More than 1,000 Afghan government troops have fled into neighbouring Tajikistan to escape a Taliban advance, amid fears that the withdrawal of western troops from Afghanistan could pitch the country back into all-out civil war and destabilise a Central Asian region where China, Russia and the United States compete for influence.
Taliban fighters have seized several northern Afghan districts bordering Tajikistan and China and made gains elsewhere in the country, as US-led forces head home in line with plans for most foreign troops to leave Afghanistan by this year’s 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks on New York and Washington.
US forces handed over Bagram air base, their main facility in Afghanistan, to the country’s armed forces last Friday, but while pledging not to allow international terror groups to operate in the country, the Taliban has not reached a political deal with the national government and fighting has intensified in recent weeks.
“During armed clashes with the Taliban, in order to save the lives of personnel, 1,037 servicemen of the Afghan government forces retreated through [several] border areas of . . . the Republic of Tajikistan,” the press service of the Tajik border guards said on Monday.
Reports suggest about 500 other Afghan soldiers crossed in recent days into Tajikistan, which hosts a Russian military base and is a member of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) of post-Soviet states.
The Kremlin said Russian president Vladimir Putin assured Tajik counterpart Emomali Rakhmon on Monday that Moscow was ready “to provide Tajikistan with the necessary support – both bilaterally and within the framework of the CSTO”.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia’s military and border guards would decide whether to send more personnel to Tajikistan “according to how the situation develops”.
“Of course, after the withdrawal of the Americans and their allies from Afghanistan, the way the situation develops in the country is a matter of increased concern for us. We are monitoring very closely and note, unfortunately, that destabilisation is occurring,” he said.
Afghan national security adviser Hamdullah Mohib held talks in Moscow on Monday, and insisted that his country’s army would “absolutely, undoubtedly” launch a counter-attack against the Taliban.
“The Taliban decided to take advantage of a vacuum when US and foreign troops are withdrawing, and launched an offensive without warning. This caught the Afghan security forces by surprise because . . . we expected peace not war,” he said.
He also warned that a collapse of security in Afghanistan would affect its Central Asian neighbours and Russia.
“The United States is gradually reducing its presence in Afghanistan to prepare for a complete withdrawal of troops . . . The most important thing is how we use this opportunity to build a stable Afghanistan, to build stability in the region. This is a challenge for our country at the national level, but it is also a challenge for the entire region,” Mr Mohib told Russian state news agency Ria.
“If the results of the withdrawal of foreign troops are not what we all want, and not what the Afghan people want, then this will primarily have implications for Afghanistan and serious security implications for Central Asia and Russia.”