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.
Russia and Tajikistan have begun large-scale military exercises to practice defending against an invasion by Islamist extremists into Central Asia.
The exercises will take place over six days along more than 1,000 kilometers of the Tajik-Afghan border, which is the site of much speculation about a possible incursion of Islamist extremists from Afghanistan into Central Asia. (The total length of the border is about 1,400 kilometers.)
"Joint groups of paratroop forces from Tajikistan and Russia are being airlifted to possible points of incursions by terrorist groups on the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border," said Faridun Makhmadalizoda, spokesman for Tajikistan's Ministry of Defense.
There are several features that make these exercises appear more significant than the other, relatively frequent, exercises that Russia and Tajikistan carry out. For one, they're involving 50,000 troops from Tajikistan and 2,000 from Russia. Russian forces and equipment will include not only those from Russia's 201st military base in Tajikistan, but others from elsewhere in Russia's Central Military District, the first time that has happened. In addition, Russia has deployed two strategic bombers to the exercise to practice exchanging data with officers on the ground in Tajikistan. Other planes were deployed from Russia's Kant airbase in Kyrgyzstan.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meets Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov in Ashgabat. (photo: MFA Russia)
Russia has offered Turkmenistan help in guarding that country's restive border with Afghanistan, but Turkmenistan has turned them down, Russia's foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said on a visit this week to Ashgabat.
The top agenda item for Lavrov's two-day visit was gas. Russia's state company Gazprom announced earlier this month that it was stopping gas purchases from Turkmenistan, which used to be one of Moscow's top suppliers until China built a huge pipeline to Turkmenistan and now buys the lion's share of Turkmen gas. It's not clear what progress was made on that front, but Russian newspaper Kommersant, citing anonymous sources, reported that "in the coming days the two sides will start negotiations about the possible parameters of further cooperation in the gas sphere."
But the two sides couldn't not discuss the situation on the border with Afghanistan, which over the past two years has unexpectedly become the site of several skirmishes and incursions back and forth between the Taliban and Turkmenistan's security forces.
The official Turkmen statement about Lavrov's visit said the two sides discussed "a united position regarding the necessity of a political-diplomatic resolution of the problems in the Central Asian region, in particular those connected with the situation in Afghanistan."
Lavrov himself was a little more specific, telling reporters that Ashgabat had described some "additional measures" that they were taking on the border, and that they didn't need Moscow's help.
Russia has reached out to the Taliban in Afghanistan in what senior officials say is an effort to cooperate with them in the fight against ISIS in that country. The strategy would be shift for the Kremlin, which has largely portrayed the Taliban as just as much of a threat as ISIS.
The Kremlin's special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, said in an interview with Interfax last month that Russian interests "objectively coincide" with those of the Taliban in the fight against ISIS, and that Moscow has channels for information sharing with the Taliban. "The Taliban now for the most part act like a national liberation movement. For them the Americans are occupiers, who illegally occupy their homeland and threaten their cultural and religious traditions," Kabulov said.
The Taliban, for its part, denied that any contacts with Russia had taken place:
On Wednesday 23rd December 2015 some media outlets published a report quoting the Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov as saying that they have talked to or established lines of communication with the Islamic Emirate regarding the threat of so called Daesh in Afghanistan.
The Islamic Emirate has made and will continue to make contacts with many regional countries to bring an end to the American invasion of our country and we consider this our legitimate right.
But we do not see a need for receiving aid from anyone concerning so called Daesh and neither have we contacted nor talked with anyone about this issue.
Tajikistan is planning to create "special reconnaissance units" to guard the border with Afghanistan, a senior security official has said.
The units will be part of Tajikistan's State Committee for National Security (known by its Russian acronym, GKNB), which oversees the border, according to the commander of the border forces, Radzhabali Rakhmonali.
"The situation on the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border is complex. In Kunduz, Takhar, and Badakhshan provinces the 'Taliban' movement is working actively. So it's been proposed that we restructure the border forces and form special reconnaissance units," Rakhmonali said in parliament on Friday. Last week, Tajikistan suspended operations at its consulates in Kunduz and Badakhshan because of security concerns.
More than 1,000 troops will serve in the new units to start, a military source told AFP. Radzhabali also said that "there are financial means" for attracting more contract troops to the border force.
The proposed restructuring also would make the commander of the border forces responsible directly to the president rather than to the government as is the case now. The restructuring has been approved by the lower house of the parliament, and must be approved by the upper house and then the president. Given the top-down nature of politics in Tajikistan, there's no reason to believe the proposal won't be eventually approved.
Leaders from Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India gathered in Ashgabat on December 13 to jointly inaugurate the start to work building a natural gas pipeline linking the four countries.
The $10 billion project, if it is ever completed, could some way to quenching energy thirst in South Asia.
The presidents of Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, the vice president of India and the prime minister of Pakistan traveled out to a spot in the Karakum desert near the city of Mary to attend the ceremonial welding of the first section of pipeline, which they all signed.
“What we see today is not just TAPI, but a super-highway between Central Asia and South Asia,” Afghan president Ashraf Ghani said.
Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov was no less fulsome.
“TAPI is intended to become a new effective step towards the formation of a modern architecture of global energy security — a powerful factor for economic and social stability in the Asian region,” he said at the ceremony.
Berdymukhamedov signed a government decree in November mandating that the pipeline be completed in three years, despite all of the security concerns that have surrounded the project, which has also been marred by uncertainties over funding.
The main investor in construction is Turkmenistan state-owned Turkmengaz, which was picked in August to head up the TAPI Limited consortium.
The pipeline is designed to carry 33 billion cubic meters annually and will stretch more than 1,800 kilometers through the Afghan cities of Herat and Kandahar and end up in Fazilka, on the border of India and Pakistan.
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Rosenblum gives a press conference in Ashgabat on November 18. (photo: U.S. embassy, Ashgabat)
Turkmenistan's government has told the United States that it doesn't need help in protecting its border with Afghanistan, a senior American diplomat has said.
If true, this means Turkmenistan has changed its mind. Earlier this year U.S. military officials said that Ashgabat had asked for aid to help guard its southern border, which over the past couple of years has been the site of repeated clashes between Taliban militants in Afghanistan and Afghan and Turkmen security forces.
"The Turkmens recently expressed a desire to acquire U.S. military equipment and technology to address threats to their security along their southern border with Afghanistan," said General Lloyd Austin, the commander of U.S. Central Command, in testimony to Congress in March. "We will do what we can to support those requests."
This week, Deputy Assistant Secretary State Daniel Rosenblum visited Ashgabat, and gave a press conference on November 18 where he was asked about U.S. cooperation with Turkmenistan vis-a-vis border security.
"We have seen reports, some in the press and elsewhere, about incidents happening on the border not just recently but going back to last year on the Afghan-Turkmen border," Rosenblum said. "There was one incident that we have heard about in which some Turkmen border guards were killed. We have discussed this with our partners here in Turkmenistan, representatives of the government as well as other international organizations. And the Turkmenistan government has said that it feels they can guarantee the Turkmen border and doesn't require any additional assistance from outside."
About 4,500 Islamist militants are operating in northern Afghanistan near the borders of Central Asia, and are planning to create an "emirate" consisting of much of the territory of the region, Russian officials have said.
"According to the information we have, in that area groups of militants are moving toward the border of the [former Soviet Union], in particular to the borders of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan," said Alexander Manilov, coordinator of the Commonwealth of Independent States border guard services, at a meeting on Thursday of the group in Astana. (The CIS is an organization of post-Soviet states.)
"Therefore one of our tasks today is to discuss how to liquidate these threats on the border and that they don't cross into the CIS countries," he said. "According to estimates about the Afghan border, around 4,500 militants, terrorists, are located in the Afghan territories bordering immediately on the CIS countries."
"I believe this is significantly more than it used to be before," Manilov added. "I think there are real threats - from penetrations across the border to attempts to destabilize the states on the [Afghan] border."