Russia and Tajikistan have completed anti-terrorist drills in Tajikistan aimed at improving cooperation between the two states as part of their anti-terrorist strategy. Although such exercises are a regular occurrence, reflecting strong bilateral security cooperation, the exercises themselves differed in significant ways from previous high-profile maneuvers. Overall, each side gained from the show of force, which reportedly impressed observers, suggesting Moscow and Dushanbe will expand even further their security cooperation. Such well-publicized military exercises, planned with meticulous attention to detail in order to please the on-looking generals and observers, indicates that Russian security and military thinking in the area of countering terrorism has progressed little.
The scenario for the exercise located the action on the Tajik border with Afghanistan, involving a group of extremists making an incursion into Tajik territory. These militants were resisted by 500 Russian soldiers and 300 Tajik cadets supported by around 100 armored vehicles and army aviation, including Su-25 attack aircraft and Mi-8 and Mi-24 helicopters. According to the Tajik Defense Ministry the exercise was designed to specifically practice liaison between the forces of two armies in which different languages are spoken — Tajik and Russian. It also allowed relatively inexperienced Tajik personnel to gain knowledge of operating in mountainous terrain.
The Russian-Tajik battalion-level tactical exercise at the Lohur training range, 35 kilometers outside Dushanbe, started with an artillery barrage and was soon followed by carpet-bombing by ground-assault aircraft. Observers were certainly subjected to a display from multi-launch rocket systems firing off salvoes, as well as tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and aircraft, including helicopters. It is worth noting Russian military planners’ continued reliance on huge force from the air against concentrated groups of terrorists, which is practical if the group can be caught in the open and intelligence assets are place to locate and fix the enemy.
Military personnel participating in the exercise were reportedly so carried away by the maneuvers that they frightened VIP guests. Unusually, “terrorists” were destroyed during the exercise within a few meters of the command post. A company of troops guarding the command post neutralized a group of attackers in close proximity to the VIPs. “High command posts are an area where Special Forces operate. What we showed today was one possible way a situation could develop. There is nothing contradictory in this,” explained Dmitry Kovalenko, chief of staff of the Russian 201st military base in Dushanbe. Predictably Tajik President Emomali Rahmonov and the command of the base gave high marks to the evident levels of competence in combat training and coordination among the participating subunits (NTV, April 6). Again, the Russian hallmark can be seen on the planning side, utilizing Russian Special Forces techniques in textbook-style hostage rescue methods.
President Rahmonov, Defense Minister Sherali Khayrulloyev, and Russian Ambassador Ramazan Abdulatipov observed the final stages of the anti-terrorist drills. “The scenario of the exercise envisaged that a situation worsened abruptly in a region in Central Asia, while really there are no such threats now,” commented Lieutenant-General Ramil Nodirov, chief of staff of the Tajik armed forces (Interfax, April 5). Nodirov evidently downplayed the threat scenario, which certainly seemed dated and predicated upon large numbers of militants making an incursion in a manner similar to previous trouble in the Batken region of Kyrgyzstan. He did however believe that the exercises presented an invaluable training opportunity for Tajik soldiers and cadets, inadvertently drawing attention to the currently inadequate state military training program (Avesta, April 5).
Nevertheless, while the Russian-Tajik military exercises unfolded on April 5, three Tajik border guards were injured as a result of a clash with Afghan drug dealers on the Tajik-Afghan border. The incident itself allegedly took place in the Khirmanjo section of border outpost number three in the Shuroobod border zone. The State Border Protection Committee later confirmed that the drug dealers had managed to escape into Afghanistan. Nine kilograms of cannabis, a Kalashnikov assault rifle, and a small amount of ammunition were seized at the scene, however the incursion serves to remind planning staffs in Dushanbe that cross-border activity more often relates to drug smuggling than to terrorism, and here the options are hardly conducive to the type of skills practiced at Lohur (Avesta, April 7).
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Rahmonov were entirely satisfied with the Russian-Tajik anti-terrorist military exercises. They agreed that the exercises were a milestone in cooperation within the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and bilateral cooperation in the fight against international terrorism (Interfax, April 7). General Ramil Nodirov, close to the conduct of the anti-terrorist drills, was perhaps more realistic in pointing to the reduced threat of such major incursions across the Tajik-Afghan border. The reality of the Afghan drug incursion demonstrates the continued importance of the border both as a transit point for the narcotics trade and therefore a priority in Russian and Tajik security planning. Yet it is clearly easier for Moscow and Dushanbe to show an apparent readiness to tackle some form of terrorism, even if it is based on dated enemy tactics. The focus on the Afghan border, however, may signal Russian security concerns about the long-term stability of Afghanistan, and the prospect of the border areas becoming a direct concern to Moscow. Equally, the correlation between these exercises and any future terrorist activity in Central Asia remains open to question.