Crossroads Asia | Security | Central Asia

Kazakhstani Blue Helmets in Lebanon

Exploring Kazakhstan’s contribution to the UN Peacekeeping force in Lebanon, a landmark for the Central Asian state.

By Wilder Alejandro Sanchez for
Kazakhstani Blue Helmets in Lebanon
Credit: Photo by Pasqual Gorriz/UNIFIL

Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Defense has announced that a fourth contingent of peacekeepers will be deployed to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) this upcoming August. The Central Asian country is one of the newest nations to deploy contingent troops to UN peace missions. A UNIFIL spokesperson told the author in an interview, “It’s a matter of pride for UNIFIL to be the first UN peace operation to have such highly motivated, professional and disciplined peacekeepers.”

Kazakhstan is by far Central Asia’s biggest contributor to UN peace missions. Kyrgyzstan has deployed 14 personnel and Tajikistan has deployed six. Neither Uzbekistan nor Turkmenistan participate in UN peace missions. Kazakhstan ranks 66th in the UN’s top contributors of personnel to UN missions, beneath Sweden, according to UN Peacekeeping statistics as of May 31. Apart from UNIFIL, Kazakhstan has sent six experts (including one woman) to the UN Mission in Western Sahara (MINURSO).

Kazakhstan’s participation in UN peacekeeping missions has been a long time coming, as the “Kazakhstan peacekeeping regiment (KAZREG) has been participating annually in several international exercises since 2003, with representatives from the United States, Great Britain, Turkey, [and] India,” Captain Saukymuly Aibol noted in an interview with the author.

From the Steppe to Lebanon

UNIFIL was created in 1978, making it one of the UN’s oldest missions. Its task is “to confirm Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, restore international peace and security and assist the Lebanese Government in restoring its effective authority in the area.” The mission’s mandate was adjusted in 1982 and 2000, while the force was enhanced after the war in 2006. As of March 2020, UNIFIL has 9,982 contingent troops and 198 staff officers, for a total of over 10,000 peacekeepers. The mission, sadly, has suffered 318 fatalities.

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In order to train for the UNIFIL mission, prior to deployment, Kazakhstan established its Peacekeeping Centre KAZCENT, with assistance from the U.S. State Department as part of its Global Peace Operations Initiative (GPOI). Prior to traveling to UNIFIL, Kazakhstan’s blue helmets undertook training for six months, covering areas such as cultural awareness, rules of engagement, mobile and foot patrolling, first aid, prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse, protection of civilians, according to Major Assylkhan Amangaliuly, a logistics officer assigned to INDBATT headquarters, and Bauyrzhan Zholdasbayev, a platoon sergeant.

Kazakhstan commenced its participation when the first contingent of troops arrived in late October 2018. “Commanded by Major Ayan Nurkassov, the newly arrived peacekeepers [joined] the existing Indian Battalion in Ibl al-Saqi, south-eastern Lebanon,” the UN reported at the time.

Kazakhstan’s participation is currently in its third rotation, with 120 troops and two staff officers deployed, according to UN Peacekeeping statistics. They will be replaced soon, since “in accordance with the decision of the United Nations, the rotation of the Kazakhstan peacekeeping contingent will be carried out in August,” the Kazakhstani Ministry of Defense has announced.

The Kazakhstani contingent operates out of two bases near Ibl el-Saqi, named UNP 4-2 and UNP 4-3, and is assigned to UNIFIL Sector East, which hosts troops from Brazil, Indonesia, Nepal, Serbia, and Spain, among other countries. The main Indian Battalion (INDBATT) base, where the Kazakhstanis are stationed, is not far from the Sector Headquarters.

What exactly are the tasks of Kazakhstani blue helmets in Lebanon? In interviews carried out by the author, a UNIFIL spokesperson and several Kazakhstani peacekeepers explained their responsibilities in great detail. Their tasks are quite varied, including conducting foot and vehicle patrols, performing staff duties, manning observation posts and checkpoints, providing security to UN positions, and working in the Battalion Mobile Reserve (BMR).

Captain Aibol and Second Sergeant Zholdasbayev explained that operations are carried out both in UNIFIL’s direct area of operations, as well as along the Blue Line – a border demarcation between Lebanon and Israel, which was established by the UN as part of the withdrawal process. Aibol adds that “patrols are conducted both independently and with the Lebanese Army.”

Patrol operations are, by nature, complicated and dangerous. Even so, Kazakhstani military personnel have proven more than capable. While the landscape is different from back home, Kazakhstani military drivers are getting used to it, and it no longer presents a challenge compared to their early deployments, as explained by one Kazakh peacekeeper in a UNIFIL Radio (#185) segment.

For his part, Major Amangaliuly, a logistics officer assigned to INDBATT headquarters, is tasked with logistical issues. In addition to these responsibilities, he explained to the author that he also participates in operational duties such as vehicle and foot patrols with his colleagues from India, in order to identify logistical issues and support INDBATT units.

It is important to note that apart from the duties assigned to the contingent troops, there are some Kazakhstani staff officers performing office roles in headquarters, UNIFIL adds. Specifically, Aibol explains that “many of our officers and sergeants attend several courses in [Sector East] SECEAST HQ, UNIFIL HQ and training courses with [the Lebanese Armed Forces, or LAF].”

Since UNIFIL’s mission is to maintain calm and stability in south Lebanon, it is important for all blue helmets to develop a good relationship with the LAF. During their time in Lebanon, Kazakhstani troops have worked well with the LAF, and the two forces often operate together when carrying out patrols. “We have good interactions with [the] local population, including with our friends in the Lebanese Army,” Second Sergeant Zholdasbayev notes.

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Interactions with the local population, UNIFIL explains, occur “mostly during the implementation of community projects, or when our troops [offer] support to the host communities like, for example, putting out bushfires.”

Kazakhstani-Indian Cooperation

The teamwork between the Kazakhstani and Indian blue helmets is an issue that deserves greater analysis, as most of the Kazakhstani troops form part of INDBATT’s essential component known as BMR, which comprises both Indian and Kazakhstani troops. BMR ensures that at any given point in time, three Quick Reaction Teams (QRTs) are ready to be deployed in case of emergency.

Overall, there has been a “seamless integration” between the troops of the two countries, a great example of South-South cooperation in a third nation. “They have carried out joint operations together including during inclement weather conditions and in difficult terrains,” UNIFIL explained to the author. For example, a video uploaded on January 23, 2019 on UNIFIL’s website shows how, in spite of fog, rain, and snow, Kazakhstani and Indian troops, as part of the two-country joint team, continue their daily patrols on foot and in vehicles in the Shab’a region.

Kazakhstani military personnel are similarly pleased with their work so far with their Indian counterparts. Second Sergeant Zholdasbayev commented, “We coordinate and operate together in our mission. Additionally, we learn new standards from our [Indian] friends, while conducting peacekeeping activities.” Captain Aibol explained that, “I have found Indian troops very professional and friendly to us. Although, we have different languages, religions, and traditions, I can say we have become one family.” On a lighter note, Aibol added that “other than operational and training activities, we also share our traditional cuisine, music and sports like arm wrestling.” While seemingly insignificant, these cultural transactions help build camaraderie between the blue helmets from different countries.

It is worth noting that officers take turns being patrol commanders, as patrols are normally comprised of 50 percent Kazakhstanis and 50 percent Indians. “Joint cooperation lets us achieve all the tasks with respect to peacekeeping activities, in high standards. Together with our friends from India, we conduct meetings and conferences with representatives from different countries in UNIFIL on a regular basis, to carry out our core peacekeeping activities,” Major Amangaliuly concludes.

It is no accident that the two countries are cooperating together in UNIFIL, as there is already a strong history of bilateral defense ties. For example, Kazakhstan and India carried out the bilateral military exercise Prabal Dostyk in 2017. Moreover, India’s The Tribune reported in late June that the Indian government is constructing some type of additional facility in Kazakhstan’s Partnership for Peace Training Centre (KAZCENT), located in Almaty. Not much is known about this particular project, but The Tribune argues that “the fact that the centre is located at the Kazakhstani Ministry of Defence indicates the country’s trust in India.”

Some Kazakhstani troops have trained in India and graduated from Indian military academies. As Aibol explained, “During the pre-deployment training, commanding officers visited India for two weeks to attend a training called KINPOT [Kazakhstan Indian Peacekeeping Operational Training]. Thereafter, the training team came to Kazakhstan to offer classes to our company. A special validation team from India validated and commended the training of the Kazakh contingent.” Amangaliuly was one of the officers who went to India for training, as he “participated in the UN Staff and Logistics Officer course at the Centre for UN Peacekeeping, New Delhi.”

This type of joint training aids in communication, as some Kazakhstanis can speak Hindi. Moreover, this kind of experience will be very helpful for preparing Kazakhstani commanding officers for more senior roles in UN missions, either in UNIFIL or elsewhere.

UNIFIL currently has 45 troop-contributing countries, and ensuring that these troops get along is a critical determinant for the success of the overall mission. The cooperation and teamwork carried out with the Indian Battalion will have also have positive ramifications in future defense initiatives between India and Kazakhstan.

Conclusion

UNIFIL brings together personnel from 45 nations, who work together to maintain peace in an area far away from their homeland. As UNIFIL is the first mission to which Kazakhstan has deployed contingent troops, “We would like to extend our sincere appreciation to the peacekeepers who have served or are serving here as well as the Government of Kazakhstan for their support in implementing UNIFIL’s mandate,” said UNIFIL.

As the fourth rotation of Kazakh peacekeepers prepares to arrive to Lebanon and join UNIFIL in August, Second Sergeant Zholdasbayev’s words point to a hopeful future of peacekeeping. “I am a military person and I am trained [to support] peace in my country. But I am also ready to serve outside my country in order to establish a peaceful environment anywhere in the world. In my opinion, getting an opportunity to maintain peace and stability in Lebanon is a moment of pride for me.” His comrades, Major Amangaliuly and Captain Aibol, echoed his sentiment.

Wilder Alejandro Sanchez is an analyst who focuses on geopolitical, military, and cybersecurity issues in the Western Hemisphere and post-Soviet regions. 

The views presented in this article are the author’s own.