Russia and its Central Asian allies have launched two days of talks in the Tajik capital to discuss the situation in Afghanistan a month after Taliban militants entered Kabul and seized power in the war-torn country.
Leaders of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) met for a summit in the Tajik capital on September 16, to be followed a day later by a gathering of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes China.
The talks come as Moscow and Beijing move to assert themselves as key players in the region following the rapid collapse of the Western-backed government in Kabul at the end of a 20-year-old U.S.-led military mission in Afghanistan.
Both regional security blocs have been viewed as Moscow's and Beijing's counters to U.S. geopolitical dominance.
With Afghanistan facing a looming major humanitarian crisis in the aftermath of the Taliban's takeover, Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors are wary of the security threats emanating from the war-torn country and the potential for tens of thousands of refugees to pour over the border.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was forced to join via video conference after self-isolating because of close contact with several people in his inner circle who tested positive for COVID-19, and other leaders of CSTO member states, which include Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, kicked off the diplomatic talks in Dushanbe.
The leaders “agreed to fortify the CSTO’s southern borders and continue to plan and implement a package of measures aimed at bringing down the level of and neutralizing potential threats in the organization’s space," Tajik President Emomali Rahmon said after the talks, according to TASS.
Meanwhile, the office of Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev said he "supported the joint CSTO position that the placement of Afghan refugees or foreign military bases on our countries' territories is unacceptable."
At a presummit meeting on September 15, CSTO Secretary-General Stanislau Zas acknowledged that the situation on the Tajik-Afghan border was "unfavorable" and pledged that Dushanbe would be provided with "all the necessary military and military-technical assistance" to combat any threat from the south.
In recent weeks, the security grouping held military exercises in Kyrgyzstan to prepare for any possible trouble. Tajikistan conducted military maneuvers with Russia and Uzbekistan while Uzbekistan also held separate drills with Russia along the Uzbek-Afghan border.
The CSTO has scheduled three more sets of military maneuvers close to the Tajik-Afghan border in October, with a fourth scheduled for November.
Russia has military bases in the former Soviet republics of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Leaders from the eight-member SCO are then due to hold talks in Dushanbe on September 17.
Founded in 2001, the SCO initially consisted of China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan before India and Pakistan joined in 2017.
Putin, who is self-isolating due to "all-day" exposure to a close contact who tested positive for the coronavirus, canceled his attendance at the two summits.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi will also participate in the SCO meeting virtually.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, whose country is an observer member of the SCO and keen to join the grouping, will attend the gathering.
Before heading to Dushanbe, Raisi said that Tehran's participation in the SCO meeting shows that "regional cooperation is a top priority for us."
Afghanistan holds observer status at the SCO, but Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on September 15 that the Taliban had not been invited to observe proceedings in the Tajik capital.
"Nobody is hurrying to give full recognition to the Taliban," Lavrov said.
The Taliban has sought to reassure neighboring countries and Russia that it poses no threat since gaining control last month over almost all of Afghanistan’s territory, including Kabul, the capital.
The hard-line Islamist group also promised inclusiveness and a general amnesty for former opponents, but many Afghans remain deeply fearful, especially after the group formed an all-male government led by hard-line veterans, banned protests, and cracked down on demonstrators and journalists.
Lavrov said he "welcomed" several Taliban promises, including on curbing drug-trafficking and preventing attacks on other countries, but added: "Now we are monitoring to see how it will be fulfilled in practice."
Tensions between CSTO member states also surfaced during the September 16 talks, with Kyrgyzstan’s President Sadyr Japarov proposing to "draw up mechanisms for rapid response and decision-making within the [CSTO] in case of armed conflict” between member states, according to his press service.
The proposal follows deadly ethnic clashes that erupted earlier this year near a disputed segment of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border.