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Kunduz Heralds The Creation Of A Bastion For Central Asian Instability

Central Asian militants boasting with their trophies in Kunduz.
Central Asian militants boasting with their trophies in Kunduz.

The fall of a major city in northern Afghanistan made global headlines and rang alarm bells in Western and regional capitals.

The temporary capture of Kunduz, the capital of northern Kunduz Province, by the Taliban last week attracted Western media focus and prompted officials to comment on the implications of its fall nearly 14 years after intense bombing by the United States and its allies helped anti-Taliban militias to overrun the city in 2001.

Afghanistan's Central Asian neighbors, however, were largely silent about the fall of Kunduz. Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan share more than 2,000 kilometers of border with Kunduz and seven neighboring provinces in northern and western Afghanistan.

Bruce Pannier, RFE/RL's Central Asia specialist, says Tajik and Uzbek authorities are naturally going to be worried about the fall of Kunduz because the Afghan city was once a base for the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) back in the 1990s when it was active in Central Asia.

"Tajik authorities have expressed concerns about events in and around Kunduz. Uzbek authorities have kept silent, but it must worry them," Pannier said. "We know from reports that the ongoing fighting around Kunduz involved foreign fighters, many of whom were identified as ‘Tajik’ and ‘Uzbek’ nationals."

Pannier says both Central Asian countries have been strengthening their forces along the Afghan border for many months.

"In Tajikistan's case, the government has been receiving help from Russia, China, and the U.S. to better protect and defend the border," he said. "Tajikistan, of course, has a much bigger problem since its border with Afghanistan is some 1,200 kilometers long, whereas Uzbekistan's border with Afghanistan is only about 160 kilometers long."

Nearly a quarter century-after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia still sees Central Asia's predominantly Muslim countries as its backyard. Moscow was quick to express its concerns over the fall of Kunduz last week.

Nikolai Bordyuzha, the head of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), termed the fall of Kunduz a "dangerous" development.

"Kunduz is in close proximity to CSTO borders, just 70 kilometers from the border with Tajikistan. We see these events as a real threat to stability and security in the region," he told Russia's Interfax news agency on October 1.

The Moscow-led CSTO counts Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan as its members. Earlier this year, Moscow re-announced the creation of a rapid reaction force with an overall number of up to 70,000, which can been assembled at flash points within 72 hours. In May, 2,500 CSTO troops participated in a military drill in Tajikistan.

Last month, nearly 100,000 Russian troops practiced to "contain" a conflict in Central Asia.

Bordyuzha says the seizure was "unprecedented" and CSTO's rapid reaction force is ready to foil any attempt to destabilize its member countries.

"It is a testament to Taliban leaders' intention to demonstrate their readiness for large-scale military actions instead of searching, jointly with the Afghan authorities, for ways to resolve existing problems peacefully," he said.

Pannier says Moscow intends to increase the number of troops it has in Tajikistan from the current 6,500 or 7,000 to some 9,000. He says the Russian forces are helping Tajik border guards along the Afghan frontier. "Uzbekistan is rather on its own. It is difficult to know how much help the U.S. has offered aside from the 320 MRAPs it delivered to Uzbekistan earlier this year."

Afghanistan's third Central Asian neighbor, Turkmenistan, has also been silent about Kunduz, but the three out of four Afghan provinces on its border have experienced escalating violence this year.

Taliban and Central Asian militant allies have launched attacks and even captured large swathes of territory in Jowzjan, Faryab, and Badghis provinces.

During his visit to Kabul in late August, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov said that in his talks with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani they "exchanged views on further cooperation to increase our efforts in establishing security and stability."

The extent and nature of the Turkmen-Afghan security cooperation is not known.

Afghan observers, however, are deeply worried over the growing influence of Central Asian militants affiliated with the IMU, the Islamic Jihad Union, and Jammat Ansarullah. A sizeable number of Central Asian fighters in Afghanistan have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. In their view, these militants are intent on using Afghan soil as a stepping stone to make a dramatic comeback in Central Asia.

Central Asian factions are already claiming a prominent role in the fighting in Kunduz and other northern provinces.

Former Afghan military officer Naik Mohammad Kabuli says the fall of Kunduz could turn it into the center of a large Afghan bastion for Central Asian militants.

"This development might turn our four northeastern provinces [Kunduz, Takhar, Baghlan, and Badakhshan] into another Waziristan for the neighboring Central Asian states," he told the BBC.

Waziristan, a vast region along Pakistan's western border with Afghanistan, served as the de facto headquarters of Central Asian militants after they were routed from Kunduz and other parts of Afghanistan in late 2001. Afghan officials estimate that thousands of Central Asian militants crossed into Afghanistan after Islamabad launched a large military operation in North Waziristan last year.

Just like in Waziristan, the Central Asian militants soon linked up with Afghan and transnational criminal cartels. In recent years, Northern Afghanistan's lucrative drug routes into Central Asia have helped Taliban advances and sanctuaries for allied militants.

Afghan military analyst Javed Kohistani says the fall of Kunduz will prompt Central Asian countries to seek closer security cooperation with Russia.

"More instability might prompt them to intervene [in Afghanistan]," he told the BBC. "This might prove to be a failure of our government and might turn Afghanistan into a center of regional wars and instability."

In one of the rare public reactions to the developments in Kunduz, Mohammad Jafarov, a Tajik border guard official, says their forces are ready to protect Tajikistan's long border with Afghanistan.

"We are monitoring the border, and the situation is calm," he told RFE/RL's Tajik service. "None of the extremist factions has tried to cross the border [so far]."

Sojida Djakhfarova from the Tajik service, Alisher Siddiq from the Uzbek service, and Toymyrat Bugayev from the Turkmen service contributed to this story.