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.
Tajikistan's armed forces are setting up a new base near the Afghanistan border in response to the apparent massing of fighters on the Afghan side of the border.
The base, to be called "Khomiyon," will be in the Kulyab region. "Tanks, armored vehicles and other weaponry" will be deployed to the base, which "units of all security structures of the country will be able to use for conducting maneuvers," reported RFE/RL, citing a source in Tajikistan's Ministry of Defense. While there is no "immediate threat" from the Taliban fighters apparently massing near the Tajikistan border, Dushanbe still chose to take "preventative measures," the official said.
(Technically, the facility is not a "base" but a "polygon," a Russian word suggesting something smaller than a base, though the report also noted that the polygon would operate "under the regime of a military base.")
An unnamed source in Tajikistan's State Committee on National Security (GKNB) told the Russian news agency TASS that "groups not controlled by Kabul" have massed on the Afghanistan side of the border.
"We are closely tracking the situation close to the border of Afghanistan, especially in the Badakhshan and Pyanj areas, where intelligence has noted a gathering of armed individuals, coming from various extremist and terrorist communities like the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan," the source said.
A senior Kremlin official has warned that the Islamist group ISIS is gathering its forces in northern Afghanistan in preparation for an attack against Central Asia and Russia, and that a wide array of military measures are required to prevent that. But in spite of the alarmist rhetoric, he suggested that the Russian military would not be heavily involved in Central Asia's fight against ISIS.
The official, Zamir Kabulov, is Russian President Vladimir Putin's special representative for Afghanistan, and he gave a long interview to Interfax on the occasion of the end of the Western combat mission in Afghanistan. The ginning up of the ISIS threat isn't new for Russian officials, but Kabulov's interview is noteworthy for its unusual amount of detail. (Whether or not that detail corresponds to reality is another matter.)
According to Russia's information, Kabulov said, a "small group -- maybe a bit more than a hundred fighters" -- was redeployed from ISIS's main base in Iraq and Syria to Afghanistan. But they supplement local fighters loyal to ISIS, he says:
A "spillover" into Central Asia is inevitable, especially considering that all the foundations are there. They have created two beachheads in Afghanistan: one on the border of Tajikistan, and the other of Turkmenistan. There they have concentrated fairly large forces. Let's say on the Tajikistan beachhead there are 4-5,000 fighters concentrated. And on the beachhead opposite Turkmenistan, 2,500 fighters. They have deployed camps for two-month preparation courses for fighters. We know of three such camps, and there may be more. They are training 50 fighters in every course, so if you take at least three camps that we know about, that's 150 fighters every two months. What's interesting is that they are mostly natives of Central Asia.
Georgian Defense Minister Mindia Janelidze sees off troops on their way to Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan. (photo: MoD Georgia)
The Georgian armed forces have begun their new mission in northern Afghanistan, serving as the rapid-reaction force under German command in Mazar-e-Sharif.
A reconnaissance company totaling about 170 soldiers was sent off at a ceremony in Georgia December 16. It will take part in NATO's new Resolute Support mission, which is set to formally begin on January 1. While the mission will no longer be oriented toward combat, the rapid-reaction forces will be there to protect coalition troops.
And so Georgia, again, has taken on one of the "tip-of-the-spear" (as the U.S. military might put it) roles in Afghanistan. For four years Georgian troops conducted combat missions in Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold. Now, in addition to the company in Mazar-e-Sharif (where they'll be serving alongside neighbors Armenia), a Georgian battalion has been deployed to Bagram since November, under U.S. command, guarding the base there.
Georgia will have a total of 750 soldiers serving in Resolute Support, remaining the largest non-NATO contributor of troops to Afghanistan. The send-off ceremony was attended by Defense Minister Mindia Janelidze, as well as representatives from NATO and the German armed forces.
Echoing a string of Georgian officials across several changes of government, Janelidze explicitly tied Georgia's contribution in Afghanistan to its aspirations to join NATO.
Germany and Uzbekistan have reportedly agreed on an extension of the leasing agreement for the German air force base in Uzbekistan. But the details of the deal remain a tightly held secret.
The previous agreement by which Germany operated the small air base at Termez, on the border with Afghanistan, lapsed at the end of October. Germany has operated the base, which supports German troops in Afghanistan, since 2001. As of a few days before the deadline the two sides had yet to agree on an extension, but they seem to have made a deal.
"The ministries of defense of the two countries signed an agreement of the rent of the air hub," a "source familiar with the situation" in Moscow told RIA Novosti. But the source "declined to specify the new time frame of the lease and the details of the agreement." The Uzbek service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported the the two sides also signed a "non-disclosure agreement" to not reveal the terms of the agreement.
Russian analysts, of course, are spinning this as really being about the U.S. The fact that the Germans are paying "a substantial sum" for the base which is "absolutely not needed for the few hundred German soldiers staying in Afghanistan after 2014 ... indirectly shows that the extension of the base lease is also being used by the U.S. Air Force," Arslan Magomedov told Regnum.ru.
But an unnamed German official told RFE/RL that Termez is still important for the German military. "Regardless of the completion of the international peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan, we'll continue our important work. And that means that Termez remains an important air base for us."
Turkmenistan's armed forces have entered the territory of Afghanistan in an apparent effort to drive back Taliban forces that had settled on the border between the two countries, Afghan residents have told the Turkmen service of RFE/RL.
The report is in Turkmen but has been translated into Russian by Alternative Turkmenistan News. It quotes residents of the Qaisar region of Afghanistan's Faryab province saying that Turkmenistan soldiers crossed the border about three months ago and have dug trenches and built fences.
This would seem to be the latest escalation in an increasingly tense situation on the Afghanistan-Turkmenistan border. Earlier, there had been reports of Turkmenistan border guards making incursions in Afghanistan, and the Turkmenistan armed forces carrying out exercises close to the border. But now they seem to be going even farther.
"The Turkmenistanis came here, dug trenches, set up wire fences," one resident told RFE/RL. "No one asked them what they were doing here. The trenches they dug are four meters wide and five meters deep. Besides that, in the same place they are paving a road."
And the Turkmenistan soldiers have apparently blocked access to the area where the villagers had previously grazed their animals. "Now we can't use our pastures like before. We don't have anywhere to graze our livestock, the animals are starving. Turkmenistan has taken what really belongs to us."
Another resident echoed that complaint: "We had grazed our sheep on this land, we had grazed all our livestock there. Let them open a road for us and let us graze our livestock there again."
The head of United States Central Command has visited Uzbekistan as the U.S. works to "rebalance" its policies toward Central Asia, a policy which officials increasingly admit has been excessively focused on security.
General Lloyd Austin, head of CENTCOM, visited Uzbekistan and met with President Islam Karimov among other officials. There was no official word on what the visit was about. Voice of America Uzbek service's Navbahor Imamova, who has good sources on these issues, says that her sources say the visit was "purely maintenance" and included "no basing talk."
That didn't convince everyone, and the Uzbekistan news website uzmetronom reported that Austin was in Uzbekistan to negotiate a new U.S. military base there, and that the U.S. was offering Tashkent a billion dollars a year for the privilege, and that Germany was opposing it behind the scenes. That's all pretty unlikely, but it's interesting coming from uzmetronom; the site is well connected to the country's security services and in Uzbekistan there are obviously strict limits on what can be published. Whatever the reason, the report was of course eagerly picked up by the Russian media.
In March, Austin testified to Congress about the U.S. military's posture in the CENTCOM area, and said this about Uzbekistan:
The idea of linking Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan by rail appears to have wheels once more, following reports earlier this year that the project was running short of steam.
Back in January, Turkmenistan went cold on the estimated $2 billion link, slated to be part financed by the Asian Development Bank. Ashgabat faulted Afghanistan and Tajikistan for not keeping the Turkmen leadership in the loop with regard to the route the railroad would follow. As EurasiaNet.org reported:
On January 29, the head of state-owned Tajik Railways, Amonullo Khukumatullo, announced that Dushanbe and Kabul had themselves decided on the route for the Afghan section of the rail. The announcement apparently caught Ashgabat by surprise because on January 31, the Turkmen Foreign Ministry protested that Khukumatullo’s declaration was "tendentious and absolutely unacceptable" and "counterproductive."