing terrorist acts, combating illegal drug trafficking, and opposing extremism -- are addressed by the militaries in other countries only when these problems are beyond the capacity of police and domestic security services.

By suggesting that the military should be re-geared to address these problems rather than that funds now going to the army should be transferred to police units, Nazarbayev implies that conditions in his country are far more risky than he has said in the past and suggests that he plans to rely on the military as an institution to maintain order.

If conditions are in fact as bad as his comments suggest, Nazarbayev and the other leaders of the Central Asian countries face a truly difficult task of maintaining control. But if he and they are seeking to exploit the situation to justify building up the military rather than the more normal judicial functions of the state, then his citizens and the citizens of neighboring countries may face an even more problematic future.

The "big war" threats of the past have largely evaporated. But precisely because they have, the choice he and other regional leaders face is not whether to transform the military but whether to continue to rely on a revamped army rather than to shift resources from the armed forces toward the police and criminal justice system.

Not only does that have consequences for the development of civil societies in these countries, but it could set the stage for regional arms races and conflicts among the countries of this region which might eventually draw in outside powers as well.

Over the past several years, border disputes among the five Central Asian countries -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- have become increasingly sharp, with negotiations often failing and with the governments of some backing insurgencies against others. In such an environment, changes in force structures of the kind Nazarbayev proposes could contribute to stability.

But far more likely, the existence of such forces could tempt one or another regional leader to put them in play, thus transforming clashes at the borders into something larger. If that were to occur, it is extremely likely that outside powers might become involved. And that in turn could easily spark a broader conflict.

Efforts to avoid refighting the last war are inevitable once the nature of the threat has changed, but history suggests that preparations for new challenges may sometimes create the conditions in which capabilities are transformed into intentions and in which forces prepared for peacetime operations can ultimately lead to war.