Kazakhstan announced the withdrawal of its peacekeepers from Iraq on October 21, bringing to end a five-year period of a small element of Kazakhstan’s peacekeeping battalion (KAZBAT) presence in Iraq, originally sent in September 2003 as part of Kazakhstan’s efforts to support the war on terror and play an active political role in the coalition of the willing. Azerbaijan announced its withdrawal of 151 peacekeepers from Iraq on November 12, having served for five years under U.S. command protecting a water storage facility and hydroelectric dam in Anbar Province. President Aliyev had sent a bill to parliament in October laying the basis for the withdrawal, finally approved on November 10. Baku’s decision centered on legal concerns, since the UN mandate for the multinational Force expires on December 31, 2008.
BACKGROUND: In Astana, officially the decision followed a request from the Iraqi government, based on improvements in the security situation within the country and the belief that Iraqi security forces were capable of taking on these functions. A Kazakhstani military delegation visited Iraq on October 18-21, headed by Deputy Defense Minister Lieutenant-General Bolat Sembinov, where a series of meetings were held with General Raymond Odierno, Commanding General of the Multinational Force and Iraqi defense officials. Yet, there has been consistent pressure internally for the withdrawal to take place, mainly from pacifists within Kazakhstan’s parliament, which was always managed tightly by President Nazarbayev. Indeed, in January 2005, KAZBAT suffered its first and only fatality when an officer died as a result ordinance unexpectedly exploding during unloading from a vehicle; four other members of KAZBAT were wounded and seven Ukrainian peacekeepers died in that incident.
However, with the unfolding plan to gradually reduce the foreign forces based in Iraq, it was only a question of timing as to when KAZBAT would be withdrawn. One significant factor should not be underestimated, and this is the extreme pressure on Astana from Moscow for political support in the aftermath of the war in Georgia. Although Nazarbayev has been publicly supportive of Russia’s actions in the South Caucasus, he has predictably tried to sit on the fence, frustrating Russian officials. The withdrawal of KAZBAT from Iraq came in this context, allowing Moscow to draw an important conclusion: Astana is no longer politically comfortable with supporting U.S. policy in a ‘coalition of the willing.’ But this will not deflect Astana from pursuing limited future peace support cooperation with NATO, despite the present strained NATO-Russia relations. Sembinov was thus able to confidently assert, “The Kazakh detachment has finished its five year peacekeeping operations, fulfilled its objectives and successfully ended its mission in Iraq.”
Unlike KAZBAT, the Azerbaijani army had formed a peacekeeping detachment earlier in 1997. Since then, it gained important operational experience worldwide, including in Kosovo and Afghanistan. In September 2008, Baku announced its intention to increase the size of its deployment in Afghanistan. Its peacekeepers, therefore, are much more experienced and ‘usable’ in terms of international operations, than KAZBAT. Astana desperately needs additional opportunities for its peacekeepers to gain experience. The contingent of 27 military engineers deployed in Iraq, tasked with demining duties under Polish command in Iraq’s south-western Wasit Province, was always geared towards showcasing Kazakhstan’s armed forces, presenting a positive if false impression of their effectiveness. Quite simply, the presence of KAZBAT in Iraq did not reflect the otherwise weak, underfunded and poorly led Kazakhstani armed forces: it was seized upon as an opportunity for image projection. Kazakhstan’s politically ambitious governing elite wants to promote a positive if unrealistic image of its armed forces abroad, while facing demands from the U.S. and U.K. and pressure from NATO to deploy peacekeepers operationally as a quid pro quo for essential training, equipment and assistance provided in recent years for the development of Kazakhstan’s peace support capabilities: this option may be realized by finding a way of deployment KAZBAT ‘elements’ in Afghanistan under NATO as a part of a supporting role for ISAF.
IMPLICATIONS: Kazakhstan intends to maintain and further strengthen its relations with NATO. This was notable in recent public statements by Defense Minister Daniyal Akhmetov and the presence of the NATO Secretary General’s Special Representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, Ambassador Robert Simmons, at the annual Steppe Eagle 2008 exercises in September involving Kazakhstani, British and American troops. Astana is confidently expecting KAZBAT to be declared NATO interoperable, a decision more likely to reflect political motives on the part of the Alliance, and continued assistance from NATO and some of its member states to transform KAZBAT into a brigade sized peacekeeping force (KAZBRIG).
On November 20, 2008 Kazakhstan’s Secretary of State Kanat Saudabayev told a plenary session of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Valencia that Astana is considering an opportunity for stepping up its support for peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan under the aegis of NATO. This may involve sending officers to work at hospitals and at ISAF headquarters in Afghanistan. Washington and London have particularly pressed Kazakhstan to deploy peacekeepers operationally, preferably in Afghanistan, and if Saudabayev’s remarks can be taken as an indication of a shift in policy, the withdrawal of KAZBAT from Iraq may be linked to preparing to follow the new U.S. re-concentration on Afghanistan promised by Barack Obama; yet the signal from Astana is to follow the multilateral route in taking such controversial steps.
On the other hand, Baku has experienced intense Russian diplomatic activity since the Russia-Georgia war, as Moscow has attempted to facilitate an agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. Throughout the Caucasus and Central Asia, following the Georgia conflict there is less certainty about Moscow’s intentions and a greater disposition towards caution, especially within Central Asia. Yet the reshuffling of the deck, currently underway over peacekeeping forces, signals new shifts in the use of the elements of Azerbaijan’s and Kazakhstan’s armed forces. Both countries are recalibrating such policies in the wake of Barack Obama’s election success. Azerbaijan has adopted a strict legal interpretation relating to the presence of peacekeepers, in the absence of a Status of Forces agreement between the U.S. and Iraq and the imminent conclusion of the UN mandate in Iraq; this legality issue was oddly missing from the explanations offered by Astana for its decision to withdraw.
CONCLUSIONS: Both Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan remain open to re-deployment options, which will spark little controversy in Baku, since it already has peacekeeping forces in Afghanistan, though it could be potentially contentious for Astana to send any military personnel to Afghanistan, with the memories still fresh of the losses of Kazakh soldiers in the Soviet-Afghan war. With Russia’s Prime Minister Putin referring to Kazakhstan as Russia’s closest ally, there will be less confidence in Astana in implementing any security policies without first awaiting ‘signals’ from Moscow. Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan pulling troops out of Iraq may not signal less interest in participating in peace support operations, but it subtly reveals shifts currently underway in the calculations of both capitals as they adjust to the post-Georgia conflict within their regions, the election of Obama in Washington, and the gradual shift in emphasis that may occur as military forces leave Iraq and the Obama policy on Afghanistan and the war on terror begins to take shape. Baku’s commitment to the operation in Afghanistan is likely to be more secure and reliable in the longer term, while if Astana decides to deploy PSO elements it will likely follow the pattern established in its Iraq experience; proving relatively low risk and largely politically symbolic.AUTHOR’S BIO: Roger N McDermott is a an Honorary Senior Research Fellow, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent at Canterbury (UK) and Senior Fellow in Eurasian Military Studies, Jamestown Foundation, Washington DC. He specializes in the militaries and security issues in Russia, Central Asia and the South Caucasus.