The National Guard State Partnership Program in Central Asia

After the fall of the Soviet Union, one of the Defense Department’s initial efforts at creating security engagements with the Former Soviet Republics came through the National Guard State Partnership Program (SPP), which partners a U.S. state’s National Guard with a foreign nation’s military. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) describes the aims of the program as: “building defense relationships that promote specific U.S. security interests, developing allied and friendly military capabilities for self-defense and multinational operations, and providing U.S. forces with peacetime and contingency access to a host nation.” CRS notes that using National Guardsmen rather than active duty troops made it easier to convince the Former Soviet Republics to participate.

The SPP is well regarded by some military commanders, with the former EUCOM Commander, Admiral James Stavridis, stating that “The State Partnership Program is, dollar for dollar, my best EUCOM investment,” a sentiment that Navy Admiral James A. Winnefeld Jr. also shares. However, both the Congressional Research Service (August 2011, PDF) and the Government Accountability Office (May 2012, PDF) identified certain criticisms of the program, from its failure to establish clearly defined goals and evaluation metrics to concerns that some activities of the program are encroaching on the Department of States’ responsibilities. Below are some quick notes about the participation of the Central Asian States in the program, as detailed by Department of Defense officials and news sources, as well as an elaboration of the CRS and GAO reports that examined the SPP.

Kazakhstan and the Arizona National Guard:

  • Kazakhstan and Arizona began their partnership in 1993, the longest partnership between a U.S. state and a Central Asian country, according to Foreign Military Studies Officer Matthew Stein’s “Compendium of Central Asian Military and Security Activity” (PDF).
  • One feature of the partnership is the annual Steppe Eagle multi-national exercise, hosted by Kazakhstan every September.
  • Eleven countries and 17 Arizona Guardsmen attended last year’s exercise, which “focused on training the [Kazakh] Air Mobile Brigade to meet international NATO standards.”  In addition to Kazakhstan, participating countries included: Germany, Italy, Japan, Lithuania, Ukraine, United States, United Kingdom, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Switzerland.
  • According to the Arizona National Guard’s annual report (PDF), 30 Arizona Guardsmen participated in nine events in Kazakhstan in 2012, on issues ranging from air wing exchanges to senior leadership visits.

Kyrgyzstan and the Montana National Guard:

  • The Kyrgyzstan – Montana partnership began in 1996, according to Stein’s compilation.
  • The most recent engagement with Kyrgyzstani military, involving 16 members of the Montana National Guard, occurred in May 2013, and included urban search and rescue training and an assessment of the Kyrgyzstani Ministry of Emergency.
  • In local press coverage prior to the exchange, Montana National Guard Major General Matthew Quinn argued that the partnership has strategic significance to the U.S., such as helping to secure an agreement to use the Manas airfield as a transit center for coalition troops entering and leaving Afghanistan.
  • In the same interview, the former Kyrgyzstani Ambassador to the United States, Baktybek Abdrisaev, applauded the partnership with Montana but criticized broader U.S. policy in the country, stating “The U.S. needs to avoid becoming obsessed with air-base politics and pay more attention to its long-term relationship with Kyrgyzstan, including political reforms in the country.”

Tajikistan and the Virginia National Guard:

  • The Tajikistan – Virginia partnership began in 2003.
  • The most recent engagement between the Virginia National Guard and the Tajik Military took place earlier in June 2013, when 6 Guardsmen trained 25 Tajik peacekeeping warrant officers on individual and squad-level movement techniques and urban operation strategies.
  • Eight total events were conducted between the Virginia National Guard and the Tajik military in 2012, including a November 2012 training in which Guardsmen from Virginia worked with Tajik peacekeepers and counterterrorism soldiers on infantry tactics and medical support procedures.

Uzbekistan and the Mississippi National Guard:

  • Uzbekistan and Mississippi initiated their partnership in 2012, with Louisiana serving as Uzbekistan’s previous partner.
  • The first exchange between Mississippi Guardsmen and Uzbek soldiers occurred in April 2012, in which 6 members from Mississippi discussed the planning, preparation, training, and operations that support disaster relief.
  • According to the Mississippi National Guard annual report (PDF), it conducted 11 events with Uzbek forces within the first six months of the partnership.

Turkmenistan’s pending partner:

  • Turkmenistan previously partnered with Nevada’s National Guard, but the GAO report (PDF) lists its partner as “pending.”

Measuring the effectiveness of the State Partnership Program:

In their evaluation of the SPP, both CRS and the GAO identify some positive elements and some important causes for concern. Specifically, CRS (PDF) notes that SPP relationships may last longer than those conducted by active duty troops – “due to both the duration of the state National Guard and foreign nation partnership… and the frequency with which National Guard personnel serve their entire reserve careers within one state National Guard” – and that the National Guard has some distinctive experiences as both a traditional military force and a more disaster response corps. The GAO (PDF), meanwhile, indicates that the SPP may provide Guardsmen with valuable training and experience.

Nonetheless, both reports find numerous concerns for the SPP. The GAO report criticizes the National Guard and the Defense Department for failing to match their stated goals with appropriate metrics to evaluate whether these goals have been accomplished. Exacerbating the lack of clear goals and evaluation is the fact that the data on the program kept by each Command is “incomplete and inconsistent.” As such, the GAO states that despite anecdotal testimonies endorsing the program, it was unable to properly evaluate it. In addition, both the GAO and CRS write that administrators of the program expressed confusion as to which foreign nationals are allowed to participate in the SSP. Lastly, the CRS report points out that policymakers have criticized some SPP activities for encroaching on USAID and State Department responsibilities, which coincides with larger worries of a militarization of U.S. foreign assistance. CRS writes that “Some may argue for greater State Department oversight to ensure that state governments are aware of foreign policy concerns and guidelines, especially if these events are accompanied by or lead to non-defense-related engagements of U.S. and foreign civilians.”

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