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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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Soviet War in Afghanistan was No Less Than a ‘Hell’, Say Survivors

Friday marked the 30th anniversary of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, the memories are still fresh.

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Soviet War, Afghanistan
FILE - Tatyana Rybalchenko, who worked as a nurse during the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan between 1986 and 1988, holds a photo of her taken in June 1986 in Kabul, Afghanistan, during her interview in Moscow, Russia, Feb. 10, 2019. VOA

Sitting in her living room, 65-year-old Tatyana Rybalchenko goes through a stack of black-and-white photos from more than 30 years ago. In one of them, she is dressed in a nurse’s coat and smiles sheepishly at the camera; in another, she shares a laugh with soldiers on a road with a mountain ridge behind them.

The pictures don’t show the hardships that Rybalchenko and 20,000 Soviet women like her went through as civilian support staff during the Soviet Union’s 1979-1989 invasion of Afghanistan. Although they did not serve in combat roles, they still experienced the horrors of war.

As Russia on Friday marked the 30th anniversary of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, the memories are still fresh for the nurses, clerks and shopkeepers, predominantly young, single women who were thrust into the bloody conflict.

Rybalchenko enlisted on a whim. In 1986, she was 33, working in a dead-end nursing job in Kyiv, the capital of Soviet Ukraine, and was going through a breakup. One day, she joined a colleague who went to a military recruitment office. The recruiter turned to Rybalchenko and asked if she would like to work abroad — in Afghanistan.

She recalls that she was fed up with her life in Kyiv, “so I told him: ‘I’d go anywhere, even to hell!’ And this is where he sent me.”

Family and friends tried to talk her out of it, telling her that Afghanistan is where “the bodies are coming from.” But it was too late: She had signed the contract.

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FILE – In this undated photo, medics and nurses work to treat a casualty in a military hospital in Afghanistan. VOA

At least 15,000 Soviet troops were killed in the fighting that began as an effort to prop up a communist ally and soon became a grinding campaign against a U.S.-backed insurgency. Moscow sent more than 600,000 to a war that traumatized many young men and women and fed a popular discontent that became one factor leading to the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.

Rybalchenko, who worked as a nurse at a military hospital in Gardez, was stunned by the many casualties — men missing limbs or riddled with shrapnel. But there was so much work that she found herself shutting off her emotions.

“At the end, I did not feel anything anymore. I was like a stone,” Rybalchenko said, shedding her normally perky persona.

Friendships helped, and she befriended a young reconnaissance officer, Vladimir Vshivtsev.

He once confided to her that he was not afraid of losing a limb, but he would not be able to live with an injury to his eyes. She recalled him saying “if I lose eyesight, I’ll do everything to put an end to it.”

In November 1987, the hospital was inundated with casualties from a Soviet offensive to open the road between Gardez and the stronghold of Khost, near the Pakistani border.

One of the wounded was Vshivtsev, and Rybalchenko saw him being wheeled into the ward with bandages wrapped around his head. She unwrapped the dressing and gasped when she saw the gaping wound on his face: “The eyes were not there.”

Afghanistan, Fintech
Vladimir Vshivtsev, a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, right, and Gen. Col. Boris Gromov, former Commander of the 40th Army in Afghanistan, greet each other during a meeting at the upper chamber of Russian parliament in Moscow, Russia, Feb. 14, 2019. VOA

She persuaded her superior to let her accompany him to a bigger hospital in Kabul as part of a suicide watch. She stayed friends with Vshivtsev, and he later became a leading activist in the Russian Society for the Blind. Decades later, he briefly served in the Russian parliament.

Raising awareness

Alla Smolina was 30 when she joined the Soviet military prosecutor’s office in Jalalabad near the Pakistani border in 1985. It wasn’t until 20 years later that Smolina started having nightmares about the war.

“The shelling, running away from bullets and mines whizzing above me — I was literally scared of my own pillow,” she said.

She put her memories on paper and contacted other women who were there, telling the stories of those who endured the hardships of war but who are largely absent from the male-dominated narratives.

She is trying to raise awareness of the role the Soviet women played in Afghanistan, believing they have been unfairly portrayed or not even mentioned in fiction and nonfiction written mostly by men.

The deaths of Soviet women who held civilian jobs in Afghanistan are not part of the official toll, and Smolina has written about 56 women who lost their lives. Some died when a plane was shot down by the Afghan mujahedeen, one was killed when a drunken soldier threw a grenade into her room, and one woman was slain after being raped by a soldier.

In an era when the concept of sexual harassment was largely unfamiliar in the Soviet Union, the women in the war in Afghanistan — usually young and unmarried — often started a relationship to avoid unwanted attention from other soldiers.

“Because if a woman has someone, the whole brigade won’t harass you like a pack of wolves,” Rybalchenko said. “Sometimes it was reciprocal, sometimes there was no choice.”

She said she found boyfriends to “protect” her.

Denied war benefits

While the war grew unpopular at home, Soviet troops and support staff in Afghanistan mostly focused on survival rather than politics. While Afghans largely saw Moscow’s involvement as a hostile foreign intervention, the Soviets thought they were doing the right thing.

“We really believed that we were helping the oppressed Afghan nation, especially because we saw with our own eyes all the kindergartens and schools that the Soviet people were building there,” Smolina said.

After Rybalchenko came home, she could hardly get out of bed for the first three months, one of thousands with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder.

When she asked officials about benefits for veterans and other personnel in Afghanistan, she faced hostility and insults. She said one told her: “How do I know what you were actually up to over there?”

In 2006, Russian lawmakers decided that civilians who worked in Afghanistan were not entitled to war benefits. Women have campaigned unsuccessfully to reinstate them.

Rybalchenko eventually got an apartment from the government, worked in physiotherapy and now lives in retirement in Moscow, where her passion for interior decorating is reflected by the exotic bamboo-forest wallpaper in her home.

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Smolina, who lives in Sweden, is wary of disclosing all the details about her own Afghan experiences after facing a backlash from other veterans about her publications.

“Our society is not ready yet to hear the truth. There is still a lingering effect from the harsh Soviet past,” she said. “In Soviet society, you were not supposed to speak out.” (VOA)