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.
Abdul Rashid Dostum and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu meet in Moscow. (photo: Dostum's facebook page)
After the Taliban took over the city of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, Russia has responded by taking a number of measures aimed at shoring up security in the region, strengthening both their own and partner armed forces.
Taliban forces seized Kunduz at the end of September, marking the first time the group has controlled a major city since being driven out of power in 2001. Afghan government forces retook the town days later, but the episode nevertheless highlighted the deteriorating security situation in the northern part of the country.
While the Taliban's goals still appear limited to Afghanistan's borders, their growing strength in the region has worried Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, which lie just over Afghanistan's northern border. And Russia, in spite of already being militarily engaged on multiple fronts, is trying to increase its engagement in Central Asia, as well.
First, Russia announced that it would bolster its military base in Tajikistan with a new air group and additional Mi-24P attack and Mi-8 MTV transport helicopters. (This announcement, incidentally, let us learn a little more about the murky situation around the Ayni air force base outside the capital of Dushanbe. Russia has reportedly been trying to gain control of the base, but this week the Tajikistan's Ministry of Defense issued a statement clarifying that they owned the base and were merely allowing Russia to use it.)
Turkmenistan’s president has reshuffled the country’s top security officials in a major change of personnel that suggests creeping anxiety over unrest on the border with Afghanistan.
State media on October 6 reported that Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov named the head of his praetorian guard and close confidante, Guichgeldy Hojaberdiev, to head up the National Security Ministry, the successor agency to the KGB.
Hojaberdiev takes over from Yaylym Berdiyev, who had occupied his post since 2011 and has now been appointed Defense Minister, replacing Begench Gundogdiyev.
Gundogdiyev will in turn take over as commander of Turkmenistan’s naval forces.
Berdymukhamedov announced the personnel changes during a session of the state national security council, portions of which were shown on television.
Taking on their new roles, all the officials read out a vow of loyalty to the president and kissed the national flag as they kneeled.
At the meeting, Berdymukhamedov expressed his satisfaction with the work carried out by the National Security Ministry, which he said was responsible for upholding the foundations of the constitutional order. The president said that it was important to strengthen state security to ensure future prosperity.
The word was then given to the head of the state border service, Murad Islamov, who reported on his agency’s efforts to protect the country’s frontier so far this year. State media offered no specifics other than to cite Islamov as saying that the border service is “thoroughly upholding the key principles of Turkmenistan defensive military doctrine.”
In a sign of how close the unrest in Afghanistan has crept to Tajikistan, two stray shells flew across the border during a recent bout of fighting, forcing Kabul to issue a blushing apology.
Interfax news agency cited a source in Tajikistan’s military as saying the 82-millimeter shells fell in the Farkhor district, which is situated along a wide section of the Panj River, a water course that straddles the frontier.
“Happily, nobody was injured and we have no objections to raise with Afghanistan. We support their fight to restore stability to the long-suffering land of Afghanistan,” the source told Interfax. No date was specified for when the incident took place.
Dushanbe-based newspaper Asia-Plus quoted Afghan media, which in turn cited an unnamed and high-ranking army source, as saying that security operations have successfully expunged Taliban forces from villages in the border area.
That will provide only scant comfort to Dushanbe, which has been in a state of intense anxiety for some months over the trouble rumbling to the south.
In May, Tajikistan’s Defense Ministry reacted to the worsening situation in Afghanistan’s Kunduz Province by ordering the formation of a secondary defensive line along the border. An official quoted by Asia-Plus said that additional forces and equipment had been dispatched to the southern Khatlon province to make up the numbers.
In an indication of the level of concern, President Emomali Rahmon ordered that reservists be drafted into reinforcing the security presence.
The pipeline intended to forge a new export route through Afghanistan for Turkmenistan’s natural gas riches has made a fresh stride with the naming a consortium leader for construction.
Turkmenistan’s state news agency reported on August 6 that state-owned Turkmengaz will be in charge of bringing TAPI — named for the initials of the four countries it crosses — into existence.
The decision was taken during a TAPI management committee meeting in Ashgabat, the Turkmen state news agency reported. Senior officials from the Asian Development Bank, which is acting a transaction adviser on the project, were also in attendance.
“In its capacity as leader of the consortium of the TAPI Limited pipeline company, Turkmengaz will head coordination on construction, financing, management and use of the TAPI pipeline,” said an official statement cited by the state news agency.
Backers of the project, which include the United States and the European Union, appear to be unfazed by occasional and loosely sourced reports of unrest along the Turkmen-Afghan border that would stand to disrupt any major construction work. Security issues do not typically feature in official statements on TAPI, which suggests either that anxieties are overblown or that the parties to the project are simply hoping for the best.
The statement notes that Turkmengaz has more than 50 years experience in the development and transportation of gas resources, as well as in the construction of pipelines. But it also notes hopefully that other large companies will join the consortium as the project moves forward.
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.