What Were American Humvees Doing In Zhanaozen?
American Humvees, given to Kazakhstan using U.S. military aid, appear to have been used by the security forces which violently quelled the December riots in Zhanaozen, killing at least 17 protesters. The U.S. gave the Humvees to the Ministry of Defense for use in its nascent peacekeeping brigade, and it's not clear who was using them in Zhanaozen. But their use there suggests either that the peacekeeping brigade, known as KAZBRIG, was used to put down the uprising in Zhanaozen, or that the Humvees are being used by some internal security unit rather than by Ministry of Defense forces. Neither of those options are likely to please the Americans who gave Kazakhstan the Humvees.
The involvement of the Humvees is shown in a citizen cellphone video, aired in this report from Russian television network REN-TV. At about the 1:35 mark, you can see three Humvees driving down the road, and at 1:42 a very fleeting image seems to show another one traveling in the opposite direction.
Obviously, that brief glimpse doesn't say much, but it does suggest that Humvees were on the scene at the crackdown (assuming this isn't some sort of elaborate disinformation campaign). So, what were they doing?
The U.S. began giving Humvees to Kazakhstan in 2002, and now, according to a 2010 diplomatic cable, the "Kazakhstan HMMWV fleet currently includes 114 vehicles (45 up-armored vehicles, the rest being primarily unarmored or ambulances). KAZBRIG uses the [Humvees] for training peacekeepers and is expected to deploy with them as part of a future PSO [peace support operation]."
The Humvees are part of the U.S.'s effort to help Kazakhstan move from a Soviet-era military posture that emphasized defense of the border with China to one that deals with threats that are more likely now, against Kazakhstan's oil infrastructure in the western part of the country. So the U.S. has emphasized troop transportation (what the military calls "mobility") so that Kazakhstan can react to threats across the huge, sparsely populated Caspian Sea region. The Humvees are part of a U.S. aid package that includes a handful of Huey helicopters and a long-discussed but still unrealized plan to give C-130 transport planes to Kazakhstan.
According to Michael McCarthy, a former air force colonel who worked in security cooperation with Central Asian countries, in his report The Limits of Friendship (pdf):
The HMMWVs, helicopters, and transport aircraft are intended to improve Kazakhstan’s capabilities to rapidly respond to threats in any part of its vast territory, and, if completed, would dramatically improve the capabilities of its mobile forces.
None of that, obviously, fits with the pictures we see in that video, of the Humvees being deployed in a civil unrest scenario. Also obviously, the Humvees would add very little to the Kazakhstani security forces' ability to put down the uprising -- whatever Russian jeeps they would use instead of these would do the job 99 percent as well. But it doesn't look good, and it illustrates the perils of even well intentioned security assistance to countries where the line between "security threat" and "popular unrest" can be blurry. I've asked the State Department for comment, and I'll update or do a new post when they respond.
UPDATE: The State Department responded:
"•The United States Government reviews exports and transfers of defense-related goods and services on a case by case basis, and weighs the economic, national security, foreign policy, and human rights implications of each proposed transfer in making its decision or recommendation.
•As a matter of policy, review and monitoring is an integral component of assistance delivered to any recipient nation to make sure that assistance is being used in the manner intended, and is consistent with our legal obligations and foreign policy goals."
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.