ALMATY - Monday, August 23, 2010 -
ASTANA – There are reasons that military planners make the annual Steppe Eagle counter-terrorism and peacekeeping exercises near Almaty, underway since August 16 and set to finish on August 30, as realistic as possible.
For one thing, the more realistic they are, the better chance the exercises will save lives when the participants see combat. Also, the realistic scenarios help troops learn how to win the hearts and minds of the non-combatants they’ll encounter in a conflict zone—an important and useful task in the unconventional wars of our time.
In the past, military exercises used to consist of opposing forces – the good guys and the bad guys. Now there are three types of players – the good guys, the bad guys and those caught in the middle.
So not only are the 1,000 Kazakh troops who are taking part in the exercise not only learning how to repel a terrorist attack on their post, for example, but they are also learning how to respond when the local mayor makes a request, according to U.S. Army Maj. Rafael Acevedo.
Acevedo is one of 45 American and five British soldiers participating in the exercise at the Ilysky military range, which is aimed at helping Kazakh forces work seamlessly with NATO troops on peacekeeping missions. Kazakhstan is one of the former Soviet countries in NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program.
Forces work on a broad range of military techniques, scenarios
The Kazakh forces at the Steppe Eagle exercise worked on battlefield reporting procedure during the first week of exercises, Acevedo said. That may sound mundane, but reporting must be done in a standard way to avoid miscommunication that leads to disaster.
The second week of the exercise, which started Sunday night, involves such scenarios as Kazakh forces falling under attack, finding a roadside bomb or responding to a kidnapping, said Acevedo, who is with the U.S. Army Central Command in Atlanta. Second-week training also focuses on helping civilians.
The bottom line, the major said, is that the exercise will be giving troops a taste of all the roles they will play “when doing a peacekeeping mission.”
The Kazakhs taking part in the exercise are from two elite units: the Kazbrig peacekeeping brigade and the Kazbat air-mobile battalion.
And “they’re a very professional army,” Acevedo said.
Exercises remember a key, fallen Kazakh soldier
Kazakhs have long respected their warriors, and for the past five years that Steppe Eagle has been held, they remember a fallen peacekeeper.
At the height of the Iraq War, on January 9, 2005, Iraqi police found a major arms cache in Al-Suwaira, in the northern province of Wasit.
Concerned about the stability of the weapons, they called in coalition disposal experts. One of them was Captain Kairat Kudabayev.
He, along with other Kazakh peacekeepers and Ukrainian peacekeepers, set about preparing to dispose of the arms.
Suddenly one of the weapons exploded, killing Kairat and seven Ukrainian peacekeepers. Four Kazakh and five Ukrainian peacekeepers lay wounded.
The tragedy at Al-Suwaira was a pivotal moment for Kazakhstan’s commitment to peacekeeping operations around the world.
Within three months of the explosion, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko had announced that his country’s 1,600 peacekeepers would leave Iraq by the end of the year.
Members of the U.S.-led coalition wondered whether the 30 or so Kazakh peacekeepers would follow suit.
Kazakhstan decided to stand fast in Iraq, a decision for which U.S. officials expressed deep appreciation.
Kazakhs continued to dismantle weapons, purify water and provide medical care to coalition soldiers and civilians for almost four more years. They finally left on October 21, 2008, after Iraqi officials told Kazakh leaders that an improved security situation meant the peacekeepers were no longer needed.
Thankfully, the Kazakh unit suffered no additional casualties before going home.
Kazakh peacekeeping united played an important role in Iraq
Last year Kazakhstan celebrated the tenth anniversary of the formation of the Kazbat peacekeeping unit in January 2000. The unit has since been expanded into a brigade –thus its current name of Kazbrig.
The peacekeeping unit’s achievements in Iraq included dismantling an incredible 4 million mines and other explosives, helping provide medical care to more than 5,000 coalition members and civilians and purifying 718 cubic meters of water. Many of the women and children who received medical care had been wounded in the fighting.
The Kazakh troops also taught field engineering to 572 students at Iraq’s Military Academy.
U.S. officials attached special importance to helping Kazakhstan initiate a peacekeeping unit, recognizing that a unit from a Muslim nation would be an asset in future operations.
Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups had characterized the U.S.-led coalition’s deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq as wars against Islam. Deployment of a Muslim country’s peacekeeping force to Iraq would help dispel that notion, American officials believed.
The Kazakh unit’s mission In Iraq was significant for another reason as well: It was the first peacekeeping force from Central Asia to be deployed outside the region.
The Kazakh military ordered nine rotations of soldiers to Iraq before the peacekeeping mission ended. Altogether, 290 Kazakhs served there.
This year’s eighth Steppe Eagle exercise will help Kazakh troops be prepared for when the call comes for the next peacekeeping mission.
Military exercises always challenge the body and soul – and the one that’s going on now will be no exception, Acevedo said.
There will be a parachute drop tomorrow, weather permitting, and a river crossing later in an area outside the Ilysky military range.
The exercise will end Friday. Then there will be a day of remembrance for past soldiers who sacrificed their lives.
Those who participated in Steppe Eagle will go to the Great Patriotic War Memorial in Almaty’s Panfilov Park to pay their respects before an eternal flame to the Kazakhs who died in the fight against Nazi Germany.
It will be a poignant reminder that being a brother or sister in arms cuts across countries and generations.