Russian servicemen walk during an operation to search for unexploded military shells, which were used during previous military war games, at the "Lyaur" firing ground of Russia's military base number 201 outside Dushanbe January 17, 2012.Reuters
There is growing concern in Tajikistan that the possible reduction of servicemen at Russia's 201st base, located in that country, could weaken their defences and allow Islamic State terrorists to infiltrate the country from neighbouring Afghanistan, where they have established a presence.
The contingent of Russian servicemen is a key stabilizing factor for Dushanbe. There is fear among local Tajiks that the terrorists’ entry into Tajikistan could break the country apart.
Redeployment of Russian troop divisions was made public last November when the Central Military District stated the move of the 149th motorized regiment from the town of Kulyab to a suburb of the capital Dushanbe (the Lyaur firing range).
"The redeployment had been planned and has already been approved by the Republic of Tajikistan's Defence Ministry," said the statement.
A statement that the number of military personnel deployed at the 201st base would be reduced in 2016 was made last month.
The 201st Russian military base is located in the Tajik cities of Dushanbe (the capital), Kulyab (in the south-eastern part of the country, until 2015) and Kurgan-Tyube (in the southwest).
According to a source close to the Tajik government, Russian servicemen will soon leave the base in Kurgan-Tyube and be moved closer to Dushanbe.The deployment of troops in Kulyab was considered the most serious threat to terrorists trying to invade from neighbouring Afghanistan. The distance from Kulyab to Kunduz, the most turbulent of Afghanistan’s northern provinces, is barely 70 kilometres.
Rustam Odinayev, editor of the Russian-language newspaper Kulyabskaya Pravda, said, “From Kulyaba to the Afghan border it’s just 40 km. The devil knows what’s going on there right now, and naturally the city’s residents feel more at ease when we have extra military force here.”
The growing threat of Islamism
The "optimization" of the Russian contingent is making locals anxious. There are clashes with smugglers every week on the Afghan-Tajik border (which stretches for 1,344 kilometres).
Last year the Tajik National Security Committee reported that there were between 4,500 and 5,000 terrorists on the border.
The local population says that in the event that Islamic militants infiltrate into Tajikistan, Russian soldiers are the only hope. The Tajik army will not be able to withstand an invasion of 5,000-7,000 heavily armed militants, while the Russian servicemen who have left Kulyab will not be able to react in time.
The reduction in Russian troops comes amid regular reiteration about the growing threat of ISIS units invading post-Soviet Central Asia from Afghanistan. "We can confidently say that there are ISIS units just over the border, and now, in addition to everything else, we are faced with more dangers," said Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu in December.
Russian servicemen deny reductions
However, a source from the Russian Defence Ministry has responded to Tajikistan's fears by saying that Moscow has only slightly reduced its contingent in the country. The source said it was not necessary for Moscow to keep a regiment stationed in Kulyab when they can be deployed there by aircraft at any time. "For now nothing has happened at our bases in Central Asia," noted the ministry source. "The last real piece of news that came out of there (the formation of an aviation group in Tajikistan) was in September last year. Since then nothing revolutionary has happened. Structural changes are being made to optimize the contingent's organization.”
Counting on Tajikistan strengthening itself
Central Asia expert Arkady Dubnov offered a political interpretation of the Russian contingent's redeployment in Tajikistan, which has so worried Dushanbe. It may be seen as a move to put pressure on Tajik President Emomali Rahmon to enter the Eurasian Economic Union and agree to have Russian border troops return to the Afghan border.
"The risk of Islamists breaking in from Afghanistan is not very big, given the fact that the country is home to mainly Talibs. Both Moscow and Dushanbe understand this and are therefore playing this game of nerves to see who will give in first," explained Dubnov.
For Russia, control of Tajikistan's border with Afghanistan is still very important to counter drug trafficking, contraband and the flow of extremist mercenaries.
First published in Russian in Gazeta.ru.
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