Kyrgyzstan's military is in woeful shape. The government largely ignored the problem until 1999, when armed extremists caused problems in the southern part of the country. Since then, Bishkek has made some effort to improve its armed forces. In the process, it has become the only country in the world receiving military assistance from the United States, Russia, and China -- as well as NATO.
The small, mountainous Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan is unique in its military alliances. A member of NATO's Partnership for Peace program since June 1994, Kyrgyzstan currently is allowing U.S.-led coalition forces to use part of its largest airport as part of the continuing antiterror campaign in Afghanistan.
A member of the Commonwealth of Independent States and a signatory to the CIS Collective Security Treaty, Kyrgyzstan will also soon be home to the CIS rapid deployment force. According to Chinese media, Kyrgyzstan is also the only country in the world to hold joint military exercises with China.
… They fill different roles for Kyrgyzstan, a country that originally paid little thought to having a military at all.
It is a change that would have been difficult to imagine when Kyrgyzstan became independent following the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991. Kyrgyzstan's borders remained defended mainly by Russian border guards until early 1999. Kyrgyzstan maintained a small army and even contributed a modest number of troops to the CIS peacekeeping force in neighboring Tajikistan during that country's 1992-1997 civil war. But building up its armed forces has never been a priority…
The Kyrgyz military today is widely viewed as being largely ineffective… Jengishbek Eshenkulov, a member of Kyrgyzstan's People's Representative Assembly (the upper house of parliament) notes: "Even the cold and heartless would cry at a [Kyrgyz] soldier's plight, I have to say that openly," Eshenkulov said. "Before, [parents] sent their boys to the army with a clear conscience. Now they try to keep them away. They bring cattle, money to the army recruitment offices to avoid sending their kids to military service, because they return in poor health. Today, the army food and conditions are bad. If you hung a rifle on a soldier's shoulder, due to malnutrition, he would fall over together with his rifle…"
The state of the country's roughly 12,000-man army is the reason Kyrgyzstan has welcomed military alliances. In 1999, the country found itself woefully unprepared to fight off a security threat. That summer, armed fighters from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) crossed the mountains from camps in Tajikistan and entered Kyrgyzstan.
When the Kyrgyz army confronted the IMU guerrillas it quickly became apparent the army was in no condition to undertake a protracted campaign in the mountains. Despite having military treaties with neighboring countries and other CIS members, only Uzbekistan, which had already withdrawn from the CIS Collective Security Treaty, offered to send troops. Bishkek, which has uneasy relations with Tashkent, only allowed Uzbek warplanes to enter Kyrgyz airspace and bomb the IMU. When bombs mistakenly hit a Kyrgyz village and killed four people, Kyrgyzstan called a halt to Uzbek assistance.
The IMU fighters retreated when winter started to set in, the battle having proven inconclusive. But in Bishkek, the government was rethinking its attitude toward the military.
Kyrgyzstan was already in NATO's Partnership for Peace program and had been training with NATO forces in the annual "Centrazbat" exercises since 1996. Prior to 1999, the NATO exercises focused on civilian relief efforts in times of natural disaster. After the IMU appeared, such exercises have always included antiterrorist exercises.
The speaker of the Legislative Assembly, Adbygany Erkebayev, credited NATO for helping Kyrgyzstan improve the capability of its armed forces, but he also mentions others who he believed were helping: "The [military] training with NATO, Russia, and America will certainly have a positive influence. The professional level [of the Kyrgyz army] will increase. Also, I can only say 'thank you' to both Russia and NATO for strengthening our logistic base, improving the future and raising the professional level…"
The cooperation with NATO invariably meant a level of cooperation with the United States. After the 11 September terrorist attacks on New York and Washington the U.S. became very interested in military cooperation with Kyrgyzstan, a short flight from northern Afghanistan.
There are about 2,000 troops and dozens of warplanes from the U.S.-led coalition stationed at part of Bishkek's Manas international airport. They are part of the hunt for Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces that may still be present in Afghanistan.
At the start of that campaign U.S. forces seriously degraded the IMU's ability to pose a threat to Central Asia when U.S. warplanes bombed many of the IMU's bases in Afghanistan, possibly killing the movement's leader as well…
But neither NATO nor the U.S. is likely to give the sort of help Kyrgyzstan needs now. Although the IMU was seriously crippled in Afghanistan, the group has not disappeared entirely. The Kyrgyz government is also worried about other Islamic organizations, such as the banned group Hezb-ut Tahrir…
There is one country that can help and has experience with such groups on its own territory -- China.
China has been giving the Kyrgyz military equipment and advice since the IMU appeared. The Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) even held what Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said were the first-of-a-kind antiterrorism exercises with Kyrgyz forces along the Sino-Kyrgyz border in October…
China's main contribution to strengthening security in Kyrgyzstan is working with Kyrgyzstan's internal security forces -- the Interior Ministry and National Security Committee. Some critics have expressed concern that such forces may be used to suppress legitimate dissent as well as illegal groups. China, which is struggling with Muslim separatist groups in its western regions, along the Central Asian borders, is employing tactics that have already drawn criticism from international human rights organizations.
Ultimately, Kyrgyzstan remains dependent on its oldest ally -- Russia.
Bakytbek Bekboyev, a deputy in the Legislative Assembly, says cooperation with NATO is more for appearances than for any useful military assistance: "The [military] exercises are used for publicity purposes only. Even NATO had a falling out among its members on the Iraq issue. It became like the old Warsaw Pact. There is no need for NATO anymore. We should now strengthen ties only with Russia…"
Kyrgyzstan simply does not have the money to buy new weapons.
This lack of resources to improve the military technology makes the impending opening of the CIS rapid reaction base even more important. Troops from this force are supposed to be expert in counterterrorism operations and will be backed by modern Russian war planes and helicopters.
It is a complicated set of military alliances but it has provided Kyrgyzstan with a sense of security that was lost after the IMU's arrival. Keeping a balance between these alliances over the long term, however, may prove more difficult than maintaining security inside the country.
By Bruce Pannier, The Times of Central Asia, April 18, 2003