U.S. To Increase Intelligence-Sharing With Central Asian Security Services
In his testimony to Congress last month, the chief of U.S. Central Command, General James Mattis, said that he had instructed the U.S.'s intelligence officers to draft "releasable products" to give to its "most trusted partners" in regions including Central Asia:
As I travel throughout the [CENTCOM area of responsibility] and see the promise of new initiatives and the risk posed by numerous challenges, I receive requests from military leaders across the region to increase intelligence sharing between our militaries. Many show determination to make tough decisions and prioritize limited resources to oppose antagonists seeking to destabilize their countries or use them to plan and stage attacks against the U.S. homeland. With this in mind, and in order to demonstrate our commitment, I requested the Intelligence Community to begin drafting releasable products for our most trusted partners in the Levant, on the Arabian Peninsula, in the Central Asian States, and in South Asia as a standard practice rather than the exception.
I am encouraged by the personal attention the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is giving these matters. Director Clapper’s strong emphasis and encouragement for the intelligence community to produce intelligence in a manner that eases our ability to responsibly share information with our military counterparts creates a stronger, more focused front against our common enemies and builds our partner nations’ confidence. We are grateful for the nimble manner in which our intelligence community has strengthened our efforts to checkmate more of our enemy’s designs.
As Roger McDermott points out in a very worthwhile piece in the new edition of Jane's Intelligence Review (subscribers only), "Touching the void - Security vacuum issues in Central Asia," Central Asian intelligence agencies are problematic partners, useless at best and organs of repression at worst:
Intelligence agencies in Central Asian states share common origins and approaches to their tradecraft, emerging from the main security agency of the Soviet-era, the KGB, and in most cases have experienced little change. Shared KGB origins permeate the culture of these intelligence agencies and their perception as the custodians of the regime. This distinction is important because intelligence officers in Central Asian states primarily look after the interests of the ruling regime, and are not exclusively focused on countering threats to the state. Only Kazakhstan has separated its foreign and domestic intelligence services in a departure from the normal concentration of power in the hands of one agency. Nonetheless, the Soviet intelligence heritage that influences the functioning of these agencies manifests in a number of weaknesses, such as the underestimation of the value of open source intelligence, or the tendency to sensationalise reporting to government.
A number of factors distinguish these structures from their Western counterparts, highlighting the formidable challenges facing such agencies in assessing transnational or specific Afghanistan-linked threats to the state. Unlike Western intelligence agencies, in Central Asia intelligence gathering and analysis capacity is also taken up by spying on the domestic political opposition, or on the activities of groups or individuals promoting human rights. Moreover, these intelligence officers also spend working hours pursuing anti-corruption investigations into state officials or, in some cases, facilitating their own corruption rackets.
(Mattis referred to sharing with "military counterparts" but McDermott suggests very plausibly that these KGB successor agencies -- which the U.S. is already helping to train and equip -- will be the beneficiaries.)
It's worth noting that Mattis, in his testimony about Central Asia, used the Afghanistan-centered threat assessment that has been discredited by most serious observers of the region (including the U.S.'s own intelligence community):
Central Asia shares similar threats from the Afghan border regions and CENTCOM military assistance focuses on building the capacity to fight against violent extremists. We are committed to preventing violent extremist organizations from using Central Asia as a base for terrorist operations and strengthening relationships based on shared understanding of the terrorist, criminal and narco-trafficking threats. Military assistance is focused on building counterterrorism capacity.
And Mattis's description of military ties with Uzbekistan -- home to the most nefarious of Central Asia's intelligence services -- suggests that country would probably fall into the category of "trusted partner" who could get U.S. intelligence help:
Our relationship with Uzbekistan continues to improve in a deliberate, balanced way driven by regional security considerations, expansion of the Northern Distribution Network and mutual benefit. Security cooperation serves to provide increased U.S. access and influence in cultivating engagement for humanitarian and democratization efforts. We recently signed new agreements providing important new capabilities in support of Afghanistan and expect cooperation to continue to progress in a methodical step-by-step manner that addresses security threats of our mutual concern.
Without knowing what is going to be in these "releasable products," we can't assess what the impact might be. In the best case, providing intelligence on genuine external threats might nudge the Central Asian SNBs and GKNBs away from targeting political opposition and towards genuine security threats. But it's a lot more plausible that Central Asian leaders will use their new intelligence as they do most foreign assistance, and for what they are most interested in: keeping themselves in power.