As the recent visit of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov to Tashkent underscored, Uzbekistan is interested in boosting strategic cooperation with Russia. Even so, Uzbek leaders continue to view the United States as the country's key strategic partner. A US-funded training program for Uzbek non-commissioned officers illustrates the primary role played by the Pentagon in modernizing the country's military.
Uzbekistan is striving to streamline its 65,000-strong military, shedding its reliance on conscripts. By the end of 2005, Uzbek defense planners hope the country's military will be dominated by professional soldiers. At present, the development of a solid corps of non-commissioned officers, in particular sergeants, is being emphasized, according to the Ministry of Defense. "Fixed duty terms of service will remain," said ministry spokesman Kamil Jabarov, "but professionals working under contracts will make up the majority of the army. Sergeants will provide the backbone."
Four training centers for Uzbek NCOs have been constructed with help from the United States and other foreign donors. Though Uzbekistan's dismal human rights record has at times hampered bilateral cooperation, US military assistance to Tashkent has risen an estimated 1,800 percent since 2001. The Bush administration has come to view Uzbek President Islam Karimov as a key partner in Central Asia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Under the auspices of a 2002 strategic partnership agreement, specially selected Uzbek NCOs have received training at military bases in the United States. Many of these NCOs have returned to Uzbekistan, where they, in turn, lead the basic training of other non-commissioned officers.
At a Samarkand academy for NCOs, Utkir Mamatov, a training instructor, puts his NCO cadets through the paces. "The U.S. army attaches special importance to security measures, though, in general, their methodology is similar to ours," Mamatov told the cadets. "They run, they pull up... in other words, they do all we do."
According to one diplomatic observer in Tashkent, the NCO-training courses have allowed the Uzbek army to become "more inter-operable" with the US military. The training is emphasizing leadership skills. Rather than relying on officers to micro-manage military units -- a technique favored by the Soviet military -- Uzbek sergeants are trained to assume greater responsibility for the implementation of orders, leaving "the big picture" to senior officers, the diplomatic source said.
Some difficulties in Uzbekistan's transition to an NCO-based army have already been encountered, the diplomatic source said. "[F]or the new officer to stop acting like a sergeant and allow their sergeants to do their job can be hard on the young officer," the source said. "As for senior officers, who, for most of their lives, operated under a different system, undoubtedly, there will be problems."
Language is another potential issue. While most soldiers rely on Uzbek, many senior officers speak only Russian. Though a transfer to NATO-style uniforms is planned for this year, dependence on outmoded Russian weapons and materiel remains high.
Reconciling Uzbekistan's efforts to make its military NATO-friendly with its recent attempts at a closer military partnership with Russia could prove an additional challenge. Since the March bomb attacks that killed an estimated 45 people in Tashkent and Bukhara, Russia has refocused its strategic sights on Uzbekistan after years of chilly relations. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. At a time when Russia has announced its withdrawal of border troops from Tajikistan, such partnerships could prove increasingly important to the Kremlin as it attempts to counter growing US influence in the region.
Meeting with Karimov on May 12, Ivanov, the Russian defense minister, declared on Uzbek state television that greater cooperation was required to combat "the terrorist disease" that afflicts both Central Asia and Russia. Joint military exercises with Russia are planned for 2005, and Uzbekistan has been invited to observe exercises this year among Russia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Plans for a common air defense system are currently awaiting ratification by the Russian Duma.
Meanwhile, the NATO-friendly reforms continue. Over the past five years, official emphasis has been placed consistently on reducing troop numbers and on enhancing civilian control over the military. The country's defense minister, Kadir Gulyamov, a physicist with little military experience, was the first civilian to oversee a military among Commonwealth of Independent States. He remains the only civilian in charge of a military establishment in any Central Asian country.
Under a Defense Doctrine formulated in 2000, up to 15,000 troops are slated to be cut from Uzbekistan's army -- Central Asia's largest -- leaving the country with a force of about 53,000. Mandatory service time has dropped from two years in the mid-1990s to one year. Those with a college education serve just nine months. A draft law for troop reserves could slash that service time still further.
Uzbek defense doctrine foresees the Ministry of Defense acting as an overall administrator and financial planner for Uzbekistan's military, with a council modeled on the US Joint Chiefs of Staff in charge of coordinating inter-service actions among the army, air force and interior ministry and border troops. Emphasis has been placed on developing small, adaptable forces rather than on maintaining Soviet-style tank and aircraft brigades. The underlying goal of the reforms remains sacrosanct, with newly trained Uzbek sergeants termed "true patriots of the motherland." It's a PR message the sergeants themselves are quick to repeat. "No one is more professional than I am," training instructor Mamatov announced to cadets in Samarkand. "I am a sergeant, leader of soldiers."
Rustam Temirov is a pseudonym for a Central Asian journalist.