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Taliban approaches Tajik border: movement to north may break down, experts say

Al Jazeera reported that American military continued airstrikes in Kunduz on September 30. However, it appears to have brought nothing but more civilian casualties. However, the number of the killed and wounded is not reported so far. Neither of the parties has reported any figures.  The official authorities of Afghanistan said Taliban keeps Kunduz – both the city and the province – with help of the rebel groups.

Successes of the anti-governmental groups in Afghanistan as they reach the Afghan-Tajik border – Taliban and their friends are in some 60-70km from it – have increased the fears of their penetration into the Central Asian countries. Executive Officer of the North-South Center of Political Studies Yulia Yakusheva says Taliban has no reasons to go beyond Afghanistan, though its controls the biggest part of the country. “The concerns of the Central Asian countries are clear, but the main threat comes from inside, not from Afghanistan. It is corruption, low living standards, unemployment etc.,” Yakusheva says. Among the domestic threats is the latest split in the military command of Tajikistan, the insurgency led by General Abdukhalim Nazarzoda, general social and economic situation that is on the verge of collapse, radical sentiments and the strengthening Islamization.  At the same time, it should be recalled that Western circles looking to increase their influence in Central Asia regularly use the factor of Taliban and remind the authorities of the countries in the region that they can protect them from threats emerging from Afghanistan.

Expert in Central Asia and Middle East Alexander Knyazev says Taliban has gained foothold in Kunduz, but it constitutes no direct threat to the countries in the region, including Tajikistan that has a relatively well-defended border on the given area of the border.  “There will be certain damage from blockade of the road from Kabul via Sher Khan-Bandar-Lower Panj to Tajikistan. What is more dangerous for Tajikistan is the increasing destabilization in Badashkhan where the border with Tajikistan is less defended in view of the mountainous area,” Knyazev says.

In his worlds, the actions of the radical groups in the Kunduz province were not unexpected – they attempted to seize the center of the province and settle in some districts even before. On the crossroad of two essential transport routes Kunduz is a center of serious influence on both eastern provinces – Takhar, Badakhshan, actually isolating them from the remaining territory of the country – and the Kunduz-Kabul road.

“It is not for nothing that ahead of the Taliban’s attack on Kunduz,” Knyazev says, “the governmental troops (probably by prior arrangement) surrendered Dandi Ghore in Baglan province without a striking blow, and Taliban blocked the Kabul-Kunduz road. The same night, Ishkamish on the border with Takhar and the area in the north of Takhar were attacked. There were armed clashes also in the area of Khanabad.”

Defense Ministry and Interior Ministry of Afghanistan have already announced that they are ready to liberate the seized areas within 24 hours. However, the governmental forces do not seem to succeed. In August, the group of troops under command of General Dostum liberated Faryab province from the Taliban, but in three weeks, the province proved to be under control of the Taliban again. In addition, they intensified their actions in Samangan and Balkh.

“It is important to understand the staff of the Taliban groups operating in Kunduz and the neighboring Takhar and Baglan.  By present, there have been many  groups representing various centers in Kunduz: ‘Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU)’ and ‘Union of Islamic Jihad (UIJ),’ Taliban troops under command of Quetta Shura, and groups of Haqqani network. Hezb-i-Islami, the Afghan Islamist organization headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, has always had special influence in Kunduz. In addition, there are troops comprising citizens of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Russia (Chechens)  and China (Uyghurs).

Judging by the scales of their current operation, most of these groups are under united command now or, at least, have a kind of common coordination center. IMU and UIJ – two hostile forces -  are unlikely to participate in these processes simultaneously. It is hardly probable that Hezb-i-Islami may cooperate with other groups. In turns out that Quetta is behind the destabilization in Kunduz. Some non-Afghan groups are involved in this process too,”  Knyazev says.

If this conclusion is right, the negotiations between Taliban and the Kabul government appear to be in a deadlock and the military actions are used to stimulate those talks.  Simultaneously, implementation of the Chinese transport projects in the north of Afghanistan is delayed. 

General Atta Muhammad Nur, who is not in Afghanistan, has announced that the government troops head for Kunduz from Balkh. This step may lead to a temporary success like the above raid of General Dostum in Faryab.  “Radical groups often rely on support of local population and the military success cannot last long there. In Kunduz, the population is multi-nation: Uzbeks, Tajiks – many are from the so-called irreconcilable members of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) who do not recognize president Emomali Rakhmon – Pushtuns (ethnic Afghans), and Turkmens. Tajiks are traditionally subject to the influence of their leaders, while other groups have always been prone to takfirist ideas, which makes them an easy mobilization resource for radicals,” Knyazev says.

The expert studied also the military aspects of the situation. He said the attack on Ishkamish was an attempt to block one of the reserve transport routes between Badakhshan and the country’s center.  Actually, Badakhshan has been nearly isolated for a long period of time already and the destabilization in Takhar will isolate it fully.  Historically, the positions of takfirists have been strong in Khanabad and this direction is used to resist the troops from Balkh.

“Anyway, even if Kunduz is liberated within short period, Taliban groups will manage to gain foothold in the regions wherefrom they will be able to influence the key communications in the north at any time. If they increase their positions on the Kunduz-Kabul highway, to the south of Puli-Khumpri, the Salang Pass will be endangered for a long time given the weakness of the government air force. This will reduce the links of the north and the center and will deepen the chaos in the northern provinces and help the Taliban prepare for another attack in the spring,” Knyazev says for conclusion.

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