Caspian neighbors Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan recently entered into a bilateral military agreement to coordinate training and educational initiatives, fight terrorism, halt the spread of extremist ideology, and thwart the flow of militants joining rogue forces in Afghanistan and the Middle East.
The agreement, referred to as a Military Cooperation Plan, was finalized in Tashkent, Uzbekistan on August 19 by Kazakhstan’s Minister of Defence Saken Zhasuzakov and his Uzbekistani counterpart Qobul Berdiyev, although the plan had received the green light during Mirziyoyev’s visit to Kazakhstan in March.
“Our countries are seriously concerned about security issues both at the global and regional levels. In this regard, I would like to emphasize that we highly evaluate Kazakhstan’s role, which is doing tremendous work to strengthen peace and stability in the region,” Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev had said in March, shortly before his trip to Astana.
The agreement provides a framework for the two neighbors to strengthen military and military-technical ties, create mechanisms for a prompt response to risks and threats to regional security, joint operational and combat training, and military education.
Terrorism and the spread of extremist ideology have become top security concerns in Central Asia in recent years, due to a series of incidents that have rattled the region and its leaders.
A watershed moment for governments in the region came in June 2016, when a group of radicals carried out an armed attack on two gun shops and a military unit in Aktobe, Kazakhstan. Three servicemen and five civilians were killed in the attacks, which rattled leaders in Astana, who realized radical religious movements prove a real threat to the region.
The civil war ravaging Syria and a fragile security situation in Iraq have also had a direct impact on Central Asia, which remains a key supplier of militants to groups including the Islamic State, commonly referred to as “IS” or “ISIS.” Earlier this year, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev spoke publically about Central Asia’s role in supplying militants to these conflicts.
“Five hundred to 600 Kazakh people are in the Islamic State at present; the total number of its participants coming from the republics of the former Soviet Union totals about 5,000 people, if not more. Therefore, first of all, it is necessary to take such measures to ensure that people cease to join the ranks of terrorists,” Nursultan Nazarbayev said in April.
Kazakhstan, in particular, has adopted a show-no-mercy approach to those citizens who travel abroad to fight for extremist causes.
“In line with the Kazakh legislation, if a citizen of our country has left and joined the ranks of any terrorist or extremist organization, he or she will not be able to return to the homeland because he or she will automatically lose their citizenship,” Nazarbayev said in April, in reference to legislation signed into law in July.
While Central Asia is usually in the backdrop of news reporting on global security, some analysts say international terrorist organizations have plans for Central Asian states.
In 2015, the deputy chairman of the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan, Abdulaziz Mansur, said about 200 Uzbekistanis had been fighting in the ranks of ISIS.
"Over recent years, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have come face to face with terror attacks and with extremist and terrorist propaganda,” Sancar Suleymanov, a theologian affiliated with Kazakhstan’s religious directorate in Jambyl province, recently told Caspian News.
“Law-enforcement agencies are concerned that hundreds of citizens from Central Asian nations have joined militants in Syria and Iraq since 2011. This is a direct threat to our security as they would one day come back home packed with combat experience and ideologically brainwashed," Suleymanov said.
"Uzbekistan's border security is in Kazakhstan's interest. After all, if our neighbors face problems, they will become unavoidable for us," he added, noting that Uzbekistan also shares a border with Afghanistan, where the Taliban has grown in numbers and strength.
Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has made great strides in building ties with its northern neighbor Kazakhstan since he came to power last December, following the sudden death of the country’s first president, Islam Kerimov. During Mirziyoyev’s visit to Astana in March, the two sides signed seven documents that outlined cooperation in areas including transportation, communication, energy and defense.
“We have always understood that security issues are directly related to ensuring sustainable economic development, resolving problems of the ordinary people,” Mirziyoyev said in an interview shortly before his visit. “Therefore, combating terrorism and radicalism should include not only the intensification of security measures, but also efforts to ensure sustainable economic growth, provision of freedom for entrepreneurship, and responding to people's needs. This is the first step towards ensuring security and sustainable development.”