Following the launch of Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine, the Russian and international media reports on Russian military issues have focused mainly on the war in Ukraine. There has been much less interest in other important issues involving the Russian military, including Russia’s involvement in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which exists to protect the national security of its member states.
In addition to Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are members of the CSTO, and until the Ukrainian conflict the area of most concern to the organization was the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. The situation in that region is still far from stable. Afghanistan has been in the throes of civil war for several decades, and has served as a training ground for international terrorist organizations. In 2021, following the withdrawal of US forces from the country, the Taliban (which is prohibited in the Russian Federation and is considered by many countries to be a terrorist organization) took power. But the Taliban have been unable to bring the country under full control, or even impose their own vision of order – which is in clear breach of international law. The Taliban are currently facing armed resistance from a number of groups, including the most infamous terrorist organization of our time – Islamic State (prohibited in the Russian Federation). Moreover, it has been reported that a number of sub-groups within the Taliban are fighting each other.
It is hard to predict how the situation will unfold in the future, and all of Afghanistan’s neighbors, including the Central Asian countries in the CSTO, are forced to remain on permanent military alert. Relations between the Taliban and Tajikistan are particularly tense, as the former accuse Dushanbe of interfering in Afghanistan’s internal affairs and supporting organizations that oppose the Taliban regime. The Taliban have already made a number of statements threatening Tajikistan.
It is important to bear in mind that about 25% of Afghanistan’s population are ethnic Tajiks. However the Taliban is primarily drawn from Pushtuns – Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group – and there have been media reports on incidents of Taliban discrimination again the other ethnic groups living in the country. Tajikistan’s natural wish to support ethnic Tajiks in Afghanistan is one of the factors that may complicate relations between the two countries. Media sources offer widely differing – although generally pessimistic – predictions about how the situation with the ethnic Tajiks in Afghanistan may develop. Some commentators suggest that Tajikistan wishes to annex the Tajik-majority areas of Afghanistan, with the support of the Tajiks living in those regions. Other specialists believe that the Afghan Tajiks, supported by the Taliban, could attack Tajikistan and turn it into a Tajik-dominated Islamic state. Naturally, both these predictions may be intended as propaganda, aimed at destabilizing the situation in the region. Neither of these two scenarios is supported by the CSTO. The CSTO, on the contrary, is working to preserve peace and calm in Tajikistan and avoid armed confrontation between that country and Afghanistan – as a threat to the security of one member state constitutes a threat to the whole Organization.
However, even the current very worrying situation in Afghanistan is being largely ignored by the international media, which is focusing mostly on the conflict in Ukraine.
Fortunately the CSTO itself – as represented by the leaders of its member states and the CSTO Combined General Staff – is mindful of the situation on its southern border. Particularly since now, when the Russian army – which forms the background of the CSTO’s military forces – is engaged in Ukraine, there is the risk that countries opposed to the CSTO might take the opportunity to attack Russia and its allies on a different front. It is therefore very important to keep an eye on the situation on the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border and in Central Asia as a whole. To this end, and with the current international situation in mind, the CSTO leadership has planned a series of events to take place in 2022.
On March 10-11, 2022 the CSTO Combined General Staff held a video conference with representatives of its member states in order to discuss training for the CSTO management bodies and armed forces this year. The issues discussed included command training for the CSTO Combined General Staff and Secretariat, training to develop intelligence staff and techniques, and research operations conducted during the holding of joint exercises. The participants also discussed the possibility of involving non-member states and organizations, including the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the International Red Cross.
In 2022, the CSTO also plans to carry out its traditional annual exercises – Echelon, Search, Rubezh and Indestructible Brotherhood.
The Echelon exercises are dedicated to logistical issues and the supply of troops with provisions and equipment. Participants organize troop transportation, the supply of ammunition, the rapid deployment of combatants and the establishment of equipment repair and servicing bases.
The Search exercises involve intelligence staff, and cover the whole range of intelligence operations, including military, radio-electric, engineering and artillery reconnaissance.
The Rubezh exercises cover military operations against illegal armed groups. They may involve police units supported by the air force, as well as army units.
The Indestructible Brotherhood exercises cover the planning of joint operations by peacekeeping forces from the CSTO member states.
The CSTO Combined Rapid Reaction Forces will take part in the Interaction command training exercises.
During the conference on March 10-11 the participants decided that the CSTO’s new radiological, chemical and biological defense units and its first aid unit would also take part in the exercises.
The exercises may be held in any of the CSTO countries, but the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border will remain at the center of attention. The Tajik Harb-Maidon base, just 20 km from the Afghan border, is frequently used for training by CSTO troops, including troops from Russia’s 201st Military Base, which is located in Tajikistan and contributes significantly to security both in Tajikistan and the wider region.
At the end of April 2022, the CSTO Combined General Staff held meetings on joint exercises to be conducted by the member states. The participants decided that the CSTO Crisis Response Center and Response Groups from the CSTO member states would take part in strategic command training exercises. According to the CSTO press service, as part of the event, forecasts for the future development of the military, political and strategic situation would be drawn up. The press service also announced that the Echelon, Rubezh and Interaction exercises will be held in Kazakhstan, the Indestructible Brotherhood exercises will be held in Kyrgyzstan, and the Rubezh-2022 exercises, which, as mentioned above, focus on combatting terrorist groups, will take place in Tajikistan – that is, in the specific region that is of most concern to the CSTO.
All these CSTO events are of special importance this year, as the challenge posed by Afghanistan is getting more serious. Worrying signals are coming from the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
For example, on May 8, 2022 seven rockets were fired at military positions in Tajikistan from Afghan territory. Fortunately no one was injured. The terrorist group Islamic State, mentioned above, claimed responsibility for the attacks.
On May 14 there were armed clashes on the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Tajik border guards fought Taliban militants for several hours near the Sherkhan Bandar border crossing. According to media reports (which may be understating the situation in order to avoid inflaming tensions) no senior figures from either side took part in the clashes, and the participants on both sides started firing in response to perceived insults from the other side. The reports claim that the Taliban militants were the first to open fire.
At the end of May 2022 it was reported that certain illegal armed groups had attacked Tajik security forces in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province, a region of Tajikistan adjoining the Afghan border. The Tajik government has announced that the attackers were supported by international terrorist organizations, and has launched an anti-terrorist operation against the groups. According to other sources, however, the persons described by the Tajik government as “terrorists” were in fact Tajik protestors who had been driven to take direct action by unjust and arbitrary behavior of the local authorities. Whatever the truth is, given the current international situation any unrest in Tajikistan is of great concern to the CSTO as a whole and Russia in particular, as, irrespective of the actual cause of the unrest, it could easily be used by real terrorists as a pretext for violence.
So far, Tajikistan has managed to deal with its problems itself, and there has, as yet, been no need for the other CSTO member states to intervene. Nevertheless, the Organization is prepared to respond to any new developments, and the recent events show how important the CSTO’s activities are and provide further confirmation of the need to continually monitor the situation on the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.