Leading international experts agree that Kazakhstan is well placed to ride out any new wave of religious extremism or terror that may hit Central Asia after the U.S. and allies pull out from Afghanistan next year. But the country isn’t taking its much-documented stability for granted: It has launched sweeping programs to modernize its legal system, as well as streamline and make state-of-the-art its national defense forces in the ongoing campaign to maintain full security and halt extremism.
Kazakhstan enjoys a privileged position, both geographically and strategically in the region, Thomas Sanderson, a leading expert on global patterns of terrorism at the Center for Security and International Studies in Washington, DC, told EdgeKz.
“The other four independent former Soviet republics in Central Asia provide two concentric lines of defense, or barriers that extremists from Afghanistan or other regions of the Middle East and South Asia would have to travel through successfully before they could reach Kazakhstan,” he said.
“Uzbekistan is a very difficult target for extremist forces to establish themselves in,” Sanderson said. “They may well try and their first targeted area there is likely to be the Fergana Valley. However, the security services of Uzbekistan are alert and highly effective. They would make it extremely difficult and unproductive for extremist elements to seek to traverse their country to try and reach Kazakhstan.”
Sanderson also pointed out that Russia has continued to maintain strong security ties in the region with such nations as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. It has defense commitments and guarantees with several of the Central Asian states through the Moscow-based Collective Security Treaty Organization. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are all members of the CSTO.
Sanderson said that most of the nations of Central Asia have shown themselves stable and resistant to Islamist terrorism. “Kyrgyzstan is an interesting case,” he said. “The Kyrgyz were alarmed three years ago by the ethnic rioting between majority Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks in the southern cities of Osh and Jalalabad three years ago. But that quickly died down and there has been no recurrence of it.”
Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev, who has cultivated close economic and security ties with both Kazakhstan and Russia, has so far done an effective job of balancing and satisfying different interest groups in that country, he said.”The Russians are being very supportive in Kyrgyzstan and developments there have been encouraging,” Sanderson said.
However, Sanderson warned that the withdrawal of NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) from Afghanistan by the end of next year would free up thousands of Islamist militants who would view the pullout as a victory and an opportunity to spread their cause further afield. However, he said. Kazakhstan and most of Central Asia did not appear to be a priority target for such activities.
“ISAF has been their number one target,” he told EdgeKz. “The big question, therefore is, after Afghanistan, where do they go next?” The four most likely activities for extreme jihadi forces in Central and South Asia in the coming years, Sanderson said, are occupying the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan, seeking to topple the government of Pakistan, reviving mujahedeen guerrilla activity against India across the Line of Control in Kashmir and trying to take over the government of Afghanistan in Kabul. However, Sanderson warned that all four of these targeted states had formidable defense forces and political resources.
In any case, the government of Kazakhstan is determined to maintain its status as a bastion of peace, security and peaceful economic progress in the heart of Eurasia. On December 12, the country’s parliament adopted a new law on state borders. The law set up a new border protection commission to advise the government and upgraded the personal and professional standards for Border Service officers and troops. Now, potential recruits are screened with psychological and lie detector tests. On January 30, it was reported that no less than 16,000 police officers had been expelled by the Ministry of Internal Affairs as not meeting the more demanding new standards.
The government has also been working to create improved inter-agency cooperation in the fight against terror, a lesson U.S. law enforcement services learned the hard way after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The government is also on guard against any attitude of complacency, NurtaiAbykayev, Chairman of the National Security Committee told a meeting of border security commanders from the 12 Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in Astana earlier this year.
“Growing threats to stability in the region highlight the need for us to further consolidate our efforts. We are troubled by the continuing activity of terrorist and extremist organizations in the region, especially in the run-up to the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan,” Abykayev said. He said increased cross-border cooperation was the key to fighting such transnational threats as terrorism and drug trafficking.
Kazakhstan’s new Law on Terrorism passed in January 2013 “is by no means simply a paper tiger,” analyst Roger McDermott wrote in the Eurasia Daily Monitor, published by the Jamestown Foundation, in Washington, DC, in April. The new law “represents clear efforts to modernize the country’s approach to defining and combatting terrorism. It also builds on agreements signed by Kazakhstan’s leadership on countering terrorism within the context of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Convention on Terrorism (June 16, 2009) and a model law discussed by the inter-parliamentary assembly of the CIS on Dec. 3, 2009,” he continued.
MacDermott noted that the new law recognizes the importance of enlisting the general public as its ally against the threat and of taking care to respect human rights and civil liberties in all counter-terrorism operations and preventive measures.
The government has, therefore, taken the decision to launch “a large-scale outreach or information campaign to explain to the Kazakhstan public the following key points: the dangers of terrorism, exposing its various forms and mechanisms, the methods used by terrorists to recruit and disseminate their ideology of political violence, and consequently offers the development of a ‘civic consciousness,’ facilitating cooperation between the security forces and citizens to reduce the social basis of support for terrorism,” MacDermott wrote. He said “this appeal to civil society to help combat terrorism… makes this law unique within Central Asia.”
Other Western experts told EdgeKz that the government of Kazakhstan was correct to recognize the primary importance of maintaining good economic conditions and enlisting the general population as its partner. “The economic dimension is the single most important factor in all the case studies we have conducted across the Middle East and Asia,” Arnaud de Borchgrave, director of the CSIS Transnational Threats Project in Washington, DC, told EdgeKz. “Are young people hopeful and optimistic about the future?” de Borchgrave asked. “That is always the most crucial factor in making most of the younger members of a general population resistant to the calls of extremist militants.”
The government of Kazakhstan shares this perspective. Over the past six months, it has moved fast to open new economic programs and factories to create jobs and create new social centers in the city of Zhanaozhen after disturbances there in December 2011, and has engaged in a major effort to develop other so called single-industry towns.
Richard Weitz, director of the Center for Political and Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, DC, told EdgeKz that the government of Kazakhstan was also applying this economic dimension of security to regional issues as well its own domestic concerns.”The Kazakhs genuinely want to promote a peaceful settlement and economic growth and recovery in Afghanistan,” he said. “They view the ISAF withdrawal, with all its attendant potential dangers, as also containing the seeds of hope for the region. They are looking forward to a peaceful negotiated solution after which they want to work with whatever new government emerges in Kabul to help its society and economy recover from the long years of war.”
“Kazakhstan already provides Afghanistan with subsidized food, fuel, agricultural seeds and other vital supplies,” Weitz said. “It also trains Afghan internal security personnel; and offers training to hundreds of Afghan economists, engineers and other specialists in its own educational centers… Kazakhstan has financed the building of new bridges, schools, hospitals, water supplies and even roads in Afghanistan,” he added.
The struggle to defuse the conflict in Afghanistan also has a diplomatic dimension for Kazakhstan. Earlier this year, the country hosted in Almaty, its largest city, the Third Ministerial Conference of the Istanbul Process on Afghanistan. More than 50 delegations led by the foreign ministers of the participating states attended the event which was co-chaired by Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov and Afghanistan’s Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul. The gathering endorsed six new implementation plans of confidence building measures in the strife-torn country.
Kazakhstan’s fight against terror is, therefore, being waged on a multi-front strategy that involves increased international security and diplomatic cooperation, a streamlined and modernized national defense force and the passage of extensive new legislation that was drafted after studying the most effective laws dealing with the threat in other countries. Kazakhstan’s optimistic and peaceful multi-vector foreign policy remains focused on fostering globalization and increased foreign direct investment (FDI) in the years ahead. However, the Kazakhs understand it isn’t enough to wish for peace. You have to invest heavily in protecting it and maintaining it. And they are doing just that.