By Joshua Kucera
US Special Forces have trained units in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan that have served as “praetorian guards” for those respective countries’ presidents, according to diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks.
In one 2007 cable, the US Embassy in Dushanbe described US training of Tajikistan’s National Guard. According to the cable, National Guard units had undergone four training sessions with officers from US Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT). The cable noted also that the National Guard “is primarily designed to protect the Rahmon regime and respond to him personally. Essentially, they are President Rahmon’s own Praetorian Guard and they clearly receive the priority of fill and perks within the Tajik defense establishment.” The cable noted that a fifth training session was scheduled for the following January.
In another cable, from January 2009, the US Embassy in Bishkek described the training of Kyrgyz special forces: “Through SOCCENT programs, we have already constructed several ranges and facilities for Kyrgyz Special Forces units; to include the Ministry of Defense’s 25th Scorpions and the National Guard’s Panthers. We have also purchased new equipment for these units.”
In 2010, local media reported that the Panthers were disbanded and their personnel, equipment and barracks were reassigned to a new unit, named Arstan (Lions), under the direct control of then-president Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Arstan failed in its mission, however: just two months later, Bakiyev was overthrown.
“In the last two years of Bakiyev’s rule, the entire structure of the military changed,” said Erica Marat, an analyst of Central Asian politics who has studied regional security forces. “Bakiyev put in his relatives and political allies to key military and security posts so that the whole structure belonged to him and his brother and there was no oversight — it was his personal military. And he saw an opportunity to get money from the United States for ‘anti-terror’ programs.”
Officials from the US State Department, which administers military aid, declined to comment to EurasiaNet.org. Representatives from US Special Operations Command, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the US embassies in Bishkek and Dushanbe did not respond to requests for comment.
According to the most recent State Department budget documents justifying military aid to the region, “assistance to the Tajikistan Ministry of Defense and the National Guard will continue to support more professional and capable ground forces. Reforms to the defense establishment will result in a force prepared to cooperate with United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces in peacekeeping and other multilateral operations.”
Assistance to Kyrgyzstan “will be used to provide equipment to military forces to enhance their ability to protect the country from terrorist threats. The US Government will work directly with Kyrgyz Security Forces to identify shortfalls in equipment necessary to complete the security mission.”
US law prohibits military aid going to units that have committed human rights violations. But there is nothing that forbids assistance on the grounds that it would help a particular president, rather than the country’s security as a whole.
But situations like this raise the question of whether the aid is “given as quid-pro-quo for access, as opposed to help promote security reform to Western standards,” said Alexander Cooley, a professor of political science at Barnard College, and an expert on Central Asia and US security assistance. [Editor’s Note: Cooley serves on the advisory board of the Open Society Foundations’ (OSF) Central Eurasia Project (CEP). EurasiaNet.org operates under OSF’s auspices].
Without proper oversight, assistance projects like this “can easily turn into junkets, or methods by which authoritarian governments use the pretense of combating security threats, such as terrorism, to procure external assistance to secure their own regime’s survival,” Cooley said.
Marat suggested Rahmon and Bakiyev used US assistance for their personal benefit. They saw it as “something the United States just has to do, and they can do with it whatever they want,” Marat said. She added that it is too early to tell how the new president of Kyrgyzstan, Almazbek Atambayev, will treat American aid.
The exercises in Tajikistan included training in “counterterror tactics,” weapons training, communications, combat lifesaving, patrolling, night operations, marksmanship, close quarters battle and the law of war, according to reports that the Department of Defense must submit to Congress every year on the Special Forces exercises it undertakes with other countries. In 2007, US Marine Corps and Army Special Forces trained with 175 Special Forces troops from Kyrgyzstan and 250 from Tajikistan. One training event in Kyrgyzstan was of the Panthers and another Special Forces unit, dubbed Alpha. Another event was with “Ministry of Interior Counter Terrorist Elements,” according to the report.
At a subsequent 2008 training event involving the Alphas, according to another cable, a misunderstanding resulted in Ministry of Interior forces took the US soldiers’ weapons, gear and money, which they did not manage to recover by the time they left. There were apparently no hard feelings: when General David Petraeus, then commander of US Central Command, visited in 2009 he told Kyrgyzstan officials that “he wanted to expand the cooperation between SOCCENT and the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) “Alphas” unit. Petraeus also congratulated the government for carrying out a successful operation against terrorists in southern Kyrgyzstan.”
The US military also has pursued special operations training with Turkmenistan, according to Wikileaks cables. In January 2010, the commander of Special Operations US Central Command, Maj. Gen. Charles Cleveland, met with Turkmenistan’s Minister of Defense Gen. Major Yaylym Berdiev and other defense officials. At the meeting, Maj. Gen. Cleveland proposed “developing a relationship with Turkmen forces with special operations type missions,” according to the cable.
“Some examples of such cooperation might include the possible training of MoD snipers, close quarters combat/clearing buildings, and medical training. Other possibilities, such as working with the Turkmen navy, were brought up,” the cable continued. The Turkmen side was receptive, the cable reported; “while the Ministry’s comments could be a polite ‘we’ll see,’ there seemed to be genuine interest and a possibility for following up these meetings and turning the proposals into more concrete events, from subject matter expert visits and information exchanges to US training of Turkmen SOF, and eventually even joint US-Turkmen SOF training events.”
It’s not clear if the “events” outlined in the January 2010 cable actually took place.
According to the DoD reports to Congress, US special forces have engaged in a handful of recent exercises with Georgia and Azerbaijan. In September of 2009, US special operations soldiers conducted a month-long training with 40 commandos from Azerbaijan’s Ministry of National Security, the intelligence-gathering group that is the successor to the KGB of Soviet Azerbaijan. In 2008, US Army and Navy Special Forces trained with 39 troops of the same ministry over two separate JCET events. In 2007, US Special Forces soldiers trained with 40 troops from Azerbaijan’s Naval Special Mission Unit 641, and 40 more the following year.
In 2009, US Army Special Forces were to train with undisclosed forces in Armenia, but according to the SOCOM documents, that event was cancelled at the “host nation request.”
In 2008, US Army Special Forces trained with 100 members of a Georgian Special Forces brigade. The month-long training ended July 1, shortly before Georgia and Russia went to war. The previous year, elite US troops had trained with 400 soldiers from a Georgian Special Forces battalion. Two exercises had been scheduled for Georgia in 2009, but were canceled “post-Russian incursion.”
In 2007, US Special Forces were scheduled to train with their Kazakh counterparts, but the event was canceled because the US unit was unavailable.