Kazakhstan is close to making it official -- the country's troops will return to Afghanistan.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hinted about it in December. Russian media jumped on her comments speculating on the role Kazakhstan's military might play alongside NATO forces in Afghanistan. And after Kazakhstan's lower house of parliament approved deployment on May 18, the Taliban are warning Kazakh authorities to stay out of Afghanistan or face unspecified retaliation.
Kazakhstan's contribution will not tip the scales in the Afghan conflict. Astana is offering as many as four servicemen variously described as being "officers" or "medics" -- perhaps both. Kazakhstan is not the first CIS country to send members of its armed forces to Afghanistan. Azerbaijan and Georgia have already done so and in greater numbers. It is not the first time Kazakh troops have been in a theater of war alongside Western forces. Kazakhstan rotated several groups of de-miners through Iraq.
But it is a symbolic gesture that balances Kazakhstan's relations with Russia, China, and the West. Kazakhstan held an early presidential election in April that Western allies grudgingly but rather quietly accepted, though incumbent Nursultan Nazarbaev received 95.5 percent of the vote. The event was made more unpalatable by the fact Kazakhstan had just held the OSCE chairmanship in 2010.
Sending four soldiers to Afghanistan as noncombatants could be seen as an "I'm sorry, let's keep doing business" from Astana to its Western friends. The lower house vote came the same day U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Mark Grossman arrived in Kazakhstan.
As for the Taliban threat, Kazakhstan's role in allowing NATO countries to ship nonlethal cargo to Afghanistan via its territory is far more valuable to NATO than a few Kazakh soldiers. Part of Grossman's trip to Central Asia (he also visited Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) was to convince the governments in these strategically located countries to allow more cargo to transit their countries as tensions continue between the United States and Pakistan. Soon, up to 75 percent of the food, fuel, and other items (excluding weapons and ammunition) NATO and Afghan government troops receive will have come through Kazakhstan.
Kazakh officials say they will rotate four-man teams through Afghanistan every six months. The upper house has not voted on it and the president would still need to approve it, but if Kazakhstan starts sending its "unit" to Afghanistan in 2012 it would mean 24 Kazakh servicemen would have been in country by the end of 2014 when the planned drawdown comes to an end.
A nice gesture, but hardly a game-changer.
-- Bruce Pannier