Chaubatia (Uttarakhand): Amid increased radicalisation and a looming ISIS threat, Uzbekistan is jointly exercising with India to enhance its counter-terrorism expertise as New Delhi seeks to establish a strong bilateral relationship with the key central Asian country where China has huge interests.
As part of the several initiatives launched since 2015, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Uzbekistan, the Uzbek Army is taking part in Dustlik-II — a joint Army exercise with India — here at the Foreign Training Node in Chaubatia near Ranikhet.
The exercise that began on 10 March and will continue till 19 March focuses on learning counter-terrorism drills in an urban and jungle warfare.
Leading the 45-member Indian contingent is the famous 13 Kumaon Battalion of the Indian Army, also known as the Rezang La Battalion.
It was this very same battalion, given the title of the Bravest of the Brave, that fought the Chinese tooth and nail in Rezang La during the 1962 War.
“The exercise focuses on counter-terrorism operations under a UN mandate. The focus here being heli-borne operations, jungle warfare and operations in an urban setting which includes Cordon and Search Operation, room intervention and mobile vehicle check points. We shared our specialisation and they shared their survival skills,” said Col Amit Malik, the Commanding Officer of 13 Kumaon.
“We shared a lot of good practices in 2019 when the exercise was held for the first time. At that time, Indian soldiers had come to our country. We are here to jointly train in anti-terrorism drills, where India has a lot of expertise,” said Colonel Namilov Azizbek Boxriddinovich, heading the Uzbek delegation.
India’s expertise in counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency tactics stems from years of operation in Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast.
The growing ISIS concern
While the last terrorist attack in Uzbekistan was in 1999, the country has a large youth population and radicalisation is a concern. Sixty four per cent of the country’s 33 million population is young, below the age of 35.
What is a matter of concern is that some of these youths got radicalised and joined ISIS where they have carried out numerous attacks against western forces and civilians besides in Afghanistan.
It was in December 2020 that Uzbekistan brought home 25 women and 73 children from Syria where they had been staying at camps with other families of ISIS fighters.
Uzbekistan had also repatriated 220 women and children from Syria in 2019.
Although the former Soviet state is a Muslim-majority country, Uzbekistan was known for its strict control of religious expression and practices, described by a UN report in 2019 as “extreme surveillance and state control of religious practices”, including laws that criminalise unregistered religious activities.
Islam Karimov, the country’s former president, ruled with an iron fist since its liberation from the Soviet Union in 1991. He had curtailed many religious freedoms, which experts say led to radicalisation.
However, since his death in 2015, his successor, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has introduced many reforms, which resulted in the US removing the country from its list of countries engaged in severe violations of religious freedom.
India’s central Asia outreach
India is keen to ramp up its ties with Central Asia and military exercises are planned this year with other countries including Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan.
The special forces from Turkmenistan are already getting trained in India.
As far as Uzbekistan is concerned, there has been significant intensification in bilateral ties in recent years. This is basically due to the visit of Prime Minister Modi in July 2015 and June 2016 to Tashkent, the opening up of Uzbekistan by President Mirziyoyev and his visit to India in October 2018 and in January 2019.
Bilateral relations now encompass a wider canvas, including on political and strategic issues, defence and security, trade and investment, energy, agriculture and education, among others.
Bilateral defence cooperation got a fillip following the visit of the then Uzbek defence minister Maj. Gen. Abdusalam Azizov from 4-7 September 2018, which was followed up by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s visit to the country in 2019.
Following his visit, both sides agreed to conduct joint training of special forces, conduct of training capsules in military engineering for Uzbeks and exchanges between air forces for assistance in development of Qarshi Aviation School in Uzbekistan. India has also assisted in setting up an India Room at the Armed Forces Academy of Uzbekistan in Tashkent.
China’s influence in Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan’s ancient cities of Samarkand and Tashkent, which were part of the old Silk Route, play an important role in global trade amid the escalating China-US trade war, a Forbes report said, adding that the country may very well be the best under-the-radar investment story in the world today.
China has huge interest in Uzbekistan and has emerged as Tashkent’s main trading partner.
China is a major importer of Uzbek gas and more than 500 new Chinese companies were registered in the country in 2019.
“Trade is likely to be further enhanced with Uzbek businesses now able to access loans at fixed rates via a yuan-denominated loan service at Uzbekistan’s National Bank for Foreign Economic Affairs,” a report by Nikkei Asia said.
(Edited by Sanghamitra Mazumdar)