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Putin Says CIS States Could Create Border Force For Crises

CIS leaders pose for a photo at the end of their summit in Kazakhstan on October 16. (From left to right: Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev)

Amid rising insecurity in northern Afghanistan, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) could create a joint task force to protect the grouping's external borders.

The leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan met on October 16 in the Kazakh village of Burabay, where they signed a statement on combating international terrorism and agreements on military and border-security cooperation through 2020.

At a press conference, Putin said closer military cooperation is necessary because the situation in Afghanistan -- which borders Tajikistan and Uzbekistan -- is "close to critical."

"Terrorists of various stripes are gaining more and more influence and are not hiding their plans for further expansion," he said. "One of their aims is to break through into the Central Asian region. It is important for us to be ready to react to such a scenario together."

Putin said the border-security cooperation agreement "envisages the possibility of forming a grouping of border [guard services] and other agencies from Commonwealth countries to resolve crisis situations at the border."

With violence surging in Afghanistan and thousands of people from Russia and Central Asia joining Islamist militants in the Middle East, Putin has been emphasizing the need for former Soviet republics to step up efforts to combat what he says are growing threats.

Some of the CIS members are also linked to Russia in security alliances, but cooperation has been undermined by strained relations between Central Asian states and wariness of handing Moscow too much influence in the former Soviet Union.

The CIS summit comes a day after U.S. President Barack Obama announced that the United States will keep 5,500 troops in Afghanistan into 2017 at least, reversing plans to withdraw all but a small number of troops by the end of 2016.

Obama cited growing concerns about a resurgence of the Taliban -- the militant group that was driven from power by a U.S.-led invasion in 2001 -- and persistent doubts about Afghan forces' fighting ability.

In late September, Taliban fighters briefly took over the northern Afghan city of Kunduz, 70 kilometers from the Tajik border, in a surprise lighting assault against the provincial capital.

Russia has military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and the Burabay gathering has come amid signs that Russia wants to bolster its military presence in Central Asia.

Increased Troop Numbers

Earlier this month, Moscow said it would deploy an unspecified number of attack and military-transport helicopters to Tajikistan to beef up the Russian military's 201st Motorized Rifle Division, which is based there.

Russian officials have also announced plans to increase the number of troops stationed in Tajikistan to 9,000 over the next five years and to provide more military equipment through 2020.

And reports say Moscow is prepared to grant Tajikistan $1.2 billion in military aid over the next few years.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon has expressed concern about the "increasingly deteriorating situation" in northern Afghanistan.

"The Tajik border with Afghanistan is in fact the Commonwealth of Independent States' southern border, and any threat to the Tajik border is a threat to the CIS, too," he said on October 6.

Moscow has also been renewing its air force fleet and upgrading other equipment, from trucks and armored personnel carriers to drones, at its base at Kant, Kyrgyzstan.

Meanwhile, the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which also includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Armenia, and Belarus -- has announced the creation of a rapid reaction force with an overall number of up to 70,000, which can been be assembled at flash points within 72 hours.

In September, CSTO troops, including nearly 100,000 Russians, practiced to "contain" a conflict in Central Asia.

However, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan -- which also borders Afghanistan -- have kept their distance when it comes to military cooperation.

At the summit, Putin also said the campaign of air strikes in Syria that Russia launched on September 30 has been effective.

He asserted that many command centers of Islamic State militants have been destroyed and "hundreds of terrorists" have been killed.

Western and Gulf Arab nations say that many of the Russian strikes have targeted groups other than Islamic State, and contend that Putin's real aim in the campaign is to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government, not combat IS.

Putin said that some 5,000 to 7,000 people from the CIS were fighting alongside Islamic State militants.

With reporting by TASS, Interfax, Reuters, AP, and the BBC
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