The Anti-Terrorist Campaign and the Regional Security System

Murad Esenov, Editor, Central Asia and Caucasus Journal and Director of the Centre for Central Asia and Caucasus Studies, Sweden.

The IISS Russian Regional Perspectives Journal for Foreign and Security Policy. London. Great Britain. Issue 2, pp 26-28.

There is much dispute about whether a Central Asian regional security system has or has not been established. If such a system exists, what is it based on and what does it look like? If not, why not? In my opinion, a regional security system is beginning to take shape. The Western military presence in Central Asia, the institutionalisation in 2002 of the Collective Security Treaty (CST) via its transformation into the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, the strengthening of the military and political components of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) are all proof that a complex, multi-level regional security system is being formed, which should guarantee military-political and social-economic stability in Central Asia. Of course, there have been many problems and there will be more in trying to establish a regional security system in Central Asia. Three key factors explain why.

1 In such transient times it is often difficult to define where the threat is coming from. As recently as the early 1990s, regional security was taken to mean exclusively defence from foreign attack. Even in the mid-1990s, when the Taliban first appeared on the Afghan political scene, Central Asian countries were discussing how they might protect themselves from possible direct aggression by the Taliban. It was only in 1999, after the February bomb in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and incursions into Batken in southern Kyrgyzstan and hostage taking by Islamic militants in summer/autumn 1999, that the nature of today's threat was understood and those in the region began to take a different approach to regional security.

2 The region's perceptions of other nations have changed. At the start of the 1990s, the Far East and Middle East were seen as friends of Central Asia, and no one foresaw that the threat of religious fanaticism would manifest in these 'friendly' countries, or, rather, that they would harbour people providing funding and training for religious fanaticism. Consequently, the region viewed other foreign states, such as China and Russia, and blocs like the West, in a new light. In some circumstances, they were seen as strategic partners; in others, their political influence was ignored.

3 The fact that the Central Asian republics cannot resolve political, economic, military and border problems has somewhat hampered plans to establish a regional security system.

These factors have played a significant role in defining the extent to which a regional security system has been established in Central Asia. In the early 1990s, the CST was supposed to ensure regional stability. Its main provisions reflect the attitude of member states towards the threat of terrorism at the time. The first clause prohibits all member states from forming military alliances with other non-CST countries and from taking any joint aggressive action (with any other group of states) against any CST signatory. In accordance with clause four, if any CST member state feels threatened by another state or group of states, this will be seen as an act of aggression against all CST members.

The treaty text did not mention measures that the group as a whole might take to combat terrorism, religious fanaticism or separatism. As a result, some members later withdrew from the CST because it had not fulfilled their expectations on these security issues.

The Central Asian peacekeeping battalion (CentrAsBat), which was formed on 15 December 1995 by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, under the aegis of the United Nations (UN) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)'s Partnership for Peace programme, should have addressed this shortcoming. CentrAsBat was designed to act as a collective rapid-response unit and it was created to deal with exactly the kind of forces that were to surface in the region four years later - that is, radical extremists and terrorists. While peacekeeping was its primary goal, it could also have curtailed the activities of terrorists and other extremist groups. With the benefit of hindsight, it can be seen that CentrAsBat was set up as a preventative measure.

Because it was unclear how CentrAsBat would function as an inter-state military unit (since there was no legislative basis, interstate coordination, financial resources or political will) it effectively disbanded as a 'battalion' in 1997. It was gradually transformed from a peacekeeping battalion into a group of national peacekeeping forces from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, as the countries of the region concentrated on developing their own law-enforcement and security-sector bodies. It must be noted, however, that CentrAsBat's very existence paved the way for multilateral military exercises in 1998 and 2000 involving Central Asian, Western and some Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries. Cooperation between the armed forces of the CST member states has improved in part as a result of knowledge gained from these manoeuvres. That experience has probably been useful in relation to the anti-terrorist campaign in Afghanistan.

Another development that contributed to the establishment of a regional-security mechanism was the founding of the Shanghai Five in 1996. The policy aims of the original agreement, however, only concerned a strictly defined space. Notably, confidencebuilding measures pertaining to the demilitarisation of zones on both sides of the Chinese border were strengthened. And a 1997 agreement focused on cuts to the armed forces stationed in border areas. Both initiatives were designed to ensure stability along the former Sino-Soviet border. It was some time before member states got around to drawing up the current treaties on multilateral cooperation that had specific goals, such as the fight against terrorism, separatism and religious fanaticism.

1999 was as much a turning point for Central Asian states as 11 September 2001 was for the whole world. The February bombings in Tashkent and events in Batken, southern Kyrgyzstan, clearly demonstrated that the region was lacking an effective security system. Neither national nor regional defence mechanisms could offer resistance to well-organised and wellequipped religious extremists. This, of course, is understandable, since those elements of a security system that were in place were meant to deal with aggression from other states not from small numbers of religious fanatics. Once this fact was appreciated, approaches to establishing a Central Asian security system were re-examined.

The CST and the Shanghai Five began taking first steps towards addressing the new regional security challenges almost concurrently. At the Minsk summit in May 2000, CST heads of state ratified a number of significant documents. The most important were a 'Memorandum on Increasing the Effectiveness of the CST and its Ability to Adapt to the Present Day Geopolitical Situation' and 'A Model for a Regional Collective Security System'. Both organisations have begun to modify the nature of their activities in accordance with the provisions of these documents. Great emphasis has been placed on fighting terrorism and on the need to form a collective rapid-response peacekeeping unit. Furthermore, a committee of Security Council secretaries was set up to ensure that the Security Councils of the member states coordinate approaches to the region's strategic security.

At the Bishkek summit in October 2000, CST heads of state agreed to establish a joint collective security force over the next five years. At the Yerevan summit in May 2001, they signed a protocol to set up a Collective Rapid Deployment Force in Central Asia.

In the same period, the Shanghai Five began to widen its range of activities. At the Dushanbe summit of 5 July 2000, it announced its intention to transform the union into a regional structure primarily concerned with multilateral cooperation. It is important to note that Uzbek President Islam Karimov attended the summit as a guest observer. A year later, on 15 June 2001, the leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan signed a declaration that transformed the Shanghai Five into the SCO. The aims and tasks of the SCO differ from those of the Shanghai Five insofar as there is a permanent standing body, the Council of National Coordinators, to oversee the daily running of the organisation. The SCO's priorities are to combat terrorism, drug trafficking and illegal arms proliferation. A Central Asian Regional Anti-terrorist Centre has now been set up within the SCO to ensure that these objectives are met.

The CST and the SCO adjusted their activities to suit better contemporary circumstances following the terrorist attacks in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Both organisations have identified the fight against international terrorism, separatism and religious extremism as their chief priorities and have set up structures to achieve these goals. By mid-2001, therefore, Central Asia had devised a more or less structured system for addressing traditional and contemporary security challenges in the region. This new security system includes four of the five post-Soviet Central Asian republics; the aforementioned measures will thus affect 90% of the region's territory and people.

It would appear that, by mid-2001, China, Russia and the US had also reached some sort of unspoken agreement on the balance of power in Central Asia. The creation of the SCO and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation allowed Russia to dominate the militarypolitical scene. The US, in effect, already dominated the economic sphere, especially the oil and gas sectors, where Western companies are investing and reaping the benefits, and China is the dominant regional power in terms of trade and commerce.

After 11 September 2001, however, the world changed and a radical transformation occurred in Central Asia. Above all, the geopolitical balance of power was significantly altered by the arrival of Western forces in the region. It was difficult to predict in the first few days and months after the arrival of US and coalition forces what affect their presence in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan would have on the region. But it is now becoming much clearer.

Some observers have expressed the opinion that the presence of Western forces is weakening the regional security system or that, at least, the regional security system now contains a degree of antagonism between China/Russia and the West. In my opinion, such comments are reminiscent of those made in the Cold War era and bear no relevance to the present day. Central Asia is part of the international community and regional, sub-regional, meta-regional and global factors need to be taken into account. Consequently, the regional security model should be multifaceted in nature. While the CST and the SCO ensure stability on the regional and meta-regional levels, foreign troops maintain stability on the global level. The military presence has been essential to Central Asia's efforts to maintain stability in the region. For example, the main terrorist centres in Afghanistan, which over the past few years constituted the main threat to regional stability, have been destroyed in the course of the antiterrorist campaign.

It might be argued that conflicts of one sort or another will arise in attempting to coordinate these regional, meta-regional and global security systems. In other words, arguments may flair up between China, Russia and the US over influence in Central Asia. However, since the nature of the current threat to stability affects not only the region but also the rest of the world, it is highly unlikely that wrangling between these nations will start anew. They are united in their fight against terrorism, separatism and religious extremism and there is no doubt that this struggle will be a priority for the next few years. It will certainly play a significant part in shaping how the countries of Central Asia interact with each other.

The Western military and political presence in Central Asia has helped to augment the early elements of the regional security system. At the CST's anniversary summit in Moscow on 14 May 2002 the organisation's status was enhanced by the decision to transform the Collective Security Treaty into the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. Its new status will be confirmed with the introduction of a charter, a clearer and firmer legal basis on which to operate, increased functions, and the creation of some permanent standing bodies to manage and coordinate its activities.

As the heads of the member states noted in their speeches, the organisation's principal activity will be to continue to combat terrorism, extremism, drug smuggling and illegal arms dealing. However, it should be pointed out that there is a completely new aspect to its work that Central Asian member states are enthusiastic about: military-technical cooperation. It is a well-known fact that Central Asian armies need new modern weapons and communications technology. The establishment of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation will allow arms and technology to be bought at Russian prices. Furthermore, there are plans for member states to cooperate in producing and maintaining weapons and military technology and to engage in joint research and experimental design of weapons, military technology and multi-functional technology. All of this will help to bolster the capacity of Central Asian armies to defend themselves and to make membership of the organisation a far more attractive concept.

The SCO has recently undergone a similar transformation. A major declaration was passed at a meeting of the member states' defence ministers on 15 May 2002. Reference was made to 'the expediency of carrying out joint exercises' and the need to set up 'permanently standing working groups within the SCO to implement any opportunities which arise for joint cooperation on regional defence and security issues'. There is talk of creating a coalition headquarters for the SCO, which, in future, would allow for joint military operations. The defence ministers' intentions were institutionalised with the signing of the Shanghai Convention on the Fight against Terrorism, Separatism and Extremism at the June 2002 St. Petersburg summit. These are commendable amendments that are aimed at strengthening the regional security system in Central Asia.

It seems to me that the best model for achieving security in Central Asia, taking into account regional specifics and the global balance of power, is one that is based on a multi-dimensional and multi-layered framework. A multi-level configuration (regional, meta-regional and global) has, in many ways, become possible because of the post-11 September international antiterrorist campaign. The common goal of eradicating terrorism, separatism and religious extremism has certainly helped to smooth over any regional tensions.

Nevertheless, a regional security system has not yet been fully formulated and it would be wrong to assume that all of the region's security problems have disappeared. The system is in its early stages and the actions or inactivity of one country or another might well be its undoing. The balance might be upset, for example, should the US not see eye-to-eye with China and Russia or if a regional conflict were to arise between Central Asian states. The proposed system could also fail if a Central Asian nation were to try to undermine the system of regional cooperation. (Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan may well do so.)

At the same time, many observers believe that there will not be a recurrence of the confrontations that occurred during the Cold War nor will Central Asian states seek to gain from any future disputes between other countries that have an influence on the region. The goals of the organisations in the Central Asian regional security system give cause to believe this.

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