Kazakhstan soldiers in southern Tajikistan for CSTO joint military exercises. (photo: CSTO)
Russia and several of its allies have completed joint military exercises on the Tajikistan Afghanistan border, which they say was necessitated by the worsening situation in northern Afghanistan.
The drills of the Collective Security Treaty Organization began last week and the first step was deploying the 2,500 troops, without prior notice, to the exercise site in Tajikistan's Khatlon province. According to the scenario of the exercises, "the situation on the Tajik-Afghan border seriously deteriorated. Armed groups invaded the territory of Tajikistan from the territory of Afghanistan. The Tajikistan armed forces together with other security structures carry out military operations to repel the invasion."
Military units from the various CSTO member states carried out individual tasks: Tajikistani aircraft carried out aerial reconnaissance and identified the position of "terrorist groups" numbering 700 people.
Then an Armenian special forces company reconnoitered the site on the ground, traveling with modified Nissan pickup trucks armed with machine guns. Then, various special forces units from Belarus, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan advanced to "capture the militants' field commander and secure the withdrawal of the Armenian reconnaissance troops."
In the final stage, Russian and Kazakhstani bomber jets carried out air strikes on the militant positions, and drones identified targets for further artillery strikes.
So how realistic of a scenario is this? CSTO General Secretary Nikolay Bordyuzha, observing the exercise, said "the threat from Afghanstan persists, connected with the presence of Taliban and other armed groups not controlled by Kabul, on the southern vector of the CSTO area of responsibility." He said that there were some members of ISIS alongside the Taliban forces, "which can't but be cause for concern in the heads of the CSTO member states." And he blamed NATO: "In spite of the presence of NATO forces for more than a decade in that country, the economy has not been secured in Afghanistan, a normal living standard for the population has not been restored, and there are difficulties in the military-political aspect."
"The difficult situation in Afghanistan was one of the reasons for these snap exercises of the rapid reaction troops of the CSTO," he added.
An unnamed official from Tajikistan intelligence services told Russian news agency TASS that the Taliban now control 80 percent of the Afghanistan province of Badakhshan, which borders the Tajikistan province of the same name. "At present, separate units of the terrorists have advanced right up to the Afghan-Tajik border and have stopped a few kilometers away from it,” the official said.
“Proceeding from the information we have, the Taliban don’t have any plans to cross the state border into Tajikistan at the moment but nonetheless a second line of defense consisting of Tajikistani Army units has been set up along the most vulnerable sections of the border as a preventive measure," he added. A spokesman for Tajikistan's ministry of defense identified the priority sections of the border as Shakhritus, Pyanj, Khamadoni, Farkhor, Shuroabad, and Darvaza, RFE/RL reported.
Still, assuming the Taliban were to want to advance into Tajikistan, it remains doubtful that they would do so via a 700-man invasion force, into a territory where all available evidence suggests they would have no support among the local population. Still, Russia and the CSTO seem to be thinking that a show of force can assure Central Asians that the Islamist spillover threat that their governments have been hyping is something that their security forces can handle.