U.S. Ventures Cautiously Into Former Soviet Territory
By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service
TASHKENT, Uzbekistan, Oct. 6, 1997 Six years ago, senior military officers typically seen here were Soviets. This was, after all, capital of a Soviet republic.
Following collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Uzbekistan and its neighboring republics declared their independence from Mother Russia, establishing their own governments and military services. Today, although the Russian military continues interacting with Uzbekistan and the other newly independent states of Central Asia, American service members are as likely to be spotted.
The number of U.S. service members here increased dramatically in mid-September, when some 500 soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, N.C., parachuted into nearby Kazakhstan to commence CENTRAZBAT '97. The exercise culminated training the Americans provided the Central Asian Battalion, formed of soldiers from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan. It also marked the beginning of a three-year series of training activities the battalion will conduct, under the frequent observation and ongoing assistance of DoD.
Are the Russians, whose country borders Kazakhstan to the north, nervous about American military involvement here? "Quite," said Katherine Kelleher, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia. "When I first heard about it, the idea of Americans jumping into Central Asia set all the alarms off," Kelleher said. "But we've tried to be open and transparent about it. For example, the Russians have been in on all the planning for this exercise."
For the most part, the host nations, too -- particularly Uzbekistan -- have received the Americans with enthusiasm, she said. "The Kazaks have been more ambivalent. Part of what makes this very difficult is the guys who are in control of each one of these countries are the guys who were in control under Soviet rule. Most of them have a KGB or GRU [Soviet secret police] background," she said. "The countries are not yet in what might be called the modern political world. They're democratizing -- but they're not democratic."
In recent years, DoD has conducted a number of high-level visits and exchanges with the Central Asian republics. Former Defense Secretary Bill Perry visited the region, and Mukhtar Altynbayev, the Kazak minister of defense, visited Washington. This past summer, Gen. Joseph Ralston, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with military leaders here.
The U.S. relationship with Central Asia has deepened and expanded as a result of the 1994 Partnership in Peace initiative. Since, the United States opened embassies and cautiously began interacting with each republic.
"The United States' interest in this area is a recognition of the need for its independence, sovereignty and stability," Kelleher said. "The Partnership for Peace gave a framework and justification for having more direct and extensive contacts."
Rich in oil and natural gas reserves, the area will become the world's third largest energy producer by 2010 -- energy its neighbors will covet, Kelleher said.
"With the exception of Russia, the area is surrounded by neighbors who are all going to be needing far more energy in the future than they, themselves, produce," she said. "One can imagine lots and lots of energy-related struggles." As such, she said, well-defined and protected borders make good sense.
Protecting borders, however, will pay more immediate dividends. "The major threat that goes back to a much earlier timeis smugglers -- people who want to disrupt trade for their own benefit" Kelleher said. "The largest commodity we worry about is drugs. This is one of the major routes to Europe for heroin and opium."
Russia's concern has been what it terms "the threat from the south." It fears a Muslim fundamentalist backlash to the secular growth of the region and clan-based militias that foster the drug trade and border incursions, Kelleher said. Russia sees the Central Asian countries as a sort of buffer zone, she said. Its army is not sufficiently manned that it can maintain significant border stations, however, whence its nervousness about the region's westward leaning growth.
"The defense of Russia starts in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan," Kelleher said. "Russia has not appreciated these countries' desire to take care of themselves without Russian assistance."
A major part of going it alone has involved developing military forces from the remnants of the Soviet Union. When the union dissolved, it left behind jets, tanks and other equipment, as well as troops and officers accustomed to Soviet objectives but unfamiliar with the defensive and peacekeeping objectives their nations now embraced. The United States, Kelleher said, wants to assist building viable defensive, peacekeeping militaries in each of the Central Asian nations.
"These nations are literally going through a military revolution," she said. "We're talking about building military institutions from scratch."
How much and what type of assistance the United States provides depends on a couple of factors. "We've certainly gotten the people off on the right foot [with the Central Asian Battalion]," Kelleher said. "We're committed to doing things in the same spirit, and the ties [between our nations] are getting closer. But we're coming to a more mature phase in the relationship, where they have to decide what it is they want -- what kind of military fits with their society."
At some point, the Central Asia armed forces will face the question of modernization, Kelleher said. Now, they are dependent on Russia for spare parts and face difficulty maintaining their aging aircraft and tanks. "If they want to have an air force or major tank force, they have to spend, and they are poor," she said.
What kinds of future support will come from the United States depends on the decisions these republics make about their own futures, Kelleher said. Congress has begun to show interest in the region and sent two delegations here this summer, she added. Under consideration is legislation to develop the Silk Road, that winds through the region, stretching from Europe to China, as a southern route for oil and trade, she said. Oil companies from the United States, Japan and other nations have shown interest, she said.
The region historically has been a crossroads for two continents, Europe and Asia. "Anybody who's anybody has invaded through here -- Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane," Kelleher said. And of course, the Soviet Union. The United States' intentions are far more benign and limited, she said.
"I don't think we'd go to war for any of them," she said. "The most we can do is help them, in hopes that they can help themselves."