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Central Asia: Joint Military Exercise Deemed A Success

Washington, 26 September 1997 (RFE/RL) -- An American scholar, two top-level U.S. administration officials, and a Naval officer say the joint military exercise held this month in Central Asia was an important success and a critical step in reinforcing the political and military sovereignty of the nations in the region.

The exercise called "Centrazbat '97" took place from September 15 to 21 in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Eight nations participated: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Russia, Turkey, Latvia, Georgia, and the United States.

More than 1,300 troops took part in the exercise, which was called by officials at the U.S. Atlantic Command, the "longest-distance airborne operation in history." Approximately 500 American and 40 Centrasbat troops flew non-stop to Kazakhstan, covering a distance of more than 13,000 kilometers to engage in complex air and ground operations with the participating nations.

The event grew out of a request from "Centrasbat," or the Central Asia Battalion -- a security organization formed about a year ago by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan with the aim of training and readying military units for future multi-national peacekeeping and humanitarian missions.

Jim Goodby, a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a professor at a university in the northeastern state of Pennsylvania, told RFE/RL that the Centrazbat exercise was important for a number of reasons.

"These sorts of exercises are good not only in terms of developing military to military relations, like developing an understanding of operational practices and the inter-operability of equipment and communications ... [but] politically, the exercises are perhaps even more useful because they tell Russia that [these countries] can be a part of an integrated force structure, which is the main and central feature of NATO," says Goodby.

Goodby says that Russia is still "nervous" about having anything connected with NATO operating out of what used to be the heartland of the Soviet Union, even if it was invited to participate. He adds that he believes this is why the exercise was touted as being "in the spirit of the Partnership for Peace" rather than an actual Partnership for Peace effort.

"The subliminal message is that this is simply a confidence building exercise. But for all intents and purposes, frankly, this was [a Partnership for Peace] kind of exercise," says Goodby.

Goodby says the U.S. has another agenda for participating in the exercise, beyond just helping the countries of the former Soviet Union learn how to protect themselves.

The interest is oil, says Goodby.

He says that Kazakhstan and the Caucasus nations border on what is "probably the largest proven oil reserve in the world."

"Central Asia is enormously important -- as important, probably, as the Middle East in terms of our oil needs," Goodby says.

Some top officials in the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton seem to agree.

Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Catherine Kelleher is quoted in the American newspaper the Washington Post as saying that U.S. presence in the exercise was justified because of the "potential for conflict," in the region, as well as "the presence of enormous energy resources."

Kelleher, who observed the exercise in Central Asia, also said that the U.S. wanted to see "independent, sovereign states that are able to defend themselves."

U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan A. Elizabeth Jones also told the newspaper that the oil reserves in the area would be useful as "a backup" to those of the Middle East, but that the main purpose of the exercise was military, not economic, in nature.

Kevin Stephens, a U.S. Navy officer who participated in "Centrazbat '97," told RFE/RL the exercise was one of the "greatest experiences of his professional life."

Stephens says he considers the exercise to have been "very successful" both in terms of the actual events as well as in the "opening and broadening of relationships between all the participating nations."

He says the troops experienced some minor difficulties and problems during the exercise, but that it was considered normal since people were coming from vastly different cultural backgrounds and upbringings.

Stephens says he was impressed by the level of professionalism displayed by the military units from Central Asia.

"They worked really hard. They have a different set of standards than those of the U.S. and are used to doing things differently .... They don't always agree with us, and they aren't going to do things the way we automatically think things should be done. But that's all right ... I think the idea is that we can all work together and take the best of what we each have to offer," he says.

Stephens says one particular part of the exercise stands out in his mind -- not a military maneuver, but a social occurrence.

"I recall one night when the troops were watching a traditional Central Asian folk dance. Suddenly, the soldiers from all these different nations stood up, linked arms and began dancing together. It was amazing," says Stephens.

He adds: "I think [the exercise] demonstrated that we can have healthy, working military to military relationships with people who are our former adversaries. I think it also showed the U.S. and Russia that although we sometimes have disagreements on things like NATO expansion and other issues -- when it is clear that our issues are [alike], as they were in Central Asia, we can have a good military relationship."