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Qishloq Ovozi

Russian-built tanks roll under Tajik flags during Peace Mission 2012 joint counterterrorism military exercises of the troops from the six countries in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Khujand in June 2012.

There has been fierce fighting in northern Afghanistan for much of this year, and at times it has moved very close to the border with Central Asia. This has prompted great concern among the governments of Central Asia, particularly those directly bordering Afghanistan, and their unease increases with the knowledge that militants from Central Asia's domestic terrorist group -- the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) -- are among the enemy forces battling Afghan troops.

Some of the most vicious fighting has taken place in the Afghan provinces of Badakhshan and Kunduz, both of which border Tajikistan. This has led to speculation that if Afghanistan's problems cross into any Central Asian country it will be Tajikistan, with its mainly mountainous, 1,206-kilometer border with Afghanistan that faces the greatest threat of "spillover."

That risk to Tajikistan of Afghan spillover is probably not great, but it is real. Fortunately for Tajikistan, the three great world powers -- China, Russia, and the United States -- are taking this threat to Tajikistan very seriously, and their combined efforts arguably make Tajikistan the Central Asian state least likely to experience serious difficulties emanating from Afghanistan.

The latest example was July 8, when the United States handed over some 80 all-terrain vehicles to Tajik security forces for use in patrolling remote, mountainous areas of the border with Afghanistan. The United States has been helping Tajikistan bolster its watch on the Afghan border for more than a decade by funding the construction of barracks for border guards and providing new uniforms and other nonlethal military equipment, of which the vehicles were only the latest contribution.

The United States was more generous toward Uzbekistan, sending that Central Asian country more than 300 mine-resistant armor-protected vehicles. The United States has already said it will provide unspecified military aid to Turkmenistan.

But it is Russia that has been making the largest contributions to Tajikistan's security.

Russian forces have been in Tajikistan since the 1890s. Russia's 201st Motor Rifle Division has been deployed in Tajikistan since the end of World War II, but the Russian military recently announced it was increasing the unit's strength from some 7,500 troops to 9,000.

Russia has also been rearming the 201st with state-of-the-art weapons, including advanced warplanes, attack helicopters, and unmanned drones. In 2012, Russia extended the lease on the three bases it uses in Tajikistan by 49 years.

The Russian military has been in increasingly close contact with its Tajik counterpart and has helped establish a three-layer-deep defense along the Afghan border. Any intruders who elude the Tajik border guards and their advisers from Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) must then contend with two more lines of defense, and any of these troops would be able to call in warplanes from Russian bases inside Tajikistan for support.

The Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) has also been helping Tajikistan strengthen its border defenses; it regularly reminds Tajik authorities the CSTO stands ready to send troops if needed and can assemble a fighting force near the Afghan border within 72 hours.

Meanwhile, China has become the leading investor into the Central Asian states in recent years, and Tajikistan is no exception. China has also been helping Tajikistan's security forces for more than a decade, providing vehicles, uniforms, and military equipment.

During the past year, Chinese counternarcotics agents have also been participating in joint operations with their Tajik counterparts on Tajik territory. Those operations have led to seizures along the border of Afghanistan in the Ishkashim district of Tajikistan's eastern Gorno-Badakhshan region. Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and China all meet in this part of world, but the Ishkashim district is located more than 200 kilometers west of the Chinese border.

All three of the big powers also provide training and conduct joint exercises with Tajik military and security forces.

That sort of combined focus from China, Russia, and the United States is absent in the other Central Asian states bordering Afghanistan: Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Turkmenistan, in particular, has resisted practically any outside help, and now it faces the greatest threat of all the Central Asian states from Afghan spillover. Cross-border raiders have killed at least six Turkmen soldiers in the Afghan border area since February 2014.

With Beijing, Moscow, and Washington working to ensure Tajikistan's security along the border with Afghanistan, there is little chance of anything more than temporary breaches of security.

However, the three cannot do much to guarantee Tajikistan's internal security. The Tajik government's recent moves to control the practice of Islam inside the country and marginalize opposition groups and figures are the real threat to stability in Tajikistan.

With contributions from Iskander Aliyev and Mirzo Salimov of RFE/RL's Tajik Service
Soldiers secure an area during an antiterrorist operation aimed at eliminating armed militants in a Bishkek neighborhood on July 16.

Kyrgyzstan's State Committee for National Security (UKMK) is crediting itself with having headed off two terrorist attacks in and near the capital, Bishkek, that could have resulted in mass casualties.

One day after the UKMK launched its security operations, Kyrgyz officials and media are providing some details about the plot.

But the pieces of the story so far compose a bizarre scenario.

First, what is known for sure.

On July 16, Kyrgyz security forces launched raids in a Bishkek neighborhood and near the town of Lebedinovka on the outskirts of the capital. Several videos of the fighting in Bishkek were posted online, showing smoke rising from buildings accompanied by the sounds of gunfire and explosions.

Four militants were reported killed in Bishkek and at least two in Lebedinovka, although some Kyrgyz media sources report four were killed in Lebedinovka. Seven militants were said to have been captured. Four members of the security force were wounded in the battles.

The first reports of the battle on July 16 suggested that Kyrgyz security forces were fighting militants from an "international terrorist" group. Some Kyrgyz media quoted "sources" within the Interior Ministry as saying it was the Islamic State (IS) militant group, although it was unclear what the basis for such a conclusion was.

On July 17, UKMK spokesman Rakhat Sulaimanov said, "The terrorists who were eliminated were connected to the Islamic State [militant group]," which, Kyrgyz officials said, was led by a Kazakh citizen.

But there are some matters that are unclear.

Prior to Sulaimanov's statement, Kyrgyz news agency AKIpress reported that the militants were "Takfiris," which does not rule out them also being from IS, but AKIpress did not make that connection in its report.

Kyrgyz officials and media agree the leader of the group was a Kazakh national named Zhanbolat Amirov. Amirov was the only person who had been identified by early evening on July 17, though some reports added there were Kyrgyz among the militants.

Kazakhstan's Internet news agency went so far as to say in its July 17 report that "all the members of the terrorist organization who were killed were citizens of Kazakhstan."

Kazakh officials, as of the posting of this report, had not confirmed that any of those killed in Kyrgyzstan were Kazakh nationals.

As for Amirov, he recently escaped from a Kyrgyz prison. He and another Kazakh citizen, Albert Abkhin, were sentenced in 2014 to four years in prison after being convicted of illegally crossing into Kyrgyzstan. Both reportedly escaped on June 25. On July 2, Kyrgyz security forces located Abkhin in Bishkek and tried to apprehend him, but the suspect reportedly blew himself up.

Kyrgyz authorities claim Amirov was the leader of the terrorist group targeted in the July 16 raid, but it is unclear how, if he had been in prison until late last month, he was able to organize the alleged attacks.

And according to the UKMK, those attacks were meant to target a large gathering of people somewhere in Bishkek and timed for July 17, as Muslims ended the holy period of Ramadan, and another attack would be made on the Russian-led Kant air force base some 40 kilometers outside of Bishkek.

The UKMK released photographs of weapons seized from the militants that showed an assortment of AK-47s, grenades, and material to make explosives.

So far, Kyrgyz officials have provided no details of the exact location of the planned attack in Bishkek or the plot to attack the Kant base.

Sulaimanov said the militants "were planning to stage a blast at the Kant air base in order to take control of weapons and ammunition of the strategic Russian facility."

The Kant military base hosts at least 2,000 troops, including special forces, helicopter gunships, and advanced fighter aircraft. It would be difficult for a handful of militants to shoot their way into such a facility, seize weapons, and escape.

In fairness, investigators are still working and the story as it currently stands is bound to change soon.

But if Kyrgyz officials and media are accurately describing events, it raises a serious question.

Kyrgyzstan, like its Central Asian neighbors, has been on the lookout for any of its nationals returning from Syria, Iraq, or possibly Afghanistan or Pakistan. Kyrgyz and Kazakh officials have acknowledged that at least several hundred of their citizens have gone to the Middle East to join IS.

But the group that fought with Kyrgyz security forces on July 16 seems, according to available information, to have originated in Kazakhstan.

With contributions by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.



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