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Force Is Not the Way to Meet Central Asia's Islamist Threat
Force Is Not the Way to Meet Central Asia's Islamist Threat
What Does Kazakhstan’s New Military Doctrine Reveal about Its Relations with Russia?
What Does Kazakhstan’s New Military Doctrine Reveal about Its Relations with Russia?

Force Is Not the Way to Meet Central Asia's Islamist Threat

Originally published in International New York Times

The Taleban’s crazy destruction of Afghanistan’s heritage is not the only new problem in Central Asia. Further north, concern is mounting about Islamist revolutionaries, apparently inspired and supported by the Taleban and Osama bin Laden’s terrorists (and some drug smugglers for good measure) seeking to topple the post-Soviet regimes in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Insurgents and government troops have been battling for two summers. Terrorist attacks have included bombs meant to kill President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan and kidnapping of Japanese and Americans. Support for extremism is growing among a population traditionally highly respectful of authority.

Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are trying to coordinate security. The big powers are taking interest. China, fearful of encouragement for the revolt among Muslims in its Xinjiang-Uyghur Region, is a major supplier of military aid.

Russia, spooked by its Chechnya experience and determined to draw a line against new Islam-driven instability, is providing troops to patrol the Tajik-Afghan border. The United States, worried that Mr. bin Laden or the Taleban may gain new adherents, sent last year a stream of high level visitors.

There is certainly plenty to be concerned about. Unless trends are reversed, the nightmares of both the regional governments and the major powers could acquire some real substance.

It is time, however, to take stock of just how serious the Islamist threat is. The International Crisis Group, active in the region since August, thinks much of the danger is the product of policy misjudgement and overreaction from the regional governments themselves.

Islam reasserted itself in Central Asia as the Soviet Union collapsed. This was tolerated initially but the ruling elites in the new states, little changed from Soviet days, soon concluded that independent Islamic activities threatened their power. They cracked down heavily on any religion-related activity not controlled by the semi-official religious administrations established in Soviet times.

The governments justify repression by pointing to real enemies, especially the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which pledges to overthrow the region’s strongest government, and operates on the territory of all three. The focus for President Imamali Rahmonov of Tajikistan remains the United Tajik Opposition, the partly Islamic coalition that fought a civil war from 1992-1997.

All three governments profess concern about Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a movement that wants to restore the Caliphate, the religious state which once united Muslim lands - and, of course, about the Taleban and Mr. bin Laden.

But the evidence suggests that the threat is being overstated. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has only 1,000 fighters. A senior Uzbek official admitted privately that claims of an partnership between the movement and Hizb-ut-Tahrir are propaganda. Ethnic differences prevent much cooperation the movement and the Taleban, with which regional governments are making their own accommodations.

What is evident is growing repression of all Islamic activity not under tight government control. Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s claim that 50,000 to 100,000 Muslims are in Uzbek concentration camps is unconfirmed, but the government acknowledges camps, and International Crisis Group’s fieldwork indicates that arrests have been occurring on a large scale.

Hardly a young practising Uzbek Muslim is without a story of harassment. Entire villages increasingly define themselves in opposition to the state.

Citizens have not yet fully identified with the revolutionaries but the disaffected increase daily. Moreover, economies are badly depressed. Rural distress exacerbated by drought and growing gaps between rich and poor add classic pre-revolutionary elements.

If concerns over terrorism, drugs, and the Taleban lead the West to acquiesce in suppression, there is a risk of repeating the Iran experience, where foreign support for an unpopular leader fostered worse leadership and provoked outright antagonism toward the West.

Policy makers must distinguish real from imagined dangers. Central Asian governments are at risk but military aid and border controls are unlikely to help. The most useful support is economic and the best security measure each local government is to practice greater tolerance and more democracy.

Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

What Does Kazakhstan’s New Military Doctrine Reveal about Its Relations with Russia?

Originally published in Eurasianet

Without much ado, Kazakhstan adopted a new military doctrine in September, replacing a 2011 document that had become dated. The new document states that Kazakhstan does not have enemies. Yet, Astana seems alarmed enough by Russia’s aggressive actions toward Ukraine since 2014 to have produced a doctrine that is an obvious reaction to Moscow’s hybrid warfare tactics, which include cyber-disruption and propaganda.

Kazakhstan is not alone in sensing that it now lives in a rapidly changing security environment that demands new policies. Belarus, another neighbor of Russia, introduced a new military doctrine in July 2016. But while Belarus made explicit that it is reacting to Ukraine’s fight against Russian-backed separatists and Moscow’s use of hybrid warfare, Kazakhstani authorities have not commented publicly on changes to their military doctrine.

Still, similarities between the new Kazakhstani and Belarussian doctrines abound, and it is not difficult to see the origin of  Astana’s threat assessment. Kazakhstan shares a 7,500-kilometer land border with Russia and northern Kazakhstan is home to a significant Russian minority with deep roots in the region. Though their numbers are dwindling, Russians still account for roughly 20 percent of Kazakhstan’s population. Much to Astana’s irritation, the area is romanticized by some Russian politicians as still being Russian territory. In January 2017, a State Duma deputy, Pavel Shperov, suggested the Kazakhstani-Russian border was not a permanent fixture and that Kazakhstani territory was merely on loan to Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan pursues a multi-vector foreign policy with Russia, China and the European Union as its main partners. Balancing these relationships allow it to demonstrate that it has the political clout to act more independently of Russia than other Central Asian states.

Kazakhstan pursues a multi-vector foreign policy with Russia, China and the European Union as its main partners.

Still, Astana and Moscow remain very close allies, bound by economic ties through the Eurasian Economic Union and militarily through the Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO, which also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The CSTO functions as much as a vehicle for Russia’s bilateral security agendas with fellow member states as it does as collective entity. As an organization, it has also redefined what it sees as security threats -- a process that began after the pro-democracy “color” revolutions in Georgia, 2003, Ukraine, 2004, and Kyrgyzstan, 2005. Analysis and recommendations from the CSTO played a pivotal role in shaping Russia’s own military doctrine of 2014, after the annexation of Crimea.

The alleged basis of Russia’s actions in Ukraine is a self-proclaimed doctrine under which Moscow can act as the protector of the rights of Russians experiencing alleged discrimination wherever they may be. The circumstances that prevailed in Ukraine prior to the start of Russian meddling in 2014 are not evident in present-day Kazakhstan. Russia’s concern that Ukraine was drifting toward the EU’s orbit was an underlying motivation for its actions in 2014. There is no reason for Moscow to worry that Astana is tilting toward the EU these days. Meanwhile, the Russian minority in Kazakhstan experiences little or no discrimination.

Just because the circumstances are different, doesn’t mean Kazakhstan isn’t vulnerable. Astana should recognize that national and ethnic unity since independence in 1991 is a thin construction, far too dependent on fealty to President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Kazakhstan’s new military doctrine is explicit about the risks to its borders and also the potential for an outside party to manipulate ethnic populations inside Kazakhstan.

Alongside the outward-looking nature of Kazakhstan’s 2017 military doctrine, there is sharp focus on internal threats. Nazarbayev in the past three years has undertaken measures to strengthen the government, bolster the economy and to resist firmly any speculation that a Ukrainian scenario could happen in Kazakhstan. When citizens protested against plans to lease farm land to Chinese investors in May 2016, Nazarbayev issued a stark rebuke, using Ukraine as an example of what can go wrong if protests get out of hand.

Kazakhstan’s new military doctrine is explicit about the risks to its borders and also the potential for an outside party to manipulate ethnic populations inside Kazakhstan.

Nationalism is growing nonetheless. It not only showed itself during the May 2016 land protests, but also in long-term trends such as renaming previously Russian-language place names to Kazakh. Some Russian politicians see Kazakhstan’s move to Latinize the Kazakh alphabet, which is currently written in Cyrillic, as an anti-Russian move. It is indeed a highly symbolic gesture, one that a Western diplomat described as an act of defiance and post-Soviet national identity-building.

The Russian language has equal status in Kazakhstan, but Kazakh is ascendant, and knowledge of it is required for government jobs. It’s also worth noting that not one of Kazakhstan's ministers has an ethnic Russian background.

Astana has sought to manage its relationship with Moscow as an equal partnership. Its success in doing so is largely attributable to Nazarbayev, who has led Kazakhstan since independence. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Putin was a KGB functionarynt, while Nazarbayev was the already powerful and ambitious First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. With Nazarbayev turning 78 years old next year, a transition in the vast but sparsely populated Central Asian state is inevitable. The crisis in Ukraine has brought into focus the risks of any sort of transition or internal instability in Russia’s neighborhood.

As Nazarbayev ages, political transition is inevitable and unless handled smoothly that transition could be destabilizing. The Kremlin’s military doctrine and its foreign policies are premised on Russia exerting itself as a great power with historical privileges. Kazakhstan understands that in the long-term it could be vulnerable to Moscow’s expansionist tendencies. Its new military doctrine addresses that external risk in a clear-headed and robust manner. But when it comes to the domestic challenges that could provide the very opening required for an assertive foreign power to gain a foothold, Kazakhstan still appears to be sleepwalking.