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Surprised by Change, Attache Observes Central Asia Role

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

ON THE ROAD TO TASHKENT, Uzbekistan, Oct. 14, 1997 – As the air-conditioned tour bus bobbed and swayed along the narrow, uneven highway leading south out of Kazakhstan, Army Col. Ralph Bruner recalled a 9-year-old conversation.

"In January 1988, my office mate and I wondered aloud when the Berlin Wall would come down," Bruner said. "We agreed it would be at least 10 years. It's now 1997, and the wall has been down seven years."

Bruner's point was there's no way he could have conceived being a U.S. Army officer in 1997 based deep within geographic space formerly controlled by the Soviet Union. Conceding shortsightedness, Bruner said he's delighted to serve as defense attache in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan. To him, it means simply this:

"The Cold War is over. The world is still a dangerous place, but in terms of the kinds of catastrophes one expected between 1962 [the year of the Cuban missile crisis] and 1991, there's no comparison. The world is a safer place."

Strengthened ties between the United States and the Commonwealth of Independent States that comprise Central Asia brought Bruner, U.S. Ambassador Elizabeth Jones and others from the Kazakhstani capital of Almaty to Shimkent in mid-September to observe CENTRAZBAT '97, a military training exercise conducted by the Central Asian Battalion. Soldiers from the republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan make up the battalion; other republics have expressed an interest in joining the battalion or at least training with it.

On Sept. 15, the Almaty delegation, including embassy representatives from a host of European and Asian countries, joined DoD and Central Asian representatives to observe a parachute drop of U.S., Kazakhstani, Uzbek, Russian and Turkish troops and heavy equipment. After the drop, the delegates attended two days of briefings and cultural activities before moving on to Tashkent to observe training in border protection and other ground maneuvers.

The exercise gave Bruner an opportunity to see how well the young nation's military functions. He said he wasn't surprised by what he saw.

"They worked on the big things and not so much on the details," he said. The Kazakhstani portion was really the airborne jump and the reception of U.S. troops, he added.

Although there was not a lot of additional training on the ground there, the American forces did link up with their Central Asian counterparts, who established a defensive perimeter around the drop zone. They secured the area overnight, but the observer group was not given the opportunity to see that firsthand.

U.S. military involvement with Kazakhstan will continue on a smaller scale through 1997. Bruner said plans include exchanges under the aegis of the International Military Education and Training Program. For example, three or four Kazakhstani officers will study English in the United States and then attend a U.S. military leadership school.

The Central Asians also want to continue larger-scale activities. "When they feel they are ready, they would like to be called upon to perform a United Nations' mission," Bruner said. To attain this goal, the republics want to expand the battalion to brigade size.

Whatever its eventual size, the Central Asian force and DoD will follow up the latest exercise with a three-year series of training activities. This likely will include Central Asia's continued participation in such stateside exercises as Cooperative Nugget at Fort Polk, La., and Cooperative Osprey at Camp Lejeune, N.C. As in past exercises, they will meld lessons they learn with their experiences under Soviet rule, Bruner said.

All Central Asian republics had some basis for a military force left over after the Soviet pullout, the attache said. This includes Soviet aircraft, tanks and other equipment. Many of the republics' military officers formerly served as Soviet officers. Kazakhstan also was the site of scores of Soviet nuclear missiles that have been dismantled and removed.

The republics' challenge today, Bruner said, is to build militaries they believe best suit their needs. For Kazakhstan -- and the others -- this probably means a blend of Soviet and U.S. operational styles. Bruner's job entails representing DoD's interests, including establishing an NCO corps in the Kazakhstani military.

"The system of noncommissioned officers we have in the United States, Great Britain, Germany and other Western militaries didn't exist in the Soviet military and doesn't exist here," Bruner said. "But Kazakhstan has taken steps to develop such a corps and broke ground last year for an NCO academy."The United States will help train an NCO cadre that can train other NCOs in the Kazakhstani military, he said.

The need for a noncommissioned officer corps arose from a defense ministry mandate to improve Kazakhstani soldiers' lives.

"One of the possible advantages of an NCO corps is to have a group of experienced sergeants who understand the lot of soldiers and are sympathetic to them but who also deal with officers and have to carry out their orders," Bruner said. The NCOs could help the officers -- traditionally detached from soldiers -- better understand and appreciate soldiers needs, Bruner said.

A former minister of defense also sought to end the practice of hazing soldiers, carried over from Soviet days. A 1995 report from Kazakhstan's attorney general's office revealed 100 soldiers had died at the hands of comrades or superiors during the preceding year.

"I find the fact of the statement an extremely welcome sign of openness," Bruner said. "They have taken important steps to eradicate hazing. If it isn't eliminated, the military and state leaders know full well the army will not improve. This is maybe the most fundamental thing they are doing."

Besides improving the way soldiers are treated, Kazakhstan would like to make military service voluntary. "It's mandatory now, but not everyone is called up," Bruner said. "The country wants to get to the point where it has a sufficient tax base to pay for at least a partly volunteer force."

Women are among the military volunteers the country would seek, Bruner said. Currently, uniformed Kazakhstani women serve mostly in a limited area of specialties -- linguists and nurses, for example. However, some older women trained and served under the Soviets in specialties normally held by men. In fact, one of Kazakhstan's most experienced parachutists is a woman in her late 30s, with some 4,000 jumps to her credit, Bruner said.

"The Kazakhstan military is open-minded about women," he said, "but they haven't fully developed their ideas about what roles women should play in the future."

While the Kazakhstani military finds its own way in the new world order, the United States has some primary hopes for the region, Bruner said. "We're interested in the independence of Kazakhstan and all these republics. We're interested in regional stability, and we're interested in nonproliferation of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction.

"We're interested in those things that will lead to a more peaceful relationship between these states and a greater manifestation of democracy within their governments."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageMukhtar Altynbayev, Kazakhstani minister of defense, returns a soldier's salute during a review of troops in Shimkent, Kazakhstan. Participants in the Sept. 15 event included about 500 members of the 82nd Airborne Division from Fort Bragg, N.C. Douglas J. Gillert  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageNews photographers capture the descent of paratroopers at the beginning of CENTRAZBAT '97 near Shimkent, Kazakhstan. Forty members of the Central Asian Battalion joined 500 soldiers from the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division in the Sept. 15 jump, which inaugurated three years of U.S.-Central Asia training exercises. Douglas J. Gillert  
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