Foreign forces in Afghanistan will complete their "drawdown" by the end of this year. Though several thousand troops will remain for a while, as of 2015 the Afghan government is in charge of maintaining security throughout the country on its own.
Central Asia's governments have been dreading January 1, 2015, for many months. Many remember the last half of the 1990s, when the Taliban was stretching its rule along Afghanistan's northern border and the problems of the country seeped into Central Asia.
This is the first in a series of articles that will regularly track what measures the Central Asian governments are taking to ward off the potential threat from the south, which outside players are aiding them in their efforts, and who is sounding the alarm.
This part looks at what happened in July.
We'll start with the meeting of foreign ministers from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on July 30-31.
And for anyone unacquainted with SCO, the members are: Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
Interestingly, Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov attended and had well-publicized separate meetings on the sidelines with his Kyrgyz and Tajik counterparts. The relationship between the Uzbek government and the governments of all the other Central Asian states has not been good since they all became independent in late1991. But Uzbekistan's recent relationships with eastern neighbors Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan could be said to represent the lowest level since independence.
The last time Tashkent reached out to Bishkek and Dushanbe was after the Taliban seized Kabul in September 1996. The presidents of the three countries, plus Kazakhstan, even used to meet regularly with each other during that time (without any Russian or Chinese leaders in the same room), and they created several regional organizations (that Turkmenistan never joined).
So Komilov's meetings with Erlan Abdyldaev and Sirojidin Aslov deserve some attention. It could be the start of a shift in Uzbekistan's regional security policy.
At the SCO meeting, one of the main topics was Afghanistan, but that has been true for many years now. The ministers also had to finalize the agenda for the SCO summit in Dushanbe, scheduled for September 11-12, which, it is rumored, could include the induction of a new member (Hello, India!).
But other meetings on the sidelines were more interesting.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with Tajik counterpart Aslov to remind, in front of the media, that Russia is in the process of rearming Tajikistan's military and that the Russian military base in Tajikistan is vital for maintaining Central Asia's regional stability.
Ahead of the SCO foreign ministers' meeting, SCO Secretary-General Dmitry Mezentsev was in Dushanbe (July 28) to meet with Aslov and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon and discuss the fight against terrorism.
Visiting Tajikistan on July 31 was the head of CENTCOM, U.S. Army General Lloyd Austin. According to President Rahmon's website, he and Austin discussed the "current situation and developments in Afghanistan, specifically, after the withdrawal of the international peacekeeping forces, and on continued support for relevant Tajik agencies to step up protection of the country's lengthy border with its southern neighbor."
Before arriving in Tajikistan, Austin was in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. Austin left Uzbekistan amid rumors, especially in Russian media, he was negotiating use of a base in Uzbekistan (I guess no one remembers Navoi and Termez).
In Kyrgyzstan, the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization held military exercises -- Unbreakable Brotherhood -- from July 29 to August 2. According to Kyrgyz Television 1, "about 700 troops from CSTO member states attended...three battalions from Russia and Kazakhstan each, and one battalion from each of the remaining countries -- Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Armenia, and Tajikistan."
According to ITAR-TASS, "Belarus and Tajikistan are represented at the exercise by operative groups and peacekeeping platoons, while Russia has put up commanding post staff and a 60-men-strong task force. Kazakhstan sent an operative group to the drills, a battalion, an air assault company, an engineer platoon, a medical platoon and combat aviation. Armenia is represented by an operative group and an infantry platoon and hosts Kyrgyzstan provided for the drills a mountain infantry battalion and combat aviation."
The exercises were held near Tokmok, some 60 kilometers from Bishkek. Kyrgyz Television reported the soldiers "conducted five tactical episodes: repelling an attack on a convoy; releasing hostages; protecting a key government facility; dealing with a mass disturbance; and escorting humanitarian aid."
Prior to the Unbreakable Brotherhood exercises, the CSTO held the Frontier-2014 at the Chebarkul firing range in Russia, from July 15-18. Frontier-2014 was a command exercise to practice assembling the CSTO's Rapid Deployment Forces at an area of hostilities and confronting an enemy. The hypothetical area of deployment was the Tajik-Afghan border, according to the Tajik Defense Ministry's press service.
Coming up, the CSTO has another exercise scheduled in Kazakhstan from August 18 to 22 and the SCO will be holding a military exercise in Inner Mongolia from August 24 to 29.
Individually, Tajikistan conducted an antiterrorist exercise in the Romit Gorge, scene of fighting from September 2010 to April 2011 between government forces and Islamic militants led by commanders from Tajikistan's civil war days. Tajikistan's Internal Affairs Ministry said, "methods of destroying terrorist groups in mountainous areas were practiced" during the 17-day drill.
The ministry noted the "staff of the police task force detachment, a police rapid-reaction regiment, the task force of the National Guard, as well as the Alfa [task force] group of the SCNS [State Committee for National Security] successfully conducted an operation to destroy a simulated terrorist group during the final phase of the drills on 19 July."
Kazakhstan's Defense Ministry reported on July 29 that it conducted live-fire night training with Mi-17 and Mi-24 helicopters to practice "finding the positions of a simulated enemy."
Lastly, the court cases.
The governments of Central Asia have always been keen to clearly demonstrate to the public the consequences for joining or helping banned Islamic groups. Reports about convictions and sentencing of alleged militants are common in Uzbek and Tajik media and are becoming more frequent in the media of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. It is not always clear the people convicted are really guilty. But they are meant to be an example of the penalties awaiting anyone who associates with Islamic radicals and militants.
In Uzbekistan, six people, three of them women, were convicted on July 23 of being members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the bête noire of the Uzbek government. The regional court in Kashkadarya Province handed down sentences ranging from nine to 15 years in prison.
Kashkadarya Province does not border Afghanistan, but it is very close.
Some recent quotes about Central Asia, Afghanistan, and security:
CSTO chief Nikolai Bordyuzha at the July 29 opening of the "Unbreakable Brotherhood" exercises:
"These exercises should act as confirmation of the readiness of the anti-terrorism potential of the organization."
Chief of the General Staff of Kyrgyzstan's Armed Forces General Asylbek Alymkozhoev speaking at the opening of the "Unbreakable Brotherhood" exercises:
"In the lead-up to the withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan, the situation in region is becoming tense due to the threats of terrorist attacks..."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Dushanbe on July 30:
"The situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating and could have a negative impact on security in the Central Asian region."
Tajik President Rahmon on June 19 addressing Tajikistan's border guards about the situation in Afghanistan:
"Tajik border guards' responsibilities will double after the withdrawal foreign troops in 2014 because the threats of terrorism, extremism, and drug trafficking can increase."
Uzbek President Islam Karimov, speaking to CENTCOM commander Austin:
"In view of all the changes that are taking place in Afghanistan, to what extent will the U.S.A. keep its presence [in Afghanistan]? How will the U.S.A.'s current role in Central Asia change if you are going to withdraw your troops from Afghanistan?"
-- Bruce Pannier, with contributions by Tohir Safarov of RFE/RL's Tajik Service