Foreign military assistance to Central Asia, part 2

Here is the conclusions and recommendations section of my policy brief on foreign military assistance to Central Asia. This is the second part of the brief. The first part was posted last week and the full text (including references) can be accessed on the SIPRI website. You can also read the entire working paper on which this policy brief is based.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Overall, external military assistance to Central Asian states is unlikely to have a serious negative impact on regional stability and security. With the end of the NATO operation in Afghanistan, the region’s decade-long position of prominence on the international arena is likely to fade. In its place, the states of the region will increasingly be left to their own devices, with internal instability the most serious threat that they face.

While external military assistance to Central Asia is likely to decline in the near future, it will not disappear. In this context, it is important to ensure that the assistance that is provided is not wasted and helps to improve the security situation in the region. In particular, steps will have to be taken to ensure that any such assistance does not enhance the ability of internal security forces to harm civilians. The following recommendations are targeted at changing the nature of security assistance in order to focus on improving human security in Central Asia.

Emphasize training

Training needs to be emphasized over the provision of military equipment. This is a lesson that the US Government has already learned to some extent, as it has in recent years shifted away from equipment donations and towards providing training in areas ranging from language instruction to combat operations. Shifting towards training will also help to avoid situations where equipment provided through foreign assistance is used against unarmed civilians, resulting in embarrassment or worse for the country providing the assistance.

Shifting to training will not entirely solve the issue of complicity in repressive activities, since forces trained through foreign assistance programmes have already been implicated in human rights violations in Central Asia. Human security in the region could be improved by shifting the focus of security training programmes from special forces units to policing work, and especially teaching internal security forces how to handle large groups of protesters without resorting to excessive violence.

As part of an effort to reduce smuggling of people, narcotics and weapons, both US and European security assistance programmes have emphasized border security initiatives. While these efforts are laudable, they have often focused on technical assistance, such as the donation of scanners and other detection equipment. Such equipment may not be useful when the bulk of cross-border smuggling in the region is sanctioned by local intermediaries with government ties or by government officials themselves. Training may help to ameliorate this problem to some extent, but it will not be solved without breaking the link between smuggling and high-level corruption. Assistance providers must recognize that, given local incentive structures, corruption-reduction initiatives will not eliminate corruption. However, the nature of local smuggling networks means that providing technical assistance for border security is a waste of money.

Multilateral initiatives

In order to improve human security in Central Asia, coordination among assistance-providing states is necessary. The effectiveness of security assistance to Central Asia is undermined by the perception among outside powers that other powers are providing this assistance as part of an effort to increase their influence in the region. The zero-sum nature of this competition is encouraged by local leaders, who play off outside powers against each other in an effort to preserve their own freedom of manoeuvre. While coordination will be difficult to achieve because of long-standing suspicions among assistance providers about each other’s intent, it is not an impossible goal. The key is to start with areas of mutual interest.

Such cooperation has the greatest chance of success in counternarcotics. All of the governments in the region are worried by the rapid increase in drug addiction in their countries. They also face relatively similar issues in their efforts to reduce drug smuggling and the corruption that it breeds. Existing regional information-sharing institutions provide a starting point for cooperation on the issue. As interaction leads to greater trust, more involved regional cooperation, such as multinational training events with Russian and US participation, may become acceptable to governments that now studiously avoid multilateral engagement. Eventually, these states may become willing to organize multinational counternarcotics exercises and operations.

If cooperation on counternarcotics is successful, planners can work to encourage Central Asian states to cooperate on critical energy infrastructure protection. Given existing sensitivities about sharing information with neighbours on potential security weaknesses, this effort should begin slowly. A good start would involve regional seminars on best practices in countries that have extensive experience with energy production in potentially vulnerable environments such as the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia or the USA. If this type of interaction leads to greater trust, regional collaboration could expand to include information-sharing about best practices and eventually joint projects to protect shared infrastructure such as pipelines, tankers transiting the Caspian Sea and offshore platforms located near borders. However, given the existing political relationships in the region, such efforts should be seen as a long-term target at best.

These recommendations are deliberately limited in their scope. Security assistance efforts by outside powers are unlikely to lead to significant improvements in regional security, given perceptions within and outside the region that these powers are engaged in a geopolitical competition for influence rather than a sincere effort to improve local conditions. Furthermore, the likely decline in attention paid to the region by outside powers after the completion of NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 will reduce the extent to which outside powers remain interested in the region. Other priorities will inevitably make it more difficult to change assistance policies toward the region. Recognizing these limitations, the relatively small steps described above would help to improve the impact of outside military assistance on human security in the region.

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