Russia Holds Large-Scale Drills Near Tajik-Afghan Border

A Russia-led bloc started conducting the largest drills in years at the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border on October 18th, hinting at rising tensions between the two nations. Russia is primarily concerned about the intrusion of Islamist militants in former Soviet territory, which is seen as a southern buffer zone for the country. Moscow has also reassured the former Soviet Republic that it would assist in case of cross-border intrusion. While Afghanistan’s northern neighbors have mostly de facto recognized Taliban leadership in the nation and worked to establish ties with Kabul, Tajikistan has refused thus far. This has led to troop build-up on both sides of the border with the ever-looming threat of escalation.

The six-day drills involved over 5,000 Russian servicemen and were led by the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), of which more than half are Russian by nationality, according to both Russia and Tajikistan’s defense ministries. The exercises were held at the Momirak firing range around 12 miles north of the Afghanistan border and followed a similar structure as those held by Russia in its Central Asia alliances earlier in September and August, also by the border. 

According to AP News, Tajikistan’s Defense Minister Sherali Mirzo said that the drills were a result of  “catastrophic changes after the withdrawal of the international coalition” from Afghanistan. He also added that the “terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan […] have obtained many modern weapons, significantly improved their positions and using the current situation create conditions for its transformation into a foothold for further destructive actions in the region,” and prompted the acts of extra caution along borders. Additionally, the overseer of the drills, Lt. Gen. Yevgeniy Poplavsky, the deputy commander of the Russian armed forces’ Central Military District, described the training as countering possible security challenges. Russia currently has a military base in Tajikistan, representing the largest military outpost in the former Soviet Union. 

Russia, as the Soviet Union, had previously fought a 10-year war in Afghanistan and withdrew in 1989. The nation has tried continuously to establish contacts with the Taliban but has also officially deemed it a terrorist organization since 2003. Meanwhile, a high-level Taliban delegation visited Moscow for talks involving China, Pakistan, Iran, India, and Iraq. According to a senior Russian official, though, he did not expect any breakthrough in the talks. On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said during an international panel that Russia was “getting close” to officially recognizing the Taliban, though the final decision rested with the United Nations. However, he also emphasized the need for the Taliban to recognize all Afghan ethnic minorities and to respect human rights. 

Though the Islamist militant groups in the Taliban pose both human rights and an international peace threat, combatting rising tensions with additional military buildup may result in even higher tensions between Afghanistan and the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia. Therefore, peace talks should still be underway, and both the pros and cons of negotiating, creating ties, or condemning the Taliban must be examined, considering their control of Afghanistan right now and the risks of escalation.