An Anecdote About Crisis Response in Kyrgyzstan

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by Joshua Foust on 8/3/2012 · 11 comments

Rosa Brooks, the new military blogger for Foreign Policy, shares a fascinating anecdote:

Here’s a small but not atypical example. A few readers may remember the spring 2010 crisis in Kyrgyzstan. Several hundred people were killed by police and ethnically aligned mobs, many more were wounded, and thousands of refugees (mostly from the Uzbek minority population) fled their homes.

Within the White House, these events triggered fears of a possible ethnic cleansing campaign to come, or even genocide. One day, I got a call from a member of the White House’s National Security Staff (NSS). With little preamble, he told me that Centcom needed to “move a surveillance drone over Kyrgyzstan, ASAP, so we can figure out what’s going on there.”

This wasn’t such a crazy idea. Drones and other intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets have the potential to be powerful tools in human rights monitoring. The ability to watch troops or mobs or refugees move in real time, to see weapons being stockpiled or mass graves being filled, might help us take timely and appropriate action to stop a genocide before it gets off the ground.

There was one enormous problem with my NSS colleague’s request, though: Neither of us had the authority to order Centcom to immediately shift a potentially vital asset from wherever it was currently being used to the skies over Kyrgyzstan.

She goes on to describe how the NSS worried that Osh would turn Kyrgyzstan into another Rwanda and how they didn’t want to “spin up a whole bureaucratic process” to get a drone flying above the city. When Brooks balked at sending a drone over a country where there was no agreement to fly U.S. drones, the NSS staffer tried to pull rank (“I’m calling you from the White House“) and then morals (“The president wants to prevent genocide in Kyrgyzstan”), to no avail.

Brooks means this story as a lesson in civil-military relations, and how the two groups rarely understand how or why the other works. I think there’s an extra lesson there as well. Christian Bleuer saw a rise in anti-Uzbek violence in Kyrgyzstan in the weeks leading up to the June Events, and worried openly about the potential for those smallish brawls to turn into “a more serious ethnic political cleavage.”

Sadly, they did turn into a more serious cleavage. But more than the cleavage resulting in atrocities that the U.S. was unwilling to assist with (the U.S. didn’t even send humanitarian aid for the Uzbek refugees who fled the carnage) is the bias inherent to how the NSS was trying to understand the situation. In 2010 there were U.S. government employees either in or very close to Osh — both at the State Department and with the DOD and various intelligence agencies who run the Manas air base. The NSS didn’t want to contact them to get a handle on what was going on — they wanted a drone.

Drones have a tendency to do this when decision-makers are under a severe time crunch for making a decision: they replace readily available sources and can supplant a strategy. Floating a drone over Osh and Jalal-Abad would not have made it any easier to “prevent a genocide” in southwestern Kyrgyzstan, as it wouldn’t have made interventionist troops any closer or more able to get there given the turmoil also wracking Bishkek at the time.

The desire to generate information is understandable, even laudable, but even there drones would have had limited utility. The fires that raged across Osh (a picture above of one burned out building I saw there, 18 months afterward, is a testament to how awful it was) created clouds of smoke a Predator drone’s main camera couldn’t see through, while the heat they generated would make the infrared camera difficult as well. That doesn’t mean a drone would be blind, but in this case — sending a single drone, re-tasked from monitoring the war it was monitoring — a drone really wouldn’t have told them very much.

One of the remarkable things about the violence in Osh is that the open sources everyone can read — English and Russian press, social media, emails, text messages, and so on — were actually very good at telling the story of the violence as it unfolded in real time. These things created an archive of the massacre as it unfolded, one with far richer data, stories, and media (images, video, audio) than a drone could ever provide.

Yet, the policymaker defaulted to a drone — to the easy-seeming technological solution for gathering information over the messier but far more accurate and comprehensive social and open solution. In the end, the fact that the U.S. never really did anything about the riots, whether monitoring or helping Uzbekistan with the influx of a hundred thousand refugees, doesn’t matter. It was tragic inaction but didn’t affect the outcome. However, the reliance of drones instead of sober consideration — of using a drone as the strategy instead of in service to a strategy, as I’ve noted happens elsewhere — that is what’s so fascinating, and worrying, about Brooks’ account.

Note: Unmentioned in Brooks’ story is seeking permission from the government of Kyrgyzstan to actually fly said drone over Osh. It may not have been possible or feasible given the turmoil occupying Bishkek’s new government at the time. Still, the omission of even discussing local government permission to fly a military asset over their airspace is fascinating: one of the key points undermining the sovereignty argument that Pakistani intellectuals employ to oppose drone strikes there is that the government of Pakistan has given the U.S. permission to fly drones over its airspace. Without that permission, doing so is a violation of sovereignty and if missiles are fired from the drone, it is an act of war. With permission, drones are neither offensive nor anti-sovereignty. Neither the NSS staffer in this story, nor Rosa Brooks herself, seemed to consider Kyrgyzstan’s sovereignty in their argument about drones.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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AJK August 3, 2012 at 10:26 am

“the spring 2010 crisis in Kyrgyzstan”

That’s just stomach-turning DCspeak right there, ain’t it?

Nathan Hamm August 3, 2012 at 10:31 am

More or less, but that kind of language does serve the purpose of letting one talk about the situation without inviting any and all comments to go off on the tangent of who is responsible.

Joshua Foust August 3, 2012 at 10:35 am

It also encompasses more than just Osh/Jalalabad, and includes the political crisis, the interim government issues, and the protests. So in a way it’s a better term even if it comes off as antiseptic.

Don Anderson August 3, 2012 at 6:51 pm

Excellent piece ….

This is actually a perspective shift that needs to happen.

We are too fast to treat problems as “visual” and not willing to “look inside” these issues. The excessive and over simplification of each and every crisis is not befitting of a Great Nation involved in every corner of the world.

Osh is “Rwanda”
The Tribal Areas are “free fire zones”
Call in some Drones.

Droning for observation or striking is nothing more than a cheap bandaid that replaces analysis or understanding or dare we use this word at all…”wisdom.” when we look at the world.

The NSS approach in this example, the CIA approach in the Tribal Areas negates understanding of what is
A. Causing the crisis at hand
B. Providing solutions to the same.

We cannot improvise strategy or action by just observing or striking without losing the real end goal of what we are doing. Thus, when we do this the results invariably lead to repeating the action without ever solving the problems at hand.

We do this until the “time to leave” has arrived, and then wonder why in some unforseen number of years we must revisit again, the exact same problem that led us into conflict in the first place.

The approach is always flawed, in each and every aspect.

Bill August 5, 2012 at 3:41 pm

Are you actually suggesting that its optimal for U.S. policy makers to be making decisions regarding U.S. interests based off of information available in Russian press reports??? Why don’t we just cut the middle man out and have them call the FSB directly!

I’m not defending the statements of this clown in the NSS – clearly he sounds like he doesn’t understand U.S. military capabilities and is dangerously mistaken to think that U.S. responsibility to protect extends everywhere irrespective of the reality of U.S. strategic interests. But there is a reason why we have an IC and suggesting we cut them out of the loop in order to feed policy makers first-hand open-source reports which are often formulated to serve various interests and power to the detriment of our own is a *REALLY* bad idea.

Nathan Hamm August 6, 2012 at 8:50 am

I don’t think he’s saying that at all, but rather that there were sources of information already available to a different pool of analysts that were more or less sufficient for everyone’s needs.

Joshua Foust August 7, 2012 at 7:18 am

Thanks, Nathan. I did not endorse Russian press here. I did, however, endorse using a broad spectrum of courses — including, if you notice high up in the text — U.S. government assets that were nearby and reporting up through proper channels.

The drone-first mentality is damaging and squeezes out other options.

Jake Turk August 5, 2012 at 6:07 pm

As usual, you make a strong case against drones as a default tactic, and of course the idea that Washington could have intervened in Osh on a timeframe capable of saving lives even if it wanted to (in some other universe) deserves no thought.

That said, you also imply the more extreme position that drone surveillance offers no benefit at all or at least not proportionate to the material and diplomatic costs of using them. The KIC report and eyewitness accounts mention endless specific crimes–rooftop snipers, ethnic stop-and-beat checkpoints, the infamous Nostalgia cafe, security forces handing over APCs to rioters or even joining them, organized shuttling of thugs via truck or van, and the final storming of the main Uzbek mahalla’s barricades–that could have been imaged and even monitored in broad daylight. Much of this happened in open areas like markets and main thoroughfares where obstruction by smoke and flames would have been far less than in looted residential areas.

Yes, zero lives would have been saved, but potential evidentiary value is there. Getting cynical, sharing such images with the Kyrgyz government behind closed doors with implications of releasing them to the public could be used as either a threat to motivate more (any?) earnest investigation and prosecution on their part or, less likely, reward them with any evidence supporting their allegations of Uzbek aggressors.

Bottom line, any comparison between intelligence gathering in Osh (a crime) and the AfPak border (a war) sounds like a stretch, and drone surveillance was an effort that should have been made, even if only to disprove its effectiveness in humanitarian crises.

Boris Sizemore August 8, 2012 at 1:44 am

Ask anyone here on the ground about the Drones, and they will say, “nice toy” that doesn’t change a thing in the battle. The Insurgents know its out there, and do as much masking as possible. They know what is like to be killed by them. So they try to avoid the best they can. They expect to lose 50% or more of the fighters in any major engagement. . Staying in the fight is all that matters.

Drones are not stopping anything. Drones are not helping to “understand and defeat” the enemy. What Drones see is not a good barometer of anything, nor anything to base operational or strategic decisions on.

On the Tribal Area Pakistan Side, it is of huge debate whether the employment of Drones at all is an overall plus. Some would argue that it only creates more combatants. The Afghans scoff at it.

For every drone strike they believe at least 100 plus new fighters join the other side. When I ask why they remind me that every Tribal person has that many cousins in the family. When I laugh, they tell me not to. They say that is really how it works. Maybe yes, maybe no?

But it is a big issue in Pakistan. I have never met a Pakistani who thought it did anything to lessen the extremist threat at all.

Maybe no one cares what Pakistanis and Afghans think, but their decisions will decide the future out here in Khost and elsewhere along the Border.

I guess they imagine they know better at Langley. Everyone has a right to see things differently in this world.

Sometimes… I think some people envision this war as some sort of “lab” experiment or testing environment. The Soviets thought the same thing. Big Mistake in retrospect.

It is very hard to predict and know in advance how Humans react to things. Sometimes they do the exact opposite of what the prognosticators expected

the Googler August 16, 2012 at 7:26 pm

” … the U.S. didn’t even send humanitarian aid for the Uzbek refugees who fled the carnage”

So, you sell yourself as an expert on the region, but you can’t even get this easily-verified fact right? Don’t tell anyone, but there’s this secret internet device called Google Search. If you type in “USAID Uzbekistan refugee” and click on the thing that looks like a magnifier, it will show you some previously-never-before-seen-TOPSECRET news reports.

Like this one (dated June 25, 2010):
USA to allocate aid worth $32m for Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan

“In 2010 there were U.S. government employees either in or very close to Osh — both at the State Department and with the DOD and various intelligence agencies who run the Manas air base.”

First of all, how would you know who was in Osh at the time? Are you a spy? Secondly, what’s your source for your claim that “intelligence agencies run the Manas air base”?

Lies. Assertions without any basis in fact. I wanna play this game, too!

In 2010, Russia had spies on the ground in Osh and Bishkek, both at their embassy and consulate, in addition to the air base in Kant operated by the Russian intelligence service. The Russians used their spy planes stationed at Kant airbase to document atrocities committed by Kyrgyz forces but have declined to make these public as they are using the threat of “black PR” as leverage against the government of Kyrgyzstan.

Joshua Foust August 17, 2012 at 8:57 am

Hey there. Just so we’re clear, promising aid three weeks after the violence ends isn’t really evidence of the U.S. providing humanitarian aid. Very little of that $32 million showed up for months afterward.

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