On June 8-14, member countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) held a joint military exercise, Peace Mission 2012, at the Chorukh-Dayron training range in Sughd Province, northern Tajikistan. According to the Tajik Ministry of Defense, the exercise was designed to test and strengthen the capacity of the SCO member states to respond jointly to terrorist threats in Central Asia’s mountainous areas.
Around 2,000 troops from China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan took part in the week-long drills. Chinese forces participating in the exercise included a motorized infantry company and an artillery unit. Russia dispatched some 350 troops reinforced by armored personnel carriers and tanks from the 201st Military Base in Tajikistan, and ground attack aircraft from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) base in Kant, Kyrgyzstan. Kazakhstan contributed a battalion from an air assault brigade, as well as fighter jets, combat helicopters, and armored personnel carriers. Kyrgyzstan sent a Special Forces unit and a mountain warfare company. Tajikistan’s forces participating in the drills included an air assault unit, a motorized rifle battalion reinforced with tanks, military transport helicopters, and personnel from the Ministry of Emergencies. This was the smallest Peace Mission drills staged by the SCO since 2003.
Because the exercise was staged in Tajikistan, it was led by the Tajik Ground Forces Commander, Major General Emomali Sobirov. The host country’s president, Emomali Rahmon, attended the training ground on June 14 to observe the final stage of the exercise. Playing good hosts, the authorities in Dushanbe hailed Peace Mission 2012 as a “success” and praised the “increasing spirit of cooperation” within the SCO.
Yet independent experts suggest that there are two major messages that have come from the drills and that are of special importance for Tajikistan. The first message is that Tajikistan should not expect the SCO to help resolve its tensions with Uzbekistan. Although Dushanbe’s primary motivations in joining the Shanghai Five in 1996 and then the SCO in 2001 had little to do with its bilateral relations with Tashkent, Tajikistan has long hoped that the institutionalized discussion forum provided by the organization will help iron out its disagreements with Uzbekistan over time. It is increasingly clear that these expectations will not be fulfilled. Wary of potential conflicts within its ranks, the SCO has chosen not to venture into peace brokering among its members.
Moreover, the exercise has revealed that the SCO’s two leading members, China and Russia, have little influence on the organization’s “most difficult” member country, Uzbekistan. Without offering any explanation, Tashkent refused to send troops to the joint exercise in Tajikistan. In fact, Uzbekistan has not participated in any of the SCO’s anti-terrorist drills since 2007. This time, however, Tashkent went much further in exposing its problematic relations with the SCO. Several days ahead of the exercise, Tashkent refused a request from Astana to allow Kazakh troops and hardware to cross its territory en route to northern Tajikistan. The Kazakh units had to make a detour through Kyrgyzstan to reach Tajikistan. The development has demonstrated that despite all the talk about the SCO’s unity, the organization is still unable to resolve differences over such basic issues as military transit through member state territories.
The second message that Tajikistan should get from Peace Mission 2012 is that the SCO’s ability to deal with real-life terrorism in the region is seriously limited. The anti-terrorist exercises that the SCO has rehearsed since 2003 were based on scenarios that are unlikely to play out in real life. Tajikistan’s own recent experience in fighting militant groups that had infiltrated from Afghanistan and staged guerilla-type attacks against government troops in 2010 showed that fighter jets, tanks, and heavy artillery are of little use in such circumstances. Besides, the 2010 conflict in eastern Tajikistan’s Rasht Valley demonstrated that real security crises unfold too quickly for a conflict-ridden multilateral organization to be able to effectively respond.
To sum up, the authorities in Tajikistan should remember that the SCO is the wrong platform for resolving bilateral tensions with Uzbekistan. They should also remember that when a real security crisis erupts in the region, there will be little use in waiting for the SCO to amass a multilateral response force and tackle it.
(Published originally in the CACI Analyst on June 27, 2012).