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."
Tajikistan's government provided the Taliban in Afghanistan with weapons in exchange for the release of four soldiers who had been captured by the Taliban on the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border, a Taliban official has said.
The four Tajikistani soldiers were captured last December after they got lost hunting for firewood, and were released in June with the help of Qatari mediation. The terms of the exchange weren't announced at the time, but now an unnamed senior Taliban leader, in an interview with the American website The Daily Beast, said that it involved a shipment of weapons from Dushanbe.
The deal was done by the son of a Taliban leader and a scrap metal dealer in Dushanbe, the official said. "In exchange for the guards’ release, the Taliban wanted weapons," the Daily Beast reported. “'Dr. Tahir Shamalzai [the Taliban envoy] traveled from Kabul airport to Dushanbe, inspected the weapons, and crossed with the weapons from Tajikistan into Afghanistan,' a senior Taliban leader tells The Daily Beast."
The details about the arms shipment are unclear: "Our sources use words like 'big' and 'significant,' but won’t go into details," the website reported. "A Taliban sub-commander in Kunduz who goes by the name Qari Omar tells The Daily Beast that the then-commander of forces there, Mullah Rahmatullah, was pleased with the deal."
The Daily Beast frames the event as part of a larger Russian-Taliban cooperation, which seems improbable; the much simpler explanation is that Tajikistan had access to weapons that the Taliban wanted, and needed to get its soldiers back. The Taliban official made no mention of the Qatari role.
Afghanistan's Uzbek leader and vice president Abdul Rashid Dostum has kicked off an offensive in the northern part of the country, just two weeks after traveling to Russia to arrange an increase in military aid.
On Wednesday, Afghanistan's security forces started an operation in the province of Jawzjan, which borders Turkmenistan, led personally by Dostum. The offensive is meant to beat back recent Taliban gains in the north, both in Jawzjan and in neighboring Faryab, which also borders Turkmenistan. Dostum led another offensive in Faryab in August, but his advances were quickly reversed.
Dostum's increasing involvement in the fighting in northern Afghanistan comes as he has also apparently sought to strengthen his ties to the former Soviet states to the north. He visited Grozny and Moscow earlier this month, meeting with officials including Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, to arrange increased Russian military aid.
After arriving in the north, Dostum appeared on Afghan television and publicly thanked his northern neighbors. "The countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States, from Russia to Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, all of these states are ready to stand with us against [the Islamic State], against extremism, against the bloody Taliban," he said.
Turkmenistan is fuming at suggestions that there has been any unrest along its border with Afghanistan.
The specific target of Ashgabat’s irritation on October 15 was Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who alluded in passing during a meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin to what he see as the mounting threat posed by Islamist extremism coming out of Afghanistan.
“We know about incidents on the border with Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. We need to create an ‘Islam against terrorism’ forum,” Nazarbayev was reported to have said by Izvestia newspaper.
The very mention of Turkmenistan was enough to raise the hackles of the Foreign Ministry in Ashgabat.
“The Turkmen side expresses its profound concern and bewilderment in relation to this untrue statement by the president of the Republic of Kazakhstan about the situation on the state border of Turkmenistan,” the ministry said in a statement.
The Turkmen government seems particularly stung that the source of what it characterizes as idle speculation has come from no less a source than an ostensibly cordial neighbor.
“On the basis of the traditionally brotherly relations between our nations, we hope that the Kazakh government may in future adhere to more objective information when assessing the situation,” the Foreign Ministry said.
Ashgabat’s indignation could in turn provoke bewilderment among observers of the unfolding security situation in the Afghan provinces along Turkmenistan’s border.
There can be no doubt Afghanistan is weighing heavy on the mind of Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. It was a major topic of conversation on October 8, during his visit to his counterpart in Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov.