On October 18–23, the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which includes Afghanistan as an observer, held its Combat Brotherhood 2021 strategic military exercises, with three drills codenamed Echelon-2021, Search-2021 and Interaction-2021, in southern Tajikistan’s Momirak and Harb Maydon military ranges. The scale was substantial, involving more than 4,000 military personnel and more than 500 pieces of equipment, including L-39, Su-25, Su-24MR and Il-76TD aircraft, as well as Mi-8 and Mi-24 helicopters (Avesta, October 25). The scope and scale of the operation by the CSTO’s Collective Rapid Reaction Forces, 12 miles from Tajikistan’s 843-mile-long border with Afghanistan, highlighted growing concerns among the former Soviet Central Asian “Stans” regarding the security situation to their south.
Despite bland Taliban security assurances, the United Nations has identified 20 terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan. And in particular, Islamic State jihadists have increased their attacks not only against the Taliban but also against the country’s Shiite minority (Un.org, August 6). The Taliban’s unwillingness or inability to clamp down on such behavior is unsettling the global community and neighboring Central Asia in particular.
On August 11, four days before the Taliban declared victory in Kabul, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu stated, “It is important for us that the border with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan has been taken under control by the Taliban,” before adding that the Taliban leadership had promised not to attack bordering countries (Vestnik Kavkaza, August 11). The response of the Russian Ministry of Defense to the changing geopolitics in Central Asia was swift; six days after Shoigu spoke, according to the press service of the Russian Federation’s Central Military District, 1,000 service members of the 201st Motorized Rifle Division stationed in Tajikistan went to the Lyaur and Sambuli training grounds in southern Tajikistan’s Momirak and Harb Maydon military ranges to “improve” their combat skills in light of the new situation in Afghanistan. The contingent included artillerymen, military engineers, as well as specialists in air defense, electronic warfare (EW), and radiological, chemical and biological (RCB) protection (RIA Novosti, August 17). The 201st Motorized Rifle Military Base is Russia’s largest military facility abroad. Located in Dushanbe and Bokhtar, it includes motorized rifle, tank, artillery, reconnaissance, air-defense, RCB protection, and communications units.
Participating troops in Momirak and Harb Maydon practiced joint operations during hypothetical border conflicts. CSTO Joint Headquarters head, Colonel General Anatoly Sidorov, underlined the regional security concerns: “We pay a lot of attention to the Central Asian region. The main source of instability is the situation inside and around the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. That is why we are holding three exercises simultaneously as part of joint training” (Jscsto.org, October 18).
If the CSTO has adopted a pragmatic but non-threatening stance toward the situation in Afghanistan while Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan adopted cautious “wait-and-see” attitudes, Tajikistan has been the most vociferously opposed, maintaining that the Taliban has largely excluded the country’s minorities (including ethnic Tajiks) from sharing political power (see EDM, September 10, October 26). Afghanistan’s new acting government is composed nearly exclusively of Pushtun males, containing only three Tajiks and a single Uzbek, despite Taliban promises that the country’s new government would be inclusive (Bomdod, September 9).
This exclusionary stance has already provoked resistance. On October 13, a new anti-Taliban movement, Sarbazan-e Gomnam-e Hazaristan (Hazaristan Anonymous Soldiers), released a two-minute Dari-language video on Aamaj News’ Twitter account stating that it opposes both the Taliban and the Islamic State and will fight to defend the rights of Afghanistan’s Hazara Shia minority.
At the Combat Brotherhood 2021 strategic exercise’s closing ceremony, CSTO Secretary General Stanislav Zas underlined his satisfaction with the training operations, telling reporters, “All these events have demonstrated the ability of the Collective Forces of the Organization to fulfill the tasks of protecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the CSTO member states.” Zas added that while Combat Brotherhood 2021 showed that Tajikistan is reliably protected from terrorist invasions, “We did not practice for war with Afghanistan with these exercises. On the contrary, the CSTO member states stand for a peaceful, prosperous Afghanistan, free from war, terrorism, [and] drugs, where people live and build their lives” (Avesta, October 25).
Beyond sending a powerful message to militants in Afghanistan, Combat Brotherhood 2021 was intended to prove (from Moscow’s point of view) not only that the CSTO could guarantee regional security but that there was no need for any post-Soviet countries to assist the return of either the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or the United States to the region by offering them basing rights.
As for the Taliban’s pious declarations of safeguarding security and a stalwart commitment to combat terrorism, the Islamist movement’s credibility remains questionable. Illustratively, after its founding emir, Mullah Omar, died on April 23, 2013, the Emirate’s senior leadership concealed and denied his demise for two years, only acknowledging it on July 29, 2015.
Since August 15, 2021, when the Taliban supplanted the previous government and established its “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” it has undertaken a relentless PR charm offensive. It has sought to convince a skeptical global audience that it will not revert to the harsh Islamist practices imposed during its previous administration two decades earlier, in order to secure both diplomatic recognition and access to roughly $10 billion in funds deposited abroad by its predecessors. But so long as Afghanistan remains largely unrestricted territory to nearly two dozen terrorist groups, the new Islamic Emirate’s northern neighbors will—judging by the CSTO’s Combat Brotherhood 2021 exercises—remain highly skeptical of the Taliban’s tepid anti-terrorism credentials. Therefore, Afghanistan’s neighbors will presumably continue to value such joint exercises as a means to secure their frontiers against the new regime in Kabul whose trustworthiness has yet to be established.