From February 15 to 20, Russian and Tajik forces conducted combined “antiterrorist” exercises in southern Tajikistan. The exercises rehearsed defensive and counteroffensive operations in mountainous and desert areas in the event of penetration by Taliban forces from neighboring Afghanistan. Command staffs of Russia’s 201st motor-rifle division and of the Russian border troops led Tajik motor-rifle and artillery units in simulated combat at several southern locations. A “Tajik air force,” consisting at this stage of helicopters, made its debut. The scenario envisaged that Tajik troops would bear the brunt of ground combat, the Russian role being confined mainly to air and artillery support against hypothetical Taliban invaders.
Lieutenant-General Vladimir Popov, deputy commander of Russia’s Volga military district, supervised the exercises onsite. That military district is in charge of Russia’s “peacekeeping” troops and includes the 201st division based in Tajikistan, though that division’s mission is officially changing from “peacekeeping” to “counterterrorism.” Popov has had the overall responsibility for Russian peacekeeper troops’ training, having earned his spurs in the 1992 military intervention against Moldova under General Aleksandr Lebed.
The official rationale behind these exercises looks highly doubtful for two reasons. First, Russian army and border troop commanders in Tajikistan and in Moscow have all along been saying that Taliban forces have neither the capability nor the intention to attack Tajikistan. The Russian border troops’ overall commander, Colonel-General Konstantin Totsky, reaffirmed that viewpoint at yesterday’s session of the Council of border troops’ commanders of CIS member countries. The Russian military says that it expects, at most, some “infiltration” by small groups of “Islamic terrorists” from Afghanistan into Central Asia. Such a contingency, however, is not met with the kind of operations that were just rehearsed in southern Tajikistan. And, second, the terrorist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) uses sanctuaries deep inside Tajikistan with the acquiescence of that country’s authorities and of the Russian military.
IMU’s presence in Tajikistan caused a political rift at the session of anti-terrorism experts of the Shanghai-Five countries (Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and China, with Uzbekistan as observer). Held on February 14-15 in Bishkek, the session discussed proposals to create a Shanghai-Five Antiterrorism Center. But the discussion bogged down when the Kyrgyz and Uzbek representatives cited intelligence data which confirmed the return of IMU fighters to sanctuaries in central Tajikistan’s Tavildara area and near the Tajik-Kyrgyz border. A massive group had entered Tajikistan from Afghanistan across the Russian-guarded border in December, and small groups have been making their way since.
According to the Uzbek and Kyrgyz information, presented at the session, the IMU prepares for its third consecutive thrust this coming spring into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan from Tajikistan. The Kyrgyz security chiefs, Major Generals Bolot Januzakov and Askarbek Mameev, estimated the overall number of IMU fighters at 1,500 to 2,000, a large part of them in Tajikistan. And they complained that IMU’s military leader Juma Namangani is being allowed to crisscross between northern Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
For their part, the Tajik representatives responded with the usual ambiguity that they have “no such information,” that Dushanbe officials inspecting those areas “found no evidence” of IMU’s presence, and that the situation there is “normal.” Meanwhile, the Kyrgyz military is mining the gorges and passes on the border opposite Tajikistan and began on February 19 its own, genuine antiterrorism exercise with technical assistance from the United States and Turkey.
With Russia’s Lieutenant-General Boris Mylnikov, head of the CIS Antiterrorism Center, attending the Bishkek session, Russian and Tajik delegates opposed Kyrgyzstan’s proposal to site in Bishkek the planned Antiterrorism Center of the Shanghai-Five. That proposal forms part of Kyrgyzstan’s efforts to conduct a balanced policy that would avoid excessive dependence on Russia in the security sphere. Moscow for its part seeks to maximize that dependence in the case of Kyrgyzstan and also to maneuver Uzbekistan into a similar relationship of security dependence. Working with allied Tajikistan, Moscow allows the IMU to operate on a leash of variable length in the region. That tactic is designed to increase Tashkent’s and Bishkek’s sense of insecurity and to justify the calls for an “antiterrorist” alliance in Central Asia under Russian leadership.
Moscow’s antinarcotics policy is also sometimes subordinated to that agenda. While publicly stigmatizing the Taliban authorities as chiefly responsible for the narcotics production and traffic, Moscow has until now closed its eyes to two concurrent changes in that sphere: first, the increasingly successful antidrug crackdown in the Taliban-controlled areas; and second, the emergence of Moscow’s northern Afghan clients and of Tajikistan itself in the last year as the main supply source and corridor, respectively, for drugs to Central Asia and Russia. At the February 20 session of the Council of border troops’ commanders of CIS member countries, Russia’s General Totsky (see above) recognized for the first time the fact that Afghanistan’s drug business has moved from Taliban-controlled territory to the northern Afghan areas that are supposed to be a “safety belt” controlled by Moscow’s allies along the Tajik border (Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Mashhad), February 15; Hovar, Asia-Plus, Dushanbe Radio, Kabar, Kyrgyzpress International, Itar-Tass, February 15-0; see the Monitor, November 9-10, December 13, 22, 2000, January 9, 12, 23, 31, February 9).
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