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Central Asia Prepares For Afghan 'Threat' (Part 2)

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon (right) met Uzbek President Islam Karimov in Dushanbe on September 11.
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon (right) met Uzbek President Islam Karimov in Dushanbe on September 11.

As foreign forces in Afghanistan prepare to complete their drawdown at the end of this year, and responsibility for security falls entirely on Afghan government forces, the governments in Central Asia have been worrying and taking measures to prevent Afghanistan’s problems from becoming Central Asia’s problems also.

The first part of this series was published on August 7, and I promised at that time that "Qishloq Ovozi" would keep track of events in Central Asia related to events in Afghanistan.

A lot has happened since then.

The most curious development, to me at least, is Uzbekistan's continuing gestures toward Tajikistan.

When Uzbek President Islam Karimov met with Tajik President Emomali Rahmon on September 11 on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Dushanbe, the talks between the two indicated that relations might genuinely be improving.

And that meeting, albeit brief, came after Uzbek authorities announced in mid-August that they would not close the border with Tajikistan ahead of Uzbekistan’s Independence Day (September 1), as has been the routine for many years now.

It had been six years since Karimov visited Dushanbe. Admittedly, that was also for an SCO summit. And the announcement of the border being kept open despite the looming Independence Day probably did not mean much on the border. Even when the border is open officially, it is often closed by Uzbekistan unofficially.

But even if it was only symbolism, consider the words of Tajik state news agency Avesta, which summed up just how bad Uzbek-Tajik relations have been lately when it reported the "volume of trade between the two neighboring countries has decreased from $300 million in 2007 to $2.1 million in 2014."

Also consider that Karimov did not have a special meeting with Kyrgyz President Almaz Atambaev at the SCO summit in Dushanbe. Uzbek authorities did not mention opening the border with Kyrgyzstan before the Uzbek holiday. Maybe part of the reason is because Kyrgyzstan does not have a border with Afghanistan.

Help From Outside

The SCO met on September 11-12 with the leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan present, as well as the leaders of SCO observer nations Iran, Mongolia, Afghanistan, and special guest Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

SCO summits rarely result in any momentous news and this last meeting in Dushanbe was no exception. The six leaders all vowed to cooperate to fight terrorism, as they have for many years, without articulating any particular strategy.

It should be noted that the SCO intelligence agencies agreed on September 19 to exchange information on SCO citizens returning from conflict areas where jihadist groups are fighting.

The summit this year followed the SCO’s first joint military drills in several years, which were also the largest the SCO has conducted to date. Some 7,000 soldiers from SCO countries gathered in China’s Inner Mongolia region from August 24 to 29 for Peace Mission-2014 counterterrorism exercises.

Wang Ning, the deputy chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army, explained the exercises focused "on joint multilateral decision-making and action, with exchanges of antiterror intelligence among the SCO members to effectively boost the troops' coordinated ability to fight terrorism."

China’s Xinhua news agency said, "The exercise scenario involves a separatist organization, supported by an international terrorist organization, plotting terrorist incidents and hatching a coup plot to divide the country. The SCO dispatches military forces to put down the insurrection and restore stability at the request of the country's government."

For the record, Tajikistan’s independent news agency Asia-Plus reported that Kazakhstan sent some 300 paratroopers, Tajikistan some 200 soldiers, including members of its rapid-reaction force, Kyrgyzstan some 500 soldiers, and "about 5,000 of those servicemen [were] from the Chinese Army."

Uzbekistan did not send anyone.

The exercises were preceded by a "battle" of the SCO military bands, and I wanted to mention that I did see photographs of Kazakhstan’s military band going "Gagnam Style" during their performance.

The Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) was active also.

The CSTO conducted the Cooperation-2014 military exercises in Kazakhstan from August 18 to 22. Some 3,000 troops from member countries Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan took part in the drills.

On the eve of those exercises, Igor Mordovkin, the Russian military commander at the CSTO base in Kant, Kyrgyzstan, said the base would be receiving new Su-25 warplanes soon. Mordovkin also mentioned that warplanes already in Kant had been used to conduct training for missions in mountainous terrain.

Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan also held a separate counterterrorism exercise -- Zhetysu-Antiterror-2014 -- in Kazakhstan from August 14 to 22. The troops practiced rescuing hostages and fighting militants. Special forces from Belarus, servicemen from the National Security Committee (KNB), the Defense and Emergency Situations ministries of Kazakhstan, and Federal Security Service (FSB), Defense Ministry troops from Russia, and "specialists from Rosatom" took part in that training.

The Central Asian states were also engaged bilaterally with either Russia or China.

Uzbek President Karimov’s visit to China on August 19-20 is a mystery, at least to me. Karimov saw Chinese President Xi Jinping in May when Shanghai hosted the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia, and the two leaders were due to meet again in September at the SCO summit.

Reports at the time give the impression that Karimov made the long trip to Beijing for two days to discuss, mainly, energy cooperation, something easily done on the sidelines of events in Shanghai in May or in Dushanbe in September.

Kyrgyzstan was preparing for the worst also, in one case with a little Russian help.

Kyrgyzstan conducted counterterrorism exercises in September. One exercise was held at the Ala-Too training grounds some 30 kilometers from Bishkek. The more interesting exercise was held at approximately the same time in southern Kyrgyzstan, along the border with Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan is preparing a special task force for "action to destroy illegal armed groups" near the Uzbek border.

The Kyrgyz troops had company for the exercises. Kyrgyzstan’s AKIpress reported, “Commanders of special task subunits of the Russian Federal Security Service's Border Guard Service deployed in Chechnya, as well as officers of the Kyrgyzstan-based operations border group of the Russian Federal Security Service, are also taking part in the event with the aim of exchanging experience."

Taking Care Of Business On Their Own

Uzbekistan held its own counterterrorism exercises on the Afghan border in early September.

The state news agency described the drill. "Special units carried out simulated combat tasks to block and destroy terrorists attempting to get across the border on the Amu-Darya [River] using motorboats," the website said, adding that "servicemen also practiced conducting activities aimed at localizing fires near the border checkpoint on the Termez-Hairaton bridge over the Amu-Darya River, as well as countering mass disturbances organized by citizens of the neighboring country."

Uzbekistan held another counterterrorism exercise in mid-August at the Almalyk mining-metallurgical complex outside Tashkent. Forces from the National Security Service, the ministries of defense, interior, emergency situations, and health care, along with the Kalkon and Burgut special forces units, took part. The scenario involved battling terrorists, freeing hostages, and regaining control over the complex.

Turkmenistan, which has faced several challenges to security along its border with Afghanistan this year, reportedly plans to install an electronic monitoring system along the Afghan frontier.

Not Just Their Imagination

The Central Asian states have good reason to worry. Just across the border in Afghanistan the situation is alarming.

Over the frontier from Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan region, in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province, there has been continuous fighting for months. The province's Wardoj district has changed hands several times and at the start of September the Afghan government launched another operation to drive the Taliban from the area.

Badakhshan Governor Shah Waiollah Adib blamed part of the continued fighting on "35 foreigners, including Tajiks and Kyrgyz, who have come here and are making land mines and are paving the way for suicide attacks."

Several dozen soldiers, police, and militants have also been reported killed in Badakhshan’s Kishim district since mid-August.

There was more fighting reported in Jowzjan Province, across the border from Turkmenistan. Reports said there were some 100 "insurgents" active in the Mangajik district and that they had attacked the village of Mangajik, which is the district center.

Gurbandurdy and his civil militia battling Taliban and foreign insurgents in the Qarqeen district of Jowzjan Province were the subject of a report by Afghan Channel One in mid-August.

And RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service has been reporting for months on the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan’s provinces that border Turkmenistan.

-- Bruce Pannier