It is springtime in the Northern Hemisphere. The snow is melting and the roads are becoming more and more passable, and the warmth and longer daylight hours are encouraging us to enjoy more time outdoors. With the natural world waking up in time for spring, humans are becoming increasingly more active in all spheres of their lives, including the illegal ones. Mountain passes on the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border being freed from snow means that once again, as every year, the likelihood of rogue armed groups from Afghanistan entering Tajikistan increases.
For many years a civil war has engulfed the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and parts of the country are controlled by various terrorist units, which are using the nation as a base to then take their fight to other countries. In comparison to other Central Asian nations, Tajikistan shares the longest border with Afghanistan (1,356 km), which is, to make matters worse, fairly difficult to patrol as substantial sections of this frontier are inaccessible mountainous regions. Global terrorists with experience of traversing mountains can cross the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border and reach Tajikistan, from where they can then travel to other Central Asian countries, including Kazakhstan and China.
Drug shipments follow these same route. Hence, the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border receives focused attention from not only Tajikistan but also from all the other countries in the region. And defending this zone is a priority for the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which comprises Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The main aim of this organization is to ensure security in all of its member-states by joint efforts. Within the framework of this cooperation, the large Russian military base No. 201 is still stationed in Tajikistan, not far from its border with Afghanistan. Russian military personnel, serving at the base, are involved in ensuring security in Tajikistan, and they stage regular drills with their Tajik counterparts. Due to the volatile situation in Afghanistan, undoubtedly, the presence of this military base plays an important role in maintaining peace in this entire region. Nonetheless, at a certain point in time, some nations decided that they were capable of addressing threats to their national security single-handedly. As a result, in 1999, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Uzbekistan, who joined the CSTO at the beginning of the 1990s, left the organization.
It is worth mentioning that Uzbekistan also shares a border with Afghanistan, and in 1999, as is the case at the moment, a civil war was raging in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. At the time, Uzbekistan still chose to defend its national security without any assistance from the CSTO. Only recently, the Afghan Balkh Province, bordering Uzbekistan, was viewed as one of the safest regions in Afghanistan, which was barely touched by the civil war. In 2006, Uzbekistan re-joined the CSTO ranks for a short time, but left the organization in 2012 once again.
In recent years the situation in Afghanistan substantially worsened. The military operation that the United States initiated in Afghanistan, following the coordinated terrorist attacks on its soil on 11 September 2001, did not result in the establishment of rule of law in the region. The Taliban regime was toppled, but the Taliban (an Afghan terrorist organization banned in Russia) continues to control substantial parts of the country and conquer new territories. Al-Qaeda’s (a terrorist organization also banned in the Russian Federation) power was also considerably undermined, but this terror group was then replaced by the young and energetic ISIS (another terrorist body banned in Russia). Incessant military operations have hardened the Afghan populace, who began to show even greater support to terrorists. According to information provided by the CIS Anti-Terrorism Center, currently, there are more than 20 terrorist organizations operating in Afghanistan.
Central Asian nations that are not members of the CSTO (Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) have begun to feel the threat, posed by terrorism, more acutely. And concerns of the entire region about the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border have been further exacerbated by anxiety about the borders of these two countries. Every year terrorist activities in the Afghan Badghis Province, which, in the north, borders Turkmenistan, keep increasing. In June 2018, Turkmen border patrol checkpoints were attacked near Tagtabazar. Eight border guards were killed. There were no reports as to whether the attackers belonged to any of the terror groups.
In autumn of 2018, the first troubling news came from the previously mentioned Balkh Province, which shares a border with Uzbekistan, and which up until that time was notable for its security. Several regions in it were seized by the Taliban. In January 2019, there were media reports about attacks in the environs of Hairatan. Hairatan is an Afghan town located on the banks of the Amu Darya river (the Afghanistan–Uzbekistan border runs along it). The town is connected to Uzbekistan by a road-rail bridge. Hairatan is an important transportation center, with land routes linking the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan with other countries running through it. The seizure of this town by terrorists could have substantially exacerbated the situation that Afghanistan and its western allies find themselves in.
In March 2019, the Taliban moved substantially closer to the border with Turkmenistan. Having decimated the Afghan government military and police forces, the Taliban seized a sizable portion of the Badghis Province and placed its administrative center, Qala-e-Naw, under siege. While escaping from the terrorists, a substantial number of Afghan residents, including approximately 50 border patrol guards, crossed the Afghanistan-Turkmenistan border. In the meantime, the Taliban captured a number of new regions in the Balkh Province.
It is common knowledge that the Taliban has not announced any plans that involve territories outside of Afghanistan. However, besides the Taliban, ISIS also operates in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. This terror group has repeatedly talked about its intention to create a worldwide caliphate which, at the very least, includes all of the modern nations with a Muslim population. In recent years, ISIS has proved to be a worthy rival to the Taliban, and has ousted the latter from some of its territories. And now, following the defeat of ISIS in Syria, the Afghan ISIS ranks are being quickly filled with their “out of work” Syrian counterparts. As a result, this terrorist organization may further consolidate its position in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
Evidently, both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan need to start thinking about strengthening their defenses by means that include increasing armed cooperation with other nations. And a partnership with the CSTO and Russia seems to be a logical option in this situation, since the two constitute the key military force in the region and have substantial experience in fighting against terrorism. Uzbekistan has already taken its first steps in this direction. In February 2019, the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, and the leader of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, ratified an agreement on the joint use of airspace by their military air forces. In March 2018, media outlets reported that Uzbekistan was considering becoming a member of the CSTO once again.
However, Turkmenistan is yet to take similar actions. Owing to the difficult economic situation in this nation, Turkmenistan finds itself in a fairly dangerous situation, which threatens all of its neighboring countries. Perhaps, the latest events in Afghanistan will prompt the Turkmen leadership to reconsider its isolationist policy.
Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”