Throughout the United States’ 13-year war in Afghanistan, the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan has been a reliable partner, offering assistance ranging from transit routes for U.S. troops, to airspace for non-lethal U.S. supply missions and money to help educate a generation of Afghan children whose lives offer a new promise for their war-torn country.
The Kazakh Parliament fiercely debated sending troops into Afghanistan in 2012 to assist the U.S. mission, but the nation’s leaders ultimately opted against it, reasoning that Kazakhstan’s status as a neutral actor in the region was too important to sacrifice. But as the U.S. government dramatically reduces its military footprint in Afghanistan, Kazakhstan is stepping up to help ensure stability in the critical Central Asian region.
Five years ago, U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan had peaked at about 140,000. Today, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has slashed that number to about 10,600. About 5,000 of those troops were scheduled to leave by the end of this year, with the rest expected to return home in 2016.
But in February, the Pentagon announced that it may keep U.S. troop levels stable in Afghanistan at about 10,000 to help reinforce Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s promising new security strategy. About 2,000 U.S. troops are still conducting counterterrorism missions in Afghanistan, and Pentagon leaders have argued for a continued aggressive stance against Al-Qaida and Islamic State militants.
Galymzhan Kirbassov, a lecturer at Columbia University and a member of the Journalists and Writers Foundation at the United Nations, said security concerns in Central Asia following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan are quite real.
“The withdrawal from Afghanistan will definitely affect security conditions in Kazakhstan and Central Asian countries,” Kirbassov said. “Some terrorist groups that operated in Afghanistan have relocated to Pakistan after the U.S. invasion, but now they are highly likely to move back again.”
Kirbassov also noted that opium production – a key element of terrorism financing in the Central Asia – has reached record high levels recently in Afghanistan.
“Radical groups will finance their activities through smuggling drugs through northern neighbors,” he said. “Previously established networks of drug smuggling are still operational and will be used extensively.”
But Kirbassov also said that among Central Asian nations, Kazakhstan, in particular, has been vigilant in protecting against drug trafficking and religious extremism. For example, Kazakhstan has established the Central Asian Regional Information and Coordination Center for Combating Illicit Trafficking of Narcotic Drugs, Psychotropic Substances and their Precursors in Almaty. The organization allows the countries of the region to cooperate in their fight against drug trafficking.
“Kazakhstan has passed several laws on fight against terrorism,” he said. “These new regulations are at the national level and enhance cooperation among security agencies. Some programs are established for de-radicalization, and imams and other community leaders warn local population about extremism and where it will lead. But nobody yet knows about the effectiveness of such programs.”
Kazakhstan’s ambassador to the United States, Kairat Umarov, said the ongoing recalculation – and perhaps further withdrawal – of U.S. troops from Afghanistan has limited implications for Kazakhstan.
“Kazakhstan’s security is not much affected by the U.S. transition from Afghanistan, as it is taking place gradually and in a responsible way,” Umarov said. “The United States is expected to continue the economic and financial assistance to the government of Afghanistan and help increase capacity of the Afghan National Security Forces. At the same time, Central Asia’s security will depend on what is happening in Afghanistan.”
Kazakhstan plans to continue its efforts to bolster Afghan society and institutional structures as the U.S. reduces its military presence in Afghanistan.
“Kazakhstan is working to contribute to overall development,” Umarov said. “For instance, Kazakhstan provides food and humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. Also, we finance infrastructure projects such as repairing the Kunduz-Talukan highway, building a school in Samangan, and a hospital in Bamian. And we are committed to supporting Afghan National Security Forces.”
“We believe this is a tangible contribution of our government to Afghan stabilization efforts in the international community,” he said.
Before his meeting with Kazakh Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov at the State Department in Washington late last year, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Kazakhstan’s partnership was crucially important.
“I think it’s fair to say that in the region the relationship between the United States and Kazakhstan is really one of the most consequential for us, and we’re very grateful for the leadership that Kazakhstan has been showing,” Kerry said, singling out Kazakhstan’s education initiatives in Afghanistan – and the $50 million that Kazakhstan’s government had committed to the effort.”
“There are Afghans who are now in significant numbers studying in Kazakhstan, and this will be a critical component of capacity building for Afghanistan and of stability,” Kerry said. “So we’re very grateful for that kind of major effort.”
Today, Kazakhstan is implementing a $50 million scholarship program for 1,000 Afghan students to study medical sciences, business management, engineering, agriculture and other specialties at the best Kazakh universities. Umarov said the investment is a bet on Afghanistan’s – and the region’s – future.
“We believe that education and capacity building will boost development and thus contribute to improving security situation in Afghanistan,” Umarov said. “It is with this belief in mind that we are establishing an agency for international development, KazAID, which will be focused on the providing technical assistance to Afghanistan and other Central Asian countries at the initial stage of its development.”
In addition to direct consultation and planning with U.S. military and diplomatic leaders, Kazakhstan also coordinates with NATO on institutional, democratic and defense reforms in the Central Asian region. An Individual Partnership Action Plan – commonly referred to as an IPAP – outlines the overall cooperation agreement between Kazakhstan and NATO.
In 2010, Kazakhstan, along with Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Belarus completed an agreement with NATO allowing the transportation of non-lethal cargo to Afghanistan by rail. Then, in 2012, NATO crafted an agreement with Kazakhstan, as well as with several other Central Asian countries and Russia, for the redeployment of non-lethal International Security Assistance Force from Afghanistan.
Kazakhstan also pitches in on the fight against terrorism by sharing information and analysis with NATO, enhancing national counter-terrorist capabilities and improving its own border security. The country has also allowed for continued air and land transit for NATO and U.S. troops and equipment supplies to and from Afghanistan.
Zhakip Assanov, Kazakhstan’s deputy prosecutor general, told the Kazakh Senate late last year that Kazakh intelligence prevented nine terrorist attacks in 2013 and 2014 and Kazakh courts sentenced two terror cell instigators to five year prison terms. He also said thousands of online extremist materials, including websites, were dismantled by Kazakh authorities and that since 2011, Kazakhstan has seen more than 10 recorded terrorist attacks, which resulted in 21 deaths, including 17 law enforcement officers and special service agents. The incidents occurred in Almaty, Taraz and Aktobe and are believed by Kazakh authorities to have been encouraged by outside forces. Since 2012, there have been to further terrorist attacks.
“It is no secret that these organizations are spreading their negative policies in Kazakhstan,” Assanov told the Senate.
Richard Weitz, director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis and a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, said as the U.S. reduces its presence in the Afghanistan, the U.S.-Kazakhstan relationship will become more important than ever in countering terrorism.
“The U.S. is continuing to work with Kazakhstan and other countries to support regional security,” Weitz said, adding that Kazakhstan is gratified that the “U.S. will continue to oppose regional terrorism and extremism.”
“Kazakhstan is continuing to support the U.S. mission and is providing economic and other aid to Afghanistan,” Weitz said.
Meanwhile, the Collective Security Treaty Organization consisting of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, consisting of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan are both trying to coordinate the response of its member states to regional terrorism.
Umarov, the Kazakh ambassador in Washington, said while Kazakhstan preferred to stay neutral as combat raged in Afghanistan it was simultaneously bolstering its own defense.
“Kazakhstan is in the process of modernizing its armed forces so that they are ready to face the contemporary security challenges,” Umarov said. “Kazakhstan regularly holds Steppe Eagle international military exercises and organizes international exhibitions of weapons systems, which helps to build new partnerships. As a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and participant of the NATO Partnership for Peace program, Kazakhstan has broad scope of international partners in the area of hard security. Kazakhstan’s security is provided, first of all, by the excellent, professional, well trained and well equipped, patriotic men and women in uniform, representing all ethnic and religious communities of my country.”