Foreign military assistance to Central Asia

My SIPRI-OSF working paper and policy brief on external support for Central Asian military and security forces are finally out. They seem to have been somewhat buried on the SIPRI website, so it seems worthwhile to highlight some of the key findings here. I am putting up the first half of the policy brief here today and will post the conclusions and recommendations section next week.

I encourage those interested in the topic to read the full report.

Summary

As the drawdown of foreign forces from Afghanistan has accelerated in the run-up to their withdrawal by the end of 2014, attention has come to focus on the extent to which military equipment will be left behind for the use of the Central Asian states.

Over the past decade, Russia and the United States have been the main sources of military assistance to Central Asian states, while other countries have played much smaller roles. The USA is in the process of reducing its assistance to the region as it completes its withdrawal from Afghanistan. Russia is likely to remain the main source of military and security assistance for most Central Asian states.

External military assistance to Central Asian states is unlikely to have a serious negative impact on regional stability and security. Internal instability is the most serious threat that these states are likely to face. Steps will have to be taken to ensure that future assistance does not enhance the ability of internal security forces to harm civilians. This can be accomplished by focusing on training programmes over the provision of military equipment.

Introduction

As the drawdown of foreign forces from Afghanistan has accelerated in the run-up to their withdrawal by the end of 2014, attention has come to focus on the extent to which military equipment will be left behind for the use of the Central Asian states—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. At the same time, recent agreements to extend Russian military basing agreements in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have highlighted the extent to which Russia is providing military equipment and other forms of security assistance to states in the region. This raises questions about the actual extent of external support for military and security forces in Central Asia and the potential impact that augmentation of these forces could have on regional security. This issue has become especially salient as all of these states have recently increased spending on their military and security forces to varying extents, which has in turn led to a gradual increase in capabilities.

Assistance from Russia

Russia remains the main source of military and security assistance for most Central Asian states. Its primary goal in the region is to keep the Central Asian states in the Russian sphere of influence while making sure that United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces leave the region after the completion of the operation in Afghanistan. Russian military assistance to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the weaker Central Asian states, can be described as a quid pro quo arrangement, whereby Russia provides political and military support for the ruling regimes in exchange for basing rights and a certain level of acquiescence with Russian foreign policy priorities in the region.

Although Russian military and security assistance to Central Asian states is relatively limited in scale, the low starting capabilities of the Central Asian military and security forces mean that even relatively limited assistance can have a sizeable impact on security and stability in the region. This impact is likely to be mixed in the future. On the one hand, efforts to create a unified air defence system and to improve counterterrorism and counterinsurgency capabilities are likely to help local armed forces protect their countries from the threat of infiltration by radical Islamist groups. On the other hand, the extent of this danger to Central Asian security has been repeatedly overstated, by both local leaders and their Russian partners, in order to justify assistance requests and subsequent security cooperation.

Most local leaders face a greater threat from internal instability and regime collapse than from outside infiltration. Especially in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the 2011–12 electoral protests in Russia, Russian and Central Asian leaders see regime stability as their highest security priority. To the extent that Russia provides equipment and training to security services without regard for how such assistance may be used, it may prove to be useful for helping local leaders protect themselves from popular protests by repressing internal opposition movements.

Reductions in Equipment Transfers from the United States

For much of the past decade, ensuring continued access for transferring supplies and personnel to Afghanistan has been the highest priority for the United States in Central Asia. Other goals—including counterterrorism, counternarcotics and promotion of democracy—have been pursued, but only rarely have they been allowed to infringe on the priority of the Afghanistan mission. The US track record in providing military equipment to Central Asian states is relatively poor. Many previous donations of equipment were wasted because of inadequate maintenance or a lack of training in their use.

In a period of reduced budgets and limited resources, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan will inevitably result in a decreased emphasis on all forms of assistance to Central Asia. The region will once again become a relatively low priority for the US Department of Defense. Security assistance budgets for states in the region have already been cut in recent years and are likely to be cut further in years to come.

Central Asian leaders sense that the withdrawal period presents a final opportunity to receive significant amounts of military assistance from the USA. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are most interested in such equipment. In contrast, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have the financial wherewithal to buy new equipment and are not very interested in donations of used armaments.

Much of the discussion about the extent of US assistance has overstated both the amount and significance of equipment likely to be provided and the potential impact of such assistance on regional security. To date, the US Government has not agreed to transfer any excess defence equipment from the Afghanistan operation to Central Asian states. While it is likely that at some point in the future at least some equipment will be transferred to Central Asian states under the US Excess Defense Articles (EDA) programme, it is not likely to include major weapon systems or even small arms. The security consequences of such donations will be limited.

The greater threat to regional security is posed not by the potential provision of excess military equipment from NATO forces leaving Afghanistan, but by long-standing US training programmes for the region’s special forces, as part of an effort to increase counterterrorism preparedness. In recent years, special forces troops trained by the US military have engaged in combat against local insurgents and have fired on unarmed protesters and other civilians in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and possibly Kazakhstan. Training programmes such as these are much less costly to the donor than equipment donations and are more likely to be maintained as part of general US military assistance programming after NATO leaves the region.

The Role of European Union Member States and Other Actors

While Russia and the USA are the primary providers of military and security assistance to Central Asian states, other countries also play a role in the region. The European Union (EU) and its member states have been particularly active in efforts to improve local capacity in counternarcotics and border control. The European defence industry has also become the preferred alternative for Central Asian states seeking to diversify their sources of military equipment.8 Turkey has sought to use its cultural ties with the region to establish a role as a senior partner, albeit with mixed success. India has made an effort to hedge against China and Pakistan, its traditional rivals, by seeking to establish a military presence in Tajikistan, although this effort has met with little success to date. China’s role, while limited, has been most significant from a strategic point of view. While China has quickly come to dominate regional economic life, it has limited its role in Central Asian military and security affairs in order to avoid alienating both Russia and local populations.

One thought on “Foreign military assistance to Central Asia

  1. Pingback: Foreign military assistance to Central Asia, part 2 | Russian Military Reform

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