How Afghanistan's War Is Spilling into Central Asia

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Vyacheslav Oseledko / AFP / Getty

When five militants, all Russian citizens, were shot and killed in a gun battle at a remote military checkpoint near Tajikistan's border with Afghanistan, the Tajik government was quick to label the dead as "members of an organized terrorist group." The group has not been named, but the shootings highlight the grim irony of the struggle against terrorism in Afghanistan. With the U.S. increasing military pressure in Afghanistan and Pakistan mounting security operations along its border with the country, fighters from Russia and the ex-Soviet republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia are returning home. And while that trend decreases the number of foreigners fighting American soldiers in Afghanistan, authorities fear it could export the violence into Central Asia, upsetting the fragile peace in the region's poorest republics.

The July 16 battle was just another recent example of the growing instability along Tajikistan's 830-mile (1,335 km) border with Afghanistan. Two weeks ago, members of a narcotics-smuggling ring — which included a former Tajik government minister and rebel commander — were killed after a skirmish with security forces in the Tavildara Valley, a strategic east-west transit route through Tajikistan and an Islamic stronghold opposed to the government. "The group included several Russian citizens ... aiming to transport large amounts of money through Tajikistan to support terrorist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan," the government told the press, claiming that the ring was part of an "international terrorist" network with links to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which the U.S. government has designated a terrorist organization.

The spate of bombings, mass arrests and gunfights in Tajikistan over the past few months connected to militants fleeing the increased fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan has caught the attention of the international community. "The European Union is highly concerned about the situation in Pakistan and its reflection on Tajikistan," said Ambassador Pierre Morel, the E.U.'s special representative in Central Asia, at a news conference in the Tajik capital Dushanbe on July 14. "We support the current politics of [Tajikistan] directed towards the eradication of armed terrorist groups and drug traffic to [the country]."

Earlier this year, the Tajik military launched the Poppy-2009 operation, which the government says is aimed at combating the smuggling of drugs from Afghanistan across Tajikistan's porous, mountainous borders into the Rasht Valley and Badakhshan regions. Some believe that Poppy-2009 is actually a front for operations against Tajik opposition leaders. The government has publicly denied the charge, but observers say that if Dushanbe is indeed trying to put down suspected opposition forces under the cover of an anti-drug-smuggling operation, it only confirms that Central Asian militants are leaving Afghanistan and returning home, since many of the fighters are former opposition commanders or soldiers who fled Tajikistan after losing in the civil war between 1992 and 1997.

In an attempt to bring calm back to the border, Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari, Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai, Russian President Dimitri Medvedev and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon will meet in Dushanbe on July 28 to discuss plans to increase regional cooperation on trade and counterterrorism. Russia, which sees Central Asia as its backyard, is especially worried about the uptick in violence along its borders. In the meantime, the Russian government announced early in July that it would be basing rapid-deployment forces in the south of Kyrgyzstan. From there, the forces would be able to respond quickly to any unrest in the entire region, including along Tajikistan's border with Afghanistan.

But Central Asia faces a complex and potent mix of religious conflict, political corruption, ideological violence and increasing poverty — not to mention factionalism within the governments of the region and the countries' distrust of one another. Add to all that fighters returning home to escape the war in Afghanistan, and it's unlikely that declarations of concern from Western diplomats or the presence of the Russian military will soon slow the rising tide of violence.