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, an 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.
There are no camps of terrorists gathering in northern Afghanistan near the borders of Central Asia, an Afghan security official said, in response to a series of claims recently by Russian and Central Asian officials to that effect.
The official, the border service's commander in the north Mir Naim Haydari, added that his agency intends to establish regular contacts with its Central Asian counterparts to exchange operational information about developing issues. He made the comments to Ariana-TV, reported the news agency AfTag. Haydari just returned from a visit to Tajikistan, where he also discussed the issue of the four Tajikistan border guards who were seized by militants in December and are still being held in Afghanistan.
In December, Russia's special envoy to Afghanistan gave detailed information about the supposed existence of ISIS training camps on the borders of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan and the massing of thousands of militants there. That was followed by similar statements by anonymous sources of security services of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to the Russian press, and last week, the head of Tajikistan's Interior Ministry publicly claimed that militants from the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan were massing at Tajikistan's borders.
Three shootings took place on three different sections of Central Asian frontier over the weekend, highlighting how violence-prone the region’s porous borders have become.
The first incident, at a Kyrgyz border post near Tajikistan, left one border guard dead and two wounded. A private has now allegedly confessed to killing his superior in the January 16 shooting, Kloop.kg reports.
Conditions for junior soldiers in Central Asia’s militaries are notoriously abysmal, with senior officers meting out physical abuse and sometimes requiring their underlings to perform in slave-like conditions. So fragging is not inconceivable.
Two days later, Kyrgyz border guards shot a man they describe as an Uzbek hunter who crossed the border illegally, with two others, and opened fire. The Kyrgyz Border Service says it has handed over the wounded man to the Uzbek authorities, which apprehended the other two when they retreated back home. (Update: An Uzbek official later said Kyrgyz border guards had illegally crossed into Uzbekistan and illegally seized the hunters' rifles before retreating.)
Also on January 18, on the drug-saturated Tajik-Afghan border where shootings are common, a Tajik conscript was shot by drug smugglers, Tajik authorities say.