A railroad linking Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, part of a regional project called the Lapis Lazuli Corridor, was inaugurated in an official ceremony on November 28 overseen by the leaders of both nations.
Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov described developing transportation infrastructure as a top priority for his government and that railway and highway bridges traversing the Amudarya River are also to be put into commission in the coming days.
The goal of the Lapis Lazuli Corridor is to see Afghanistan connected to Turkey, and consequently Europe, through transit nations Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia as part of a vision to relieve the country’s remoteness from lucrative trading routes.
Turkmenistan’s government portal cited Afghan President Ashraf Ghani as hailing the importance of the railway for international cooperation.
After a symbolic golden rail clamp was fixed into a place, a maiden consignment of 46 carriages crossed from Turkmenistan into Afghanistan.
The segment of newly inaugurated railroad stretches 88 kilometers from Atmyrat (formerly Kerki) in Turkmenistan to the Ymamnazar border crossing and ends in the Afghan settlement of Akina, the Turkmen state news agency reported. (Spelling for each of these locations vary wildly depending on transliteration or rendering). Two stations — Gulistan and Ymamnazar — have also been built from scratch along the route, the agency said.
"This decision is the result of internal budget considerations and doesn't have any political character," Puglisi said. "There has been no pressure from Uzbekistan or from other states working with our office. On the contrary, we've always had a warm reception in the region."
NATO opened the Tashkent office in 2013, and used it to coordinate the alliance's activities in the region. That meant, primarily, the logistics of moving war materiel in and out of Afghanistan, the then-special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, James Appathurai, said at the time.
The office was tiny -- only four staff members, including two local administrative assistants -- but its departure still seems to represent a further Western military retreat in Central Asia that has been going on for several years.
The US Embassy in Tajikistan issued a warning on its website on November 9 about terrorist groups possibly targeting public gatherings or crossings on the border with Afghanistan.
The message claimed to be based on specific information received by the embassy and urged US citizens to take additional precautions.
Advice included avoiding large crowds and public transport. The embassy singled out the mountainous eastern region of Gorno-Badakhshan as a potential site of risk and warned against camping or biking in the dark there.
Clashes have taken place along Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan periodically, although the Tajik government’s accounts of those skirmishes are usually far from transparent about the causes.
Security officials in Dushanbe reported a surge of disturbances at the start of this year across several points of the border. But while in some instances links to Taliban-linked groups and individuals could be divined, in other cases it was evident that the incursions were the work of drug smugglers.
The singling out of Gorno-Badakhshan is likely linked to the mounting concern over Taliban gains into remote regions of Afghanistan previously thought to be immune to their incursions.
A recent Reuters report from Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province was a sobering reminder of how militants are strengthening their hold of illegal gemstone mining operations in the area. In more heavily populated locations around the city of Kunduz too, the Taliban has shown it remains a formidable fighting machine with which to be reckoned.
China has conducted its first-ever joint bilateral military exercises in Tajikistan, a sign of Beijing's increasing concern about instability in Afghanistan and the capacity of other regional countries to contain it.
The exercise took place in Gorno Badakhshan, the remote eastern end of Tajikistan that borders both Afghanistan and China. Tajikistan's Ministry of Defense reported that the exercise involved 10,000 troops, but that the Chinese contingent was only a "mobile company." A company usually contains 100-200 soldiers, so the Chinese presence was not overwhelming. The exercise reportedly involved armored vehicles, aircraft, and artillery, though it wasn't specified if any of those were Chinese.
Still, the exercise represented yet another step in China's growing military presence in Central Asia. This is the first time that China and Tajikistan have held drills bilaterally in Tajikistan. (Chinese troops did conduct exercises in Tajikistan in 2012, but those were under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and also included other troops from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia.)
“The exercise has shown that servicemen of the two countries are ready to provide support to each other in the fight against international terrorism in case of necessity,” Tajikistan Defense Minister Sherali Mirzo said at the October 24 closing ceremony of the exercise.
Last month, Tajikistan announced that China would build 11 border guard posts along the border with Afghanistan, as well as a border guard training center.
The chiefs of staff of the armed forces of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and Tajikistan watch military exercises in Urumqi. (photo: Inter Services Public Relations)
Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and Tajikistan have set up a "Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism" to jointly combat terrorism, further advancing security cooperation between the unlikely group of countries.
The chiefs of general staffs of the four armed forces met in Urumqi, China, on Wednsday and announced the formation of the mechanism, which will coordinate efforts on "study and judgment of counter terrorism situation, confirmation of clues, intelligence sharing, anti-terrorist capability building, joint anti-terrorist training and personnel training," according to a joint statement by the four sides.
Recall that when this idea was first publicly broached in March, Russian analysts reacted with some alarm, calling it a "Central Asian NATO" representing an unprecedentedly bold move by China into Central Asian security while excluding Russia. (Some Russian media then blamed this blog for fomenting discord between China and Russia by reporting on those analysts' comments.) Thus far there seems to be no further comment from the Russian government or press on this development.
The four representatives also observed a Chinese military exercise at Korla. "Exercise encompased a very effective neutralization of a terrorists' base in a remote mountainous region employing all the modern aerial and ground equipment and gadgets. [Chief of Army Staff of Pakistan] appreciated [the People's Liberation Army] troops for their skills and enhanced abilities to counter all categories of terrorism," according to a Pakistani military press release.
Turkmenistan is getting more directly involved in affairs in northern Afghanistan, an area inhabited by ethnic Turkmens, as instability festers on the border between the two countries.
The Turkmenistan government recently invited several local northern Afghanistan officials to Turkmenistan in late June, and gave free medical care to a commander in an ethnic Turkmen paramilitary unit fighting the Taliban in northern Afghanistan, the commander told the Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Also visiting Turkmenistan were the head of the border police in a district of Afghanistan bordering Turkmenistan, other paramilitary commanders, and the head of the highway police in one northern Afghanistan region. It wasn't clear what the other officials were doing in Turkmenistan, but RFE/RL notes that it is rare for Turkmenistan to give visas to ethnic Turkmens from Afghanistan. The paramilitary commander, Emir Allaberen Karya, told RFE/RL that he hoped Ashgabat would "continue to help the Afghan Turkmens." It's not clear what that help has consisted of, but one assumes it is more than the occasional health care junket to Ashgabat.
Karya said it was his first visit to Turkmenistan and that he had been hoping to meet there other commanders of his group, Arbaky, from neighboring regions but that a Taliban attack on his unit had forced him to return to Afghanistan ahead of schedule.
Also in late June, Turkmenistan's foreign minister Rashid Meredov visited northern Afghanistan unannounced, RFE/RL reported. Meredov visited Jowzjan, Faryab, and Balkh provinces where he visited Turkmenistan-financed development projects and met with local leaders. In one part of the visit his convoy hit a mine, though Meredov was apparently unharmed.
Villages in the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan and Afghanistan have been joined by an electricity transmission line that will bring power to 3,000 Afghans for the first time in their history.
A ceremony to commemorate the event was observed by representatives from the US Embassy and the Aga Khan Foundation, who jointly funded the project, and Tajik and Afghan government officials, a US Embassy said in a statement issued on May 31.
The tortuous road that snakes along the Panj River, which marks the boundary between Tajikistan’s Pamir region and Afghanistan, presents a scene of stark contrasts. Villages on the Tajik side receive steady supplies of electricity from Pamir Energy, an energy company founded in 2002 as a public-private partnership between the government of Tajikistan, the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development and the International Finance Cooperation. When night falls, Afghan villages are largely plunged into darkness, while countless electric lights almost a literal stone’s throw away twinkle in the Tajik villages.
The US Embassy statement said that joining the Afghan villages to the electricity grid in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast
was completed with $1 million grant from USAID and a complementary $464,000 contribution from the Aga Khan Foundation.
“In addition to the newly connected villages, the project helped Pamir Energy upgrade its existing systems and infrastructure, laying the groundwork for further expansion and service improvement to customers on both sides of the Tajik-Afghan border,” the statement said.
Similar stories of cross-border cooperation are all too rare, but this precedent is a heartening change from the stories of violence and drug-trafficking more typically associated with the Afghan border.
In an apparent attempt to assuage Russian concerns, Chinese defense officials have clarified their intentions to create a military bloc along with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. They emphasize that it is not to be a "Central Asian NATO" and would "complement" the efforts of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, of which Russia is a member, rather than exclude Moscow.
The initiative in question was announced during a visit by General Fang Fenghui, the chief of general staff of the People's Liberation Army, during a visit to Kabul last month. Details have been scant, but the initiative was a surprising one given China's traditional deference to Russia in Central Asia security affairs. And Russian media have accused their Western counterparts of deliberately misconstruing the initiative in an effort to sow discord between the two giant neighbors.
"Western media outlets branded the suggestion as a 'Central Asian NATO' claiming to threaten Russia’s influence in the region," wrote the Russian state news agency Sputnik wrote.
Speculation about security threats in Central Asia has largely focused on the border with Afghanistan and the prospect of Islamist militants infiltrating the former Soviet space. This month, for example, Russia and Tajikistan conducted joint military exercises along the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border including over 50,000 troops and Russian strategic bombers.
But those who actually live along that border have a much different perception of what threatens them, worrying much more about isolation and poverty than military incursions, new research has found.
The authors of the report, Strangers Across the Amu River: Community Perceptions Along the Tajik-Afghan Borders, surveyed nine border communities in those two countries. "Border communities often have a different perception of the opportunities and threats posed by borders than do policy makers sitting in distant capitals," the report's authors -- Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh, Kosimsho Iskandarov, and Abdul Ahad Mohammadi -- write. "The Tajik and Afghan border districts tend to be economically impoverished, environmentally insecure and isolated from the centre, thereby presenting limited opportunities for economic stability and growth—the primary concern of surveyed communities situated in such areas."
The study also found that residents see both positives and negatives of living on the border:
Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon meets General Fang Fenghui, chief of general staff of the People's Liberation Army, in Dushanbe in February. (photo: president.tj)
China's plans to create a new Central Asian security bloc have raised concerns in Moscow that Russia is declining geopolitically in Central Asia and may now be competing with China.
General Fang Fenghui, the chief of general staff of the People's Liberation Army, said on a visit to Kabul this month that China was proposing an anti-terror regional alliance consisting of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. Almost no details about the grouping have been announced, but a spokesman for Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani "said the Chinese military chief asked for Afghanistan's participation in the Chinese-proposed anti-terrorism mechanism with Pakistan and Tajikistan," VOA reported. "President Ghani has endorsed the proposal," the spokesman said.
China has been exploring a greater role in Afghan security; during Fang's visit he also promised $70 million in military aid to Afghanistan. But the fact that this proposed alliance would include Tajikistan, and exclude Russia, has raised alarm bells in Moscow. Russia has, until now, seen itself either as the primary security provider in Central Asia or, at times, a partner with China. But that may be changing.