Jun 14, 2016 | 09:00 GMT

4 mins read

Growing Concern on the Northern Afghan Border

Growing Concern on the Northern Afghan Border

Security along the border between Afghanistan and its Central Asian neighbors appears to be a source of growing concern both for those countries — Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan — and for outside powers such as the United States, Russia and China. Head of U.S. Central Command Gen. Joseph L. Votel's June 14-15 visit to Tajikistan, which comes on the heels of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu's June 9 meeting with security officials in Turkmenistan, reflects the focus on Central Asia. Although the extent of the threat of militant spillover from Afghanistan into Central Asia is unclear, security risks in the border area are likely to prompt a military buildup and lead foreign powers to increase their involvement — and competition — in the region.

The area between Afghanistan and the former Soviet states of Central Asia has seen a notable spike in militant and military activity in recent months. During an attack in May, militants reportedly killed 27 Turkmen conscripts on the country's border with Afghanistan, according to Alternative News of Turkmenistan. If the report is true, this is the largest casualty count for an attack on Turkmen border forces. Meanwhile, rocket fire from Afghanistan's northern district of Kaldar was reported near the southern Uzbek city of Termez in early May. And on June 1, Tajikistan reportedly thwarted militants who were attempting to enter the country from Afghanistan.

Reacting to the developments, the Central Asian nations have beefed up their military presence in the region and raised alert levels. Tajikistan's border service announced June 1 that it has deployed more troops along its border with Afghanistan in response to heightened threats from militant groups such as the Taliban and the Islamic State, whose attacks inside Afghanistan have intensified during the spring and summer fighting seasons. Uzbekistan has also put its border forces on high alert, while Turkmenistan held its largest military exercises in recent history in March.

Volatility along the Central Asia-Afghanistan border is not new. From 1999 to 2001, the border was an active transit zone for militant groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and it played a major role in Tajikistan's civil war from 1992 to 1997. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan largely disrupted militant activity in Central Asia, forcing most militants to seek refuge in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas. But militant activity near Afghanistan's border with Central Asia has resurged in recent years in the wake of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and the rise of the Islamic State and its proxies.

The extent of the threat of militant spillover into Central Asia proper is unclear. So far, no major terrorist attacks in Central Asia have had a confirmed link to militant groups in Afghanistan, but leaders such as Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon and, more recently, Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbeyev sometimes characterize attacks and violence in their countries as having foreign involvement. Central Asian governments have an interest in playing up the Islamist militant threat as an excuse to crack down on internal dissent and opposition forces. Militant activity in northern Afghanistan does appear to be growing, however, as does the number of confrontations along the Afghan border with the Central Asian states.

Foreign powers with interests in Central Asia share these concerns. Despite its reduced presence in Afghanistan, the United States retains a residual military force in the country and remains active in providing counterterrorism and counternarcotics assistance to Central Asia. Russia is also militarily active in the region, with troops based in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and a security partnership with them and Kazakhstan through the Collective Security Treaty Organization. China, too, has added greater security collaboration efforts to its economic involvement in the region, including weapons exports to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan and discussions to build a Tajik-Chinese anti-terrorism center in Dushanbe. And though security efforts in Central Asia by China, Russia and the United States are not a zero-sum game — groups such as the Islamic State are a danger to them all — the spike in activity among the three has fostered greater tension and competition.

The United States and Russia have expressed concern over the militant threat that Afghanistan poses to Central Asia. But when it comes to lobbying Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to increase security cooperation, each has tried to promote its own military training and counterterrorist initiatives rather than approaching the problem in tandem. Until recently, the Central Asian states refrained from making any major enhancements to their security ties with either foreign power. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which are officially neutral, are wary of increasing the foreign military presence in their territories, and Tajikistan recently oversaw a reduction in Russia's military presence. During a visit to Moscow in April, however, Uzbek President Islam Karimov called on Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to do more to address the security risks coming from Afghanistan. During the Russian defense minister's recent visit to Turkmenistan, Russia reportedly discussed providing weapons and training to Turkmen forces. And when the head of U.S. Central Command arrives in Tajikistan, or during future security-related visits, similar discussions could occur.

These visits, along with security buildups and intensified military exercises along the Afghan border, could indicate that the militant threat to Central Asian states there is indeed growing. This, in turn, could spur more security collaboration with external powers and increase competition among them.

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