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Kazakhstan’s new defense minister is the right choice at a crucial time

31 октября 2014, 09:37
I was in Ukraine this summer to write about the conflict.

I had been in and out of the country for a dozen years as a journalism consultant, and lived in Odessa and Lviv for two years as a Fulbright professor, so I have lots of Ukrainian friends.

As you can imagine, most were upset that the rift between those wanting to retain close ties with Russia and those wanting to edge closer to the European Union had erupted into bloodshed.

Many of my friends were also upset – dismayed would be a better word – about the terrible state of the Ukrainian military.

Ukrainian army soldiers. ©AFP

Years of corruption and neglect had left it woefully unprepared to take on any enemy, let alone a larger, well-trained force with state-of-the-art equipment.

At the heart of the dismembering of the Ukrainian military was corruption among the very civilian and military leaders who were supposed to be ensuring its combat-readiness. That corruption included top civilian leaders siphoning off money earmarked for the military, and even officers and NCOs selling equipment to line their pockets.

When the conflict in eastern Ukraine began, the military lacked the combat-ready manpower, state-of-the-art equipment and supplies that were needed for victory.

Volunteer militias sprang up to provide manpower, and rank-and-file Ukrainians donated uniforms, food and other items to regular army units because the military had neither supplies nor a logistics capability.

I recalled my Ukrainian friends’ bitterness about their hollowed-out military when I learned this week that President Nursultan Nazarbayev had named Astana Mayor Imangali Tasmagambetov the new defense minister.

I think it’s a great choice. If anybody can mold Kazakhstan’s 110,000-person military into the kind of top-flight fighting force that makes a potential enemy hesitant to attack, it’s Tasmagambetov.

Imangaly Tasmagambetov. ©REUTERS

He’s taking over at a time when a lot of Kazakhs are nervous about the regional geopolitical situation.

They worry that Kazakhstan will find itself in a Ukraine-type dilemma some day.

Two years ago such worries would have seemed far-fetched, but what’s happened in Ukraine since late 2013 has changed all that.

One reason Tasmagambetov is a terrific choice for defense minister has to do with psychology: He has a commanding presence and a reputation for competence that will help allay the public’s fears about the geopolitical situation.

A tough, no-nonsense leader, he is also known for fierce determination, getting things done and not giving up.

That’s exactly the kind of defense chief that Kazakhstan needs to reassure the citizenry at a time of regional turmoil.

I once asked a member of Tasmagambetov’s staff in the Astana mayor’s office if he was a tough guy to work for.

“Yes, he is very tough, very demanding,” she replied. But, she quickly added, his staff respected him because they felt he was always leading the city and the country in the right direction.

Another reason I believe Tasmagambetov is the right choice for defense minister is that he’s one of the best administrators in Kazakhstan – perhaps THE best.

I lived in Almaty for two of the four years he was mayor there.

He was in the post from 2004 to 2008. When he took over, the city’s infrastructure was beginning to crumble, and many Almaty residents were grumbling about the decline of their city.

I was there between 2006 and 2009, and remember the sweeping improvements he made. They included the rejuvenation of parks, roads, other public works and the airport.

Friends who are longtime residents of Almaty say he was the best mayor the city’s had.

Not only did he get the city moving again, but he demanded that the improvements be made yesterday, according to friends who worked in the mayor’s office.

“I wish he were still here,” one of my Almaty buddies, a top business executive, said wistfully.

In Astana, Tasmagambetov has presided over a ballooning population, the addition to the skyline of such internationally known landmarks as the Khan Shatyr and the Astana Opera Theater, and the organizing of high-profile events such as the Asian Winter Games of 2013 and Expo 2017.

Khan Shatyr. ©tengrinews.kz

He was always working in the spotlight, too, given that Astana is President Nazarbayev’s pride and joy.

Speaking as an old military officer, I believe Tasmagambetov will have three broad challenges as defense minister.

The first will be to accelerate the modernization of Kazakhstan’s military hardware so that it has equipment that’s as good as any fighting force’s in the world.

Kazakhstan began getting serious about modernizing its military equipment about a decade ago, with President Nazarbayev himself ordering the upgrade.

In contrast to Russia’s recent crash military-hardware-renewal program, Kazakhstan’s program has been gradual but steady – so there’s still much to do.

Tasmagambetov’s reputation for impatience, and his ability to marshal resources to address whatever challenge is facing him, will ensure that the pace of Kazakhstan’s equipment-replacement program accelerates.

Kairat Kelimbetov (L), deputy Prime Minister of the Republic of Kazakhstan and Chairman of the Organizing Committee of the EXPO-2017, and the mayor of Astana, Imangali Tasmagambetov (R). ©REUTERS

Another challenge Tasmagambetov faces as defense minister is improving the quality of the military’s officers and NCOs.

Recent history has proved that the best military forces are all-volunteer.

Kazakhstan began moving toward an all-volunteer force a few years back, steadily reducing the percentage of its conscripts.

A couple of years ago, it backed away from going all-volunteer because of the cost, and the percentage of conscripts began creeping up again.

The military is now 65 percent volunteer and 35 percent conscript.

In early October, the armed forces chief of staff, General Saken Zhasuzaqov, announced that Kazakhstan would have an all-volunteer military by 2016.

The military has made such pronouncements before, however – only to fall short.

Tasmagambetov will be so determined to create an all-volunteer force that I believe it will get done on his watch.

It will be costly, because Kazakhstan’s young people – particularly those with university degrees eligible for the officer corps – have choices these days.

The fact that Tasmagambetov has been a Nazarbayev confidante for decades will help him marshal both the political will and the financial resources to finally create an all-volunteer military.

The third challenge Tasmagambetov faces as defense minister is ensuring that the military has the world-class training it needs to repel threats.

Imangali Tasmagambetov. Photo courtesy of astana.gov.kz.

Kazakhstan does a good job of training its troops, American military friends familiar with its military have told me.

It not only trains them with its own officers and NCOs, but it also takes part in multinational exercises to learn from other countries.

These exercises have been with NATO forces, including the United States, with Russian and Chinese forces, and with the forces of Central Asian and Eastern European nations.

Tasmagambetov may discover he has less work to do on training than on other fronts, but no military is perfect, so he may find it necessary to tweak training, too.

With only 17 million people, Kazakhstan will never have a large military.

But the Israelis and others have proved that you don’t need a gargantuan military to be a feared fighting force.

With the right leadership, Kazakhstan can create a world-class military that can make potential adversaries think twice about taking it on.

In my book, Tasmagambetov will provide that leadership.

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