Russia has had a tense relationship with Afghanistan ever since the Soviet invasion in 1979. Russia’s sphere of influence is growing, but its military drills near the Afghan border have raised fears that Moscow could escalate tensions within the country again.
Tajikistan’s HARB-MAIDON RANGE Last week, Russia staged a series of joint military drills along the Afghan border with its Central Asian neighbors, reflecting Moscow’s worry that ethnic tensions or terrorism may spill over into the nation as radicals such as Islamic State threaten the Taliban’s leadership.
On the Harb-Maidon training range, fewer than 20 miles north of Tajikistan’s Afghan border, the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO, which also includes Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, held a weeklong series of drills that concluded Saturday.
The exercises, which included over 4,000 soldiers and included artillery, tanks, and attack planes, were intended to send a message that any invasion from Afghan territory into Tajikistan would be met with force, according to Russian military authorities.
Since the Taliban gained control in August, Russia has voiced alarm about terrorist groups’ actions in Afghanistan, which might spill over into former Soviet Central Asian republics, causing instability in Moscow’s backyard. Furthermore, some of Afghanistan’s neighbors are concerned that Afghan fighters may inflame ethnic conflicts in their own nations.
Since the withdrawal of US soldiers in August, tensions between Tajikistan and Afghanistan have risen along the almost 900-mile border between the two nations, with Tajik authorities warning that ethnic-Tajik terrorists who fought with the Taliban may attempt to invade their country. According to Russia’s foreign ministry, both sides have deployed military units near their shared border in recent weeks.
The exercises at the Harb-Maidon training area in Tajikistan included almost 4,000 soldiers.
Photo courtesy of the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Defense.
“We proved to the entire world, especially our ill-wishers, that this area is reliably defended [and] that any infiltration, any encroachment, would be quashed” with these drills, said Lt. Gen. Stanislav Zas, secretary-general of the CSTO, addressed reporters at the range on Saturday. “Tajikistan will never be left to its own devices in the face of its catastrophe.”
Boris Dolgov, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, cautioned that parties sympathetic to the Taliban and Islamist ideology in Tajikistan might act against the government.
“Of sure, this is a danger to Russia,” Mr. Dolgov added, “since the border between Afghanistan and Russia is minimally prepared and secured.” “Any moves by radical Islamist organizations from Afghanistan into Tajikistan’s borders, and if sleeper cells of Islamist forces in Tajikistan contribute to this Islamist expansion, this is a clear concern for both Tajikistan and Russia,” he said.
Aerial surveillance by Russian and Tajik military planes rehearsed detecting columns of terrorists crossing the Afghan border into Tajikistan during the drills at Harb-Maidon. Mi-8 helicopters carried special troops from both nations into the region, while Russian Su-25 attack planes fired unguided missiles at the approaching enemies.
Since the Taliban’s takeover, Russia has reinforced its sprawling military base in Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital. The base, which includes armored, artillery, and reconnaissance units, air defense forces, radiation, chemical, and biological protection, and signal-communications troops, is Russia’s largest military facility outside its borders.
Before international discussions in Moscow this week, Russia’s presidential envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, talked with a member of a Taliban delegation.
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The base’s chief of staff, Col. Yevgeny Okhrimenko, said Sunday that new weaponry had arrived in the last two months, including updated infantry combat vehicles and a Verba portable antiaircraft missile system. According to him, the facility also included a Kornet antitank guided-missile system.
On Sunday, soldiers pretended to be enemy forces attempting to infiltrate the facility.
“Almost every member of the military installation has participated in a mission in Syria,” Col. Okhrimenko stated. “Any threats will be met with retaliation.”
While ties between Dushanbe and Kabul have dramatically worsened, observers say the Russian government seems to be more favoring open engagement with the Taliban.
Last week, Russia welcomed the Taliban in Moscow for international talks, calling for cooperation regardless of whether the international community recognizes the Taliban as Afghanistan’s new administration. A day later, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the Taliban will be removed off Russia’s list of extremist groups, which the movement has been on for over two decades.
Since retaking power, the Taliban have attempted to present an appearance of security and normality. However, as Sune Rasmussen of the Wall Street Journal writes from Kabul, severe penalties, bloodshed, and restrictions on fundamental liberties are becoming the norm. Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images/Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images/Bulent Kilic/AFP/
Russia’s presidential envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, told reporters on Monday that Moscow was unaware of any Taliban intentions to conduct hostile activities against Central Asian nations.
The CSTO commander, Lt. Gen. Zas, emphasised that the recent military drills were not designed to send a message of hostility to Kabul, but rather to assure the “destruction of terrorist organizations, illegal armed formations, which do exist” and constitute a regional danger.
“We didn’t rehearse war with Afghanistan during these drills,” the senior military man said. “The CSTO nations, on the other hand, support a peaceful, prosperous Afghanistan free of conflict, terrorism, and narcotics.”
Drug smuggling over Afghanistan’s border into Central Asia continues to be a significant source of worry in the cash-strapped country. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Afghanistan contributes more than 80% of the world’s opium and heroin.
Mr. Kabulov said on Monday that Russia was ready to provide humanitarian help to Afghanistan in the next days, after urging the international community to organize efforts to offer urgent economic and humanitarian support to Afghanistan.
Taliban Rule in Afghanistan
Ann M. Simmons can be reached at [email protected].
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