The annual multilateral Steppe Eagle military exercise in Kazakhstan began Saturday, August 10. The exercise, cosponsored by the United States and Kazakhstan, involves around 1,600 military personnel from eight countries – Kazakhstan, Britain, Italy, Lithuania, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and the United States – and will last for about two weeks.
The first Steppe Eagle exercise occurred in July 2003 with U.S., British and Kazakh forces and was expanded to include broader NATO participation in 2006 after Kazakhstan joined NATO’s Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP), according to Matthew Stein’s Compendium of Central Asian Military and Security Activity (pdf). Kazakhstan began its relationship with NATO in 1992, and in 1995 it became a member of the NATO Partnership for Peace (PfP) program, a framework through which NATO engages with non-member countries on a range of defense and security issues.
Steppe Eagle focuses on training, strengthening, and evaluating Kazakhstan’s KAZBAT, a battalion which the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) describes as designated for “potential deployment in NATO-led peace support operation, under U.N. Security Council mandates.” Twenty-seven troops from the KAZBAT battalion were deployed to Iraq in 2003, but have not been deployed since. According to Kazakhstani news, the 2013 Steppe Eagle exercise will evaluate KAZBAT as well as work on developing interoperability between NATO and Kazakhstan’s armed forces and improving functionality in a “multi-ethnic environment.” Moreover, a 2013 U.S. Central Command (Centcom) Posture Statement notes that Kazakhstan continues to work with the U.S. armed forces to enhance Kazakhstan’s peacekeeping capabilities, signing a “Five-Year Military Cooperation Plan (2013-2017) and a Three-Year Plan of Cooperation in support of Kazakhstan’s Partnership for Peace Training Center” in November of 2012.
Little has been written about the specific activities in this year’s Steppe Eagle, but some U.S. military accounts (by Sgt. Edward Balaban, Staff Sgt. Mylinda Durousseau, and Spc. Alexander Neely) about the 2012 Steppe Eagle exercises reported that last year units drilled in emergency response, peacekeeping and security duties like securing villages and discovering hidden weapons caches. The exercise also focused on improving cultural understanding and personal relationships between units from all of the nations involved. “Nothing,” said U.S. Army Col. John G. Rogers, “can replace the kind of cooperation and camaraderie that comes from Soldiers interacting with each other on the ground at exercises such as Steppe Eagle.”
Despite this history of military cooperation, some analysts like the Jamestown Foundation’s Roger McDermott, question Kazakhstan’s commitment to NATO. Even though training exercises like Steppe Eagle are meant to strengthen Kazakhstan’s KAZBAT battalion, McDermott noted after the 2012 exercise that Kazakhstan has still made limited progress expanding the single battalion into the three battalion brigade (KAZBRIG) that would ultimately be used in UN peacekeeping missions. McDermott noted in his analysis of the 2012 Steppe Eagle exercises that despite considerable pressure from the U.S. and the United Kingdom, Kazakhstan remains reluctant to send troops to Afghanistan, although the Kazakhstani government is considering sending troops to support an undetermined future U.N. peacekeeping mission in Africa.
While Centcom projects that KAZBRIG will be ready around 2015, McDermott expressed skepticism that Kazakhstan has the military or political will to make this happen. Furthermore, he added, “the NATO PfP Center in Almaty,” where most of the annual Steppe Eagle exercises take place, “is largely symbolic with very little practical impact on Kazakhstan’s Armed Forces.” Such peacekeeping training, McDermott continued, “in no sense reflects wider trends or capabilities in the country’s military or security structures,” many of which, as blogger Joshua Kucera points out, are hampered by inadequate training and serious structural problems.
This post was written by Leslie Adkins, CIP Transparency and Accountability Asia Intern.