Airstrikes that reportedly followed a day after clashes near the Afghanistan border with Tajikistan on Aug. 26, killed several people in northeastern Afghanistan's Takhar province. It was not clear just who was responsible for the airstrikes or which groups were involved in the clashes that predated them. A provincial spokesperson claimed that the Tajik air force conducted an airstrike that left six Taliban militants dead. According to the province's police chief, it was unclear whether the pilot of the plane that carried out the strike was Russian or Tajik. Both Russia and Tajikistan, however, have denied that they were responsible.
Information about the border clashes that preceded the airstrikes was likewise contradictory. The Tajik government claims that a group of armed trespassers used rifles and mortars against three Tajik foresters just across the border with Afghanistan, killing two of them and injuring another. Afghan officials have blamed the Taliban for instigating the border clashes, but the Taliban — a nationalist jihadist group that does not typically carry out attacks beyond Afghanistan's borders — has denied involvement, blaming unaffiliated drug smugglers.
Stratfor's 2018 Annual Forecast highlighted the growing threat of militancy in Central Asia due, at least in part, to the instability in Afghanistan. A clash on the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border and unconfirmed reports of airstrikes by Russian or Tajik forces demonstrates the region's vulnerability and its importance to outside powers such as Russia.
Why It Matters
Skirmishes between drug smugglers and Tajik border guards are not unheard of along the long and porous border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. But these recent clashes and the reported airstrikes represent a marked escalation. Moreover, Takhar province has recently seen an increase in militant violence. On Aug. 13, Taliban militants overran an Afghan border police post just 25 miles from the latest border attack, killing 12 police officers and five civilians.
Russian officials have taken notice, arguing that growing militancy in northern Afghanistan makes the country's Central Asian neighbors more vulnerable. And an Islamic State-claimed attack against foreign cyclists in Tajikistan last month has only added to the concerns. China has also become increasingly active in the security of Afghanistan and the wider Central Asian region thanks to Beijing's concerns over Uighur militants and attacks such as the bombing two years ago of the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek.
What Comes Next
While the militant threat from Central Asia is legitimate, Russia has reason to play up concerns as it looks to increase its presence in the region, particularly in Tajikistan. Russia already has 7,000 troops housed at two military bases in the country, but Moscow has long wanted to return troops to the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border. While the Tajik government has previously resisted this desire, recent joint military exercises between Russia and Tajikistan along the border region indicate that Dushanbe may be coming around.
Meanwhile, Russia has also been increasing its diplomatic involvement in Afghanistan by hosting numerous peace conferences on its long-running war. The Taliban were scheduled to attend the next one on Sept. 4, but Moscow announced Aug. 27 that the conference would be postponed to ensure the Afghan government also would participate.