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Majlis Podcast: Who will Help Defend Central Asia from Insecurity in Afghanistan?

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Military officers take part in a command-staff exercise by a joint Russian-Tajik force at Kharbmaidon, next to the border with Afghanistan, in March. (REF/RL)

Afghanistan, May 29, 2017: These are certainly tense times for security officials in Central Asia.

Barely halfway through this spring, the violence in northern Afghanistan, in provinces just across the border from Central Asia, has already reached levels not seen since the late 1990s.

The April 21 attack on a military base in Balkh Province, just across the border from Uzbekistan, left more than 130 Afghan soldiers dead, and the Taliban has besieged Kunduz city, the capital of Kunduz Province, which borders Tajikistan, for the third time in less than two years.
There are also the battles in the Zebak district of Badakhshan Province, which also borders Tajikistan. The Ghormach district in Faryab Province, adjacent to Turkmenistan, has been solidly under militant control for weeks and in other areas of Faryab, and Jowzjan Province to the east, control of villages passes back-and-forth between government forces and militants.

Officials in the Central Asian capitals north of the Afghan border are surely weighing their options at the moment, including who they might call upon for aid if some element of instability currently present inside Afghanistan makes its way over the northern border.

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That was the topic of the latest Majlis, or panel discussion, RFE/RL arranged that looked at parties the Central Asians could be expected to call upon should some problem from Afghanistan destabilize their own governments.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. From the RFE/RL studio, Dr. Stephan Blank, senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, joined the discussion. From Britain, our old friend Dr. David Lewis, senior lecturer in politics at Exeter University, took part.

Blank noted, “Everybody in Central Asian establishments is always concerned that whatever happens in Afghanistan will not be confined to Afghanistan.”

That has generally been the view of Central Asian governments for the last 25 years.

The most immediate fear in Central Asia, as the panel made clear, is not the Taliban. The Taliban has never been able to exert control over all of Afghanistan, even in the late 1990s, so the group has never been in a position to consider expansion beyond Afghanistan’s borders.

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Even now, when the Taliban is resurgent, the militants are a very long way off from conquering Afghanistan.

Lewis said, “Even if the Taliban itself has not been particularly interested in spreading into Central Asia, it’s acted as an umbrella, sort of like a protector for groups, which may well have security designs on Central Asia.”

Lewis said for Central Asian governments “the bigger problem [in Afghanistan] is…this array of other groups that may be in conflict with the Taliban or at least have different goals from the Taliban, particularly various offshoots of groups that somehow are linked to forms of Islamic State [militant group].”

Citizens of Central Asia are present in many of the militant groups currently active in northern Afghanistan.

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Fighting along or near the Tajik border has been in the news a lot recently. Tajikistan is unique among the three Central Asian states that border Afghanistan (Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan being the other two). Tajikistan has clear agreements for receiving outside military help to defend the country.

Tajikistan is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), along with Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia.

As the security situation in northern Afghanistan has deteriorated over the last three years, the CSTO has offered numerous pledges of rapid military support to the Tajik government if problems from Afghanistan spill across the border.

But Blank said, “There are real question marks about the actual readiness of the CSTO as a military alliance.”

He pointed out, “Formally speaking there’s the Collective Security Treaty Organization, in practice that really means the Russian Army.”

And Blank added that Russia is “already involved in three wars, in the North Caucasus, Ukraine, and Syria, the economy is very constrained, military spending has had to be cut, and the last thing they need is a fourth protracted war.”

Blank suggested that was one of the reasons Moscow had entered into talks with the Taliban because “Russia has decided that ISIS is the greater threat,” and the most likely to destabilize the situation in Central Asia.

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Russia has the 201st Division stationed in Tajikistan. Russia commands the CSTO base at Kant, Kyrgyzstan, also.

But Lewis explained, “Tajikistan’s been very cautious about its military relationship with Russia,” and “there’s a lot of sensitivity in the region about Russian involvement in Central Asia, and that’s certainly the case for Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.”

Uzbekistan is no longer a CSTO member. The first time Uzbekistan withdrew from the CSTO was in 1999, shortly after Tashkent invoked the CSTO mutual-defense treaty when the Taliban arrived at the Uzbek border (Uzbekistan rejoined the CSTO in 2006 but pulled out in 2012). At that time Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said he would not send even one soldier to defend Central Asia.

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Uzbekistan is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), along with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Russia, and China, but Blank said, “The Shanghai Cooperation Organization cannot be relied on, it has never…developed the capability to function as a hard security organization.”

Lewis suggested there was another option that would probably be particularly unpalatable to the Kremlin. “I think from a Russian perspective, the kind of nightmare scenario is that if Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan come under pressure they turn not to Russia for help but to other countries, maybe even to the West,” Lewis said.

There is another issue here and that is the definition of an internal versus external security threat.

It was noted in the Majlis that when inter-ethnic violence erupted in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010, the CSTO did not intervene, deeming that an internal problem.

But Lewis said, “It seems to me the real problem is if you get some internal dissention or state collapse in Central Asia.” And Blank noted that in Tajikistan’s case, “I’m not altogether certain the Tajik government is strong enough to fight off an internal challenge.”

Should Central Asian militants currently located in northern Afghanistan be able cross into Central Asia and wage a terrorist campaign how would the CSTO, SCO, or others view that situation? (REF/RL)

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Indian Wheat Arrives Afghanistan via Chabahar Port, making History

India sends its first shipment to Afghanistan via Chabahar port, thus opening new trade route for Middle East also, bypassing the problems created by Pakistan

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Indian what reaches Afghanistan via Chabahar Port
FILE - Farmer sifts wheat crop at a farm on the outskirts of western Indian city of Ahmedabad. VOA

Afghanistan has received an inaugural consignment of wheat from India through an Iranian port, opening a new trade and transit route for the landlocked nation that bypasses neighboring Pakistan.

The strategic sea route, officials say, will help improve trade and transit connectivity between Kabul and New Delhi.

It will also potentially give India access to Central Asian markets through Afghanistan, because rival Pakistan does not allow Indian goods to be transported through its territory .

The shipment of almost 15,000 tons of wheat dispatched from India’s western port of Kandla on October 29 reached the Iranian port of Chabahar on November 1. It was then loaded on trucks and brought by road to the Afghan province of Nimroz, which borders Iran.

Speaking at a special ceremony to receive the historic consignment Saturday in the border town of Zaranj, India’s ambassador to Kabul, Manpreet Vohra, said the shipment has demonstrated the viability of the new route. He added that India, Afghanistan and Iran agreed to operationalize the Chabahar port only a year-and-a-half ago.

“The ease and the speed with which this project is already working is evident from the fact that as we are receiving the first trucks of wheat here in Zaranj, the second ship from Kandla has already docked in Chabahar,” Vohra announced.

He said there will be seven shipments between now and February and a total of 110,000 tons of wheat will come to Afghanistan through Chabahar. Vohra added the shipments are part of a promised 1.1 million tons of wheat as India’s “gift” to Afghanistan out of which 700,000 has already been sent to the country.

India is investing $500 million in Chabahar port to build new terminals, cargo berths and connecting roads, as well as rail lines.

The Indian shipment arrived in Afghanistan days after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, on a visit to New Delhi, allayed concerns the Trump administration’s tough stand on Iran could pose a fresh stumbling block to India’s plans to develop the strategic Iranian port as a regional transit hub.

The Indian ambassador also took a swipe at Pakistan, though he did not name the rival country.

“The logic of finding easy connectivity, assured connectivity for Afghanistan is also because you have not had the benefit despite being a landlocked country of having easy access to international markets. We all know that a particular neighbor of yours to the east has often placed restrictions on your transit rights,” Vohra noted.

The shortest and most cost effective land routes between India and Afghanistan lie through Pakistan.

But due to long-running bilateral territorial disputes between India and Pakistan, Afghanistan and India are not allowed to do two-way trade through Pakistani territory. Kabul, however, is allowed to send only a limited amount of perishable goods through Pakistani territory to India.

“We are confident that with the cooperation, particularly of the government of Iran, this route now from Chabahar to Afghanistan will not see any arbitrary closure of gates, any unilateral decisions to stop your imports and exports, and this will provide you guaranteed access to the sea,” vowed Vohra.

Pakistan also allows Afghanistan to use its southern port of Karachi for transit and trade activities. However, Afghan officials and traders are increasingly complaining that authorities in Pakistan routinely indulge in unannounced trade restrictions and frequent closure of border crossings, which has undermined trade activities.

“With the opening of Chabahar Port, Afghanistan will no longer be dependent on Karachi Port,” provincial governor Mohammad Samiullah said while addressing the gathering. The economic activity, he said, will create job opportunities and bring billions of dollars in revenue to Afghanistan, Iran and India.

Afghanistan’s relations with Pakistan have also plunged to new lows in recent years over mutual allegations of sponsoring terrorism against each other’s soils.

In its bid to enhance economic connectivity with Afghanistan, India also opened an air freight corridor in June this year to provide greater access for Afghan goods to the Indian market.

Pakistani officials, however, have dismissed suggestions the direct trade connectivity between India and Afghanistan is a matter of concern for Islamabad.

“It is our consistent position that Afghanistan as a landlocked country has a right of transit access through any neighboring country according to its needs,” said Pakistani foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Faisal.

Pakistan and Afghanistan share a nearly 2,600 kilometer largely porous border. However, Islamabad has lately begun construction of a fence and tightened monitoring of movements at regular border crossings between the two countries, saying terrorist attacks in Pakistan are being plotted on the Afghan side of the border. VOA

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Afghanistan Chief Executive Abdullah thanks India, slams Pakistan

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Afghanistan leader abdullah abdullah
Afghanistan's Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. ians

New Delhi, Sep 29: Afghanistan Chief Executive, Abdullah Abdullah on Friday thanked India for its “generous contributions” in reconstructing the war-torn nation and slammed Pakistan for its role in destabilizing the country.

However, he added, Afghanistan would continue to extend hands of friendship to all its neighbours including Pakistan.

Delivering the 24th Sapru House Lecture here, Abdullah, who is on a visit to India to enhance ties between the two countries, said terror was a threat to all nations and that a stable Afghanistan would benefit all countries in the region.

He said Afghanistan faced some “serious challenge” when it came to its relations with Pakistan.

“The fact that there are groups based in Pakistan which are threatening the security of Afghanistan and (they) continue to receive support and continue to embark upon destabilizing activities and acts of terror in Afghanistan. That is a very serious challenge for us and for the whole region,” Abdullah said.

Referring to Pakistan, he added that there were some “very clear lessons in the past when some of the terrorist groups created for other purposes turned against those who created them and started to pose a threat and continue to do so.

“Our message is very clear: Afghanistan’s civility and prosperity is in the interest of the region. Afghanistan has no bad intention towards any neighbouring country.

“We have extended and will continue to extend hands of friendship to all its neighbours and countries of the region. And we expect reciprocation,” Abdullah said, adding his country would continue the dialogue process with neighbours to address common challenges.

He said countries needed to decide that “terrorism would not be used as a tool for foreign policy”.

Referring to India, the Afghan leader said its contributions had made a difference to lives of millions of Afghan people.

“Relations between Afghanistan and India, which are founded in the bonds of history and culture of both nations, have been strengthened in the past 16 years with your generous contributions that made a difference to lives of millions of people,” he said.

Abdullah added that India’s support in many fields including education, infrastructure and security had “contributed in its own way in stabilization of our country and pursuit of our democratic aspirations and also betterment of lives of our people”.

He said while he was supposed to arrive in India a day earlier, his visit was delayed “because of the terrorist attack on Kabul International Airport”.

“But I was determined to come. Terrorist attacks may have caused us some delay but they could not stop us.”

He said while on one side there were aspirations and efforts of millions to create a stable, democratic and prosperous Afghanistan, on the other there were efforts of a “tiny minority” to destroy lives of people through acts of terror.

“But our wisdom says that human dignity will prevail and acts of terror would be condemned to fail.”

He said “terror is terror” and that there should be no differentiation when it comes to terror: “good and bad terrorist groups”.

Abdullah said Afghanistan can play its “rightful” role as a bridge between South Asia and Central Asia.

“We are working together – India and Iran have taken lead – towards operationalisation of Chabahar. We hope, as India has annouced, it would contribute further, that one year target of full operationalisation of Chabahar would be met.”

He said India, Iran, Afghanistan and other countries would benefit from this.

“We will witness the first act of operationalisation by receiving shipments of wheat through Chabahar in a few days time. But further work would continue,” Abdullah added.

Iran’s Chabahar port lies outside the Persian Gulf and is easily accessed from India’s western coast, bypassing Pakistan. Once operationalised, India can bypass Pakistan to transport goods to Afghanistan.(IANS)

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India Rules Out Troops Deployment in War Torn Afghanistan

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Niramala sitharam and James Mattis
The Union Minister for Defence Nirmala Sitharaman and the US Secretary of Defence, Mr. James Mattis iduring a press conference in New Delhi on September 26, 2017.

New Delhi, Sep 26:  India on Tuesday, made clear that it will not send its forces in the war-torn region of Afghanistan. “There shall not be boots from India on the ground (in Afghanistan),” Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said at a joint media conference with visiting US Defence Secretary James Mattis after talks with him.

The Minister was replying to a question about India’s contribution in Afghanistan and whether it would deploy its troops there.

Mattis is the first high-ranking official of the Trump administration to visit India amidst expectation from the US that India could change its stand on a possible military presence in Afghanistan.

US President Donald Trump while unveiling his new policy on Afghanistan last month asked India to help more with the troubled country, battling decades of the Islamist insurgency.

Sitharaman said India’s contribution to Afghanistan has been there for a very long time in development activities like building dams, schools, hospitals, roads and any institution which the country may require.

“We are also at the moment training their officials in good governance… India’s contribution has been there and we shall expand if necessary,” she said.

She also said India welcomed Trump’s new Afghanistan strategy and added she had “useful discussions” with Mattis on “how we can strengthen our cooperation bilaterally as well as with the government of Afghanistan in pursuit of our common objective of a peaceful, democratic, stable and prosperous Afghanistan”.

Mattis lauded India’s efforts in Afghanistan. “In particular, we applaud India’s invaluable contributions to Afghanistan and welcome further efforts to promote Afghanistan’s democracy, stability and security. We seek to expand our cooperation in building partnerships across the region.”

Mattis said the two countries recognized the threat to global peace from terror and both agreed that there should be “no tolerance to safe havens for terrorists”.

“As global leaders, India and the United States resolve to work together to eradicate this scourge,” he said.

Mattis said both India and the US have suffered losses due to terrorism and “one aspect of this is universally shared by all responsible nations that there shall be no safe havens for terror”.

The US Defence Secretary did not name Pakistan but Sitharaman minced no words in saying that terror attacks in Mumbai or in New York originated from Pakistan.

“The very same forces which did find safe haven in Pakistan were the forces that hit New York as well as Mumbai,” she said.

She urged the US Defence Secretary to “speak out and raise this issue” on his next visit to Pakistan.

Replying to a question, Mattis appreciated India’s efforts along with the international community for increasing pressure on North Korea over nuclear activities.

The two sides discussed maritime security in the India Ocean and the Indo-Pacific region.(IANS)