In comments that are sure to exacerbate ever-growing fears of militancy in Central Asia, Russia's deputy defense minister has warned that militants from the Islamic State (IS) group in Afghanistan pose a threat to Tajikistan.
Anatoly Antonov reminded reporters in Moscow on March 5 that the IS group already had a presence in Afghanistan.
Antonov said that the IS militant group posed a threat to Russia's partners in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), an intergovernmental military alliance comprising Russia and five other post-Soviet states, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
"We have noticed that in this region the first factions of the Islamic State group have emerged. We see how they are starting to push toward the southern borders of our allies, first of all those in the CSTO," Antonov said.
The main threat posed by the militants is to Tajikistan, Antonov explained.
Reports that the IS group has gained a toehold in Afghanistan emerged earlier this year. Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Siddiq Siddiqi told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on February 10 that "Islamic State or those people who call themselves Islamic State are active in some areas and our intelligence reports confirm it."
Also in February, the Pentagon acknowledged the spread of the IS group to Afghanistan in February, with Pentagon spokesman Major Bradlee Avots saying that the expansion of the extremist group into the region was "of great concern." Other Pentagon officials played down the IS presence in Afghanistan, calling it "nascent at best."
Russia and Central Asian states reported concerns about the IS expansion into Afghanistan late in 2014, however. In December Russian President Vladimir Putin told a CSTO summit that IS militias were threatening to "include some provinces of Afghanistan in the so-called Islamic caliphate," the name given by IS militants to the areas under their control.
Putin also warned that unspecified "terrorist groups" were trying to extend their activities to Central Asia.
Though there are legitimate concerns about the threat of the IS group to Central Asia, Russia has used the threat to push for a strengthening of the CSTO in order to take "preventative measures" against the IS group. In his March 5 comments, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Antonov again pointed to the threat to CSTO members.
Antonov's comments come amid ever-growing fears in Central Asia of the threat of radicalization and militancy, in particular by the IS group. Central Asian states are also concerned about the rise of the group in Afghanistan, and the participation by nationals from Central Asian states in militant groups in that country.
The Russian deputy defense minister's remarks also come in the wake of reports by Afghan officials that Russian-speaking Central Asians were among dozens of militants killed in southern Afghanistan on March 4. Many of those killed, including a female militant, were reportedly Kyrgyz. Police officials in Zabul Province, however, said that most of the militants killed were Kazakh.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk