In a sign of how close the unrest in Afghanistan has crept to Tajikistan, two stray shells flew across the border during a recent bout of fighting, forcing Kabul to issue a blushing apology.
Interfax news agency cited a source in Tajikistan’s military as saying the 82-millimeter shells fell in the Farkhor district, which is situated along a wide section of the Panj River, a water course that straddles the frontier.
“Happily, nobody was injured and we have no objections to raise with Afghanistan. We support their fight to restore stability to the long-suffering land of Afghanistan,” the source told Interfax. No date was specified for when the incident took place.
Dushanbe-based newspaper Asia-Plus quoted Afghan media, which in turn cited an unnamed and high-ranking army source, as saying that security operations have successfully expunged Taliban forces from villages in the border area.
That will provide only scant comfort to Dushanbe, which has been in a state of intense anxiety for some months over the trouble rumbling to the south.
In May, Tajikistan’s Defense Ministry reacted to the worsening situation in Afghanistan’s Kunduz Province by ordering the formation of a secondary defensive line along the border. An official quoted by Asia-Plus said that additional forces and equipment had been dispatched to the southern Khatlon province to make up the numbers.
In an indication of the level of concern, President Emomali Rahmon ordered that reservists be drafted into reinforcing the security presence.
The pipeline intended to forge a new export route through Afghanistan for Turkmenistan’s natural gas riches has made a fresh stride with the naming a consortium leader for construction.
Turkmenistan’s state news agency reported on August 6 that state-owned Turkmengaz will be in charge of bringing TAPI — named for the initials of the four countries it crosses — into existence.
The decision was taken during a TAPI management committee meeting in Ashgabat, the Turkmen state news agency reported. Senior officials from the Asian Development Bank, which is acting a transaction adviser on the project, were also in attendance.
“In its capacity as leader of the consortium of the TAPI Limited pipeline company, Turkmengaz will head coordination on construction, financing, management and use of the TAPI pipeline,” said an official statement cited by the state news agency.
Backers of the project, which include the United States and the European Union, appear to be unfazed by occasional and loosely sourced reports of unrest along the Turkmen-Afghan border that would stand to disrupt any major construction work. Security issues do not typically feature in official statements on TAPI, which suggests either that anxieties are overblown or that the parties to the project are simply hoping for the best.
The statement notes that Turkmengaz has more than 50 years experience in the development and transportation of gas resources, as well as in the construction of pipelines. But it also notes hopefully that other large companies will join the consortium as the project moves forward.
Qatar has brokered the release of four Tajikistani border guards who had been held hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan since December.
The news came from the Qatari foreign ministry on June 14, but thus far the border guards haven't appeared in Tajikistan, nor has the Tajikistan government commented.
“Under the directives of HH the Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, Qatari mediation succeeded in the release of four soldiers from Tajikstan who were captured by Taliban in December on the Northern borders of Afghanistan,” the Qatari statement said. “Qatar is using all its resources and diplomacy to save lives."
The four guards were kidnapped while gathering firewood on the border with Afghanistan; their commanding officer was later sentenced to eight and a half years in prison for ordering the men to gather the firewood.
Within days after the kidnapping the Tajikistan government said that they knew where the four were being held and that they would be released imminently, but since then little information has come out.
The intriguing element of the reported release is the Qatari angle. It's not known what Qatar did to secure the guards' release, but the Taliban regularly kidnap foreigners for exorbitant ransoms.
Russia announced this week that it has formally cut off the transit of NATO military cargo through Russian territory. But in theory, Moscow remains open to cooperation on Afghanistan: it annulled the agreement only after NATO quietly allowed the agreement to lapse after the formal combat mission in Afghanistan ended at the end of 2014. And the comparable military transit agreement with the United States remains in effect, though the Pentagon isn't currently using Russian territory for its Afghan transit.
On May 18, the Russian government announced that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had signed a decree annulling the NATO transit agreement. Russia has allowed NATO countries to transport equipment to Afghanistan since 2008, and even allowed NATO to set up a controversial logistics facility in Ulyanovsk in 2012, though the latter, in the end, was rarely used.
In general, the transit routes through the former Soviet Union -- collectively known as the Northern Distribution Network -- have declined in significance over the last few years. The main reason is that Pakistan, which offers a much closer route to the sea from Afghanistan, has become a more reliable partner, making it a much more economical option and Russia and the rest of the NDN effectively a backup.
Tajikistan has created a "second line of defense" along the border with Afghanistan in response to the flare-up in fighting in northern Afghanistan's Kunduz province, government officials have said.
"In connection with the battles between the security forces of Afghanistan and Taliban fighters in the Afghan province of Kunduz, it's been decided to create a second line of defense, and it was carried out in recent days," said one government official. (Tajikistan newspaper Asia-Plus and Russian news agency Interfax seem to have gotten identical statements; Asia Plus identifies the source as a Ministry of Defense official.)
"We are in constant contact with Afghan security forces, and our allies in the CSTO [Collective Security Treaty Organization]. Tajikistan today is able to prevent the escalation of tension in its border areas," the official continued.
The official didn't specify what is meant by a "second line of defense," and for much of the 800-mile long Afghanistan-Tajikistan border there is barely a first line of defense. Aid that Russia has promised to shore up border defenses has been slow to arrive, so it's not clear what might be forming this extra defense.
The fighting in Kunduz has displaced 2,000 families and killed 20 Afghan troops and 150 Taliban fighters, according to Afghanistan officials. Tajikistan officials last week said that the fighting represented no threat to their country.
The Pentagon will provide Uzbekistan with patrol boats and vehicles worth up to $6.2 million to help the country in its counternarcotics efforts, the U.S. embassy in Tashkent has announced.
The short announcement didn't detail the number or types of boats and vehicles, but it did say that they will be allocated to Uzbekistan's State Border Protection Committee of the National Security Service and the State Customs Committee.
Security along the Amu Darya river, which separates Uzbekistan from Afghanistan, has long been a priority of U.S. security assistance to Tashkent; even in the period between roughly 2004 and 2012 when military aid to Uzbekistan was restricted due to congressional sanctions, aid and training for border forces continued.
"In early 2007, the Department of Defense sold the Government of Uzbekistan fourteen patrol boats to promote the security of the Amu River, part of which runs along Uzbekistan's southern border with Afghanistan," reported one 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable. "The Border Guards Termez Riverine Squadron maintains and operates these boats, and DOD conducts annual training on the use of these craft. Training includes basic small craft maneuvering, maintenance, shallow river patrolling techniques, night patrolling, interdiction techniques and radar-assisted patrolling."
Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon at a meeting with senior security officials April 22. (photo: president.tj)
While heavy fighting has broken out in northern Afghanistan, near the border of Tajikistan, officials in Dushanbe say they have the situation under control.
Last week, the Taliban formally announced the beginning of their spring offensive. While attacks have spiked across the country, northeastern Afghanistan has seen unusual amounts of violence. Earlier this month fighting broke out in Afghan Badakhshan, the narrow panhandle bordering the Tajikistan region of the same name. Dozens of fighters on both sides were reportedly killed in those clashes.
Now, heavy fighting has erupted in Kunduz, about 60 kilometers from the border of southern Tajikistan. That fighting has killed at least 30 people and forced President Ashraf Ghani to delay his planned trip to India on Monday. (It's also reportedly come close to the Tajikistan consulate in the city.)
The violence has of course not gone unnoticed in Dushanbe. Last week President Emomali Rahmon convened senior security officials to discuss Afghanistan and ordered "increasing military readiness for the protection of state borders, and the fight against terrorism, extremism and illegal drug trafficking."
Troops from Russia and Uzbekistan are helping Turkmenistan guard its border against militant incursions from Afghanistan, a Turkmenistani exile website reports, citing residents of border areas.
According to the report on Chronicles of Turkmenistan, "residents of Afghan border villages have recently noticed the presence on Turkmen territory border units from Uzbekistan." And it added: "About a month ago military instructors from Russia also appeared on the border. Obviously, the Turkmen authorities appealed to the Russian leadership for help guarding the border with Afghanistan, a situation where, with the arrival of warm weather, has begun to heat up."
Turkmenistan has been taking various aggressive steps to address the rise of Taliban and (some claim) ISIS units in the northern provinces of Afghanistan bordering Turkmenistan. Those steps reportedly include mobilizing reserve troops and carrying out incursions into Afghan territory. However, they have seemed to be trying to prosecute the fight on their own, without any other country's help.
The report of Uzbekistani and Russian troops is obviously sketchy information, and there's nothing to corroborate it. But the news comes as Turkmenistan has begun to come under some public (and undoubtedly private) Russian cajoling to let Moscow help. Just last week, a top Russian security official complained about Ashgabat's refusal to cooperate with Moscow on Afghanistan security issues.
Turkmenistan is undertaking the first large-scale mobilization of its reserve military forces since gaining independence, which government officials say is required to ward off the threat of ISIS forces gathering in neighboring Afghanistan.
That's according to a report in Central Asia Online, a Pentagon-funded news website known mostly for its sunny promotion of the activities of some of the world's most authoritarian governments. This report, even though it falls into that same pattern, is nevertheless pretty extraordinary for the fact that it gets several Turkmenistan officials to talk on the record, and some of them even disagree with one another.
"This is the first large-scale and serious ... mobilisation of reservists in the nearly 24 years of the country's independence," Defence Ministry official Agamyrat Garakhanov told Central Asia Online, calling the number of called-up reservists a "state secret".
A private militia to combat ISIS and the Taliban has been formed in northern Afghanistan, as Afghan and Central Asian officials continue to debate to what extent there is an ISIS presence in the region.
It's not clear how serious the new anti-ISIS militia is: "several dozen" members announced its presence at the provincial council office in Mazar-e-Sharif this week, according to a report by Khaama Press. But they claim to have 5,000 people ready to fight ISIS and the Taliban, and if nothing else they have a keen instinct for PR: their uniforms are the tricolor of Afghanistan's flag -- red, green, and black -- and their name is "Marg," or "Death."
Also this week, a senior Russian defense ministry official visited Tajikistan where he invoked the growing terror threat. The official, Deputy Defense Minister Anatoliy Antonov, called Tajikistan "our outpost in the fight against terror." The officials discussed Russian aid to Tajikistan but no details were announced; Central Asia expert Arkady Dubnov told Nezavisimaya Gazeta (in a piece headlined "ISIS Tests Strength of Central Asia's Borders") that the purpose of the visit was to assuage concerns in Dushanbe about slow deliveries of the military aid Russia has promised Tajikistan.