On Monday, Russian and Uzbek troops began joint military exercises close to the Afghan border. Later this week, forces from both countries will participate in trilateral military exercises in neighboring Tajikistan. Both exercises were prompted by the Taliban’s advances in northern Afghanistan in recent weeks, which triggered the flight of Afghan forces and civilians across the border into Tajikistan. At the same time, Russian diplomatic rhetoric balances between chiding the United States for its failure in Afghanistan and espousing support for a negotiated settlement.
First, the exercises: On August 2, around 1,500 troops from the Russian and Uzbek militaries began joint exercises in Termez which are anticipated to run for five days.
In preparation for the trilateral exercises, which are planned to begin at the Harb-Maidon training ground in Tajikistan on August 5, Russia transferred Mi-8 and Mi-24 helicopters from Novosibirsk to the Gissar Air Base (also known as the Ayni Air Base) near Dushanbe. The Harb-Maidon training ground is located around 20 kilometers from the Afghan-Tajik border. The press service for the Russian Central Military District said in a statement that the four helicopters were partially disassembled, transported via an An-124 Ruslan transport aircraft, and reassembled in Tajikistan. During the exercises, the statement said, the helicopters will be used to land tactical assault forces and provide air support.
In late July, Russia moved tanks to the training ground in preparation for the exercise, which is anticipated to run through August 10 and include more than 2,500 troops from the three countries.
Though not linked to the exercises, it’s worth mentioning that Russian forces stationed in Tajikistan brought into service 17 new BMP-2M infantry fighting vehicles. The vehicles are reportedly intended to replace obsolete equipment. Russia’s 201st Military Base in Tajikistan is one of its most significant foreign bases, with an estimated 7,000 troops at three installations.
On the diplomatic developments: While Russian forces and their Central Asian counterparts practice repelling attacking forces, Russian diplomats continue to promote a negotiated settlement to the Afghan conflict. While the major external players in Afghanistan all continue to center a negotiated settlement, Russia does so with a side of shade thrown at the United States’ 20-year military engagement in the country.
As an illustration: In an online forum put on last week by the Alexander Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Fund, a Russian think tank founded by Dmitry Medvedev in 2010, the Russian presidential envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, said that al-Qaida does not engage in hostilities in Afghanistan. He said that reports of the group’s cooperation with the Taliban are mere speculation mainly discussed by Kabul and the Americans, “in order to justify their own failures and inability to manage.”
According to a TASS report, Kabulov said, “[They] really want to find an explanation why the 300,000 Afghan army is surrendering its positions to 75,000 Taliban.”
Russia designates both al-Qaida and the Taliban as terrorist groups, though it has hosted several Taliban delegations in recent years.
At the same event, according to an RT report, Kabulov suggested that two-thirds of the Taliban, “including its top leadership, are committed to the idea of a political solution to the Afghan crisis.” The context for his comment appears to have been concerns about spillover into Central Asia, given he added that Taliban fighters are tired and unlikely to try and cross into Central Asia. The Taliban has pledged that its ambitions do not extend beyond Afghanistan’s borders.
Kabulov’s comments come as the Taliban pressures Afghan government forces across the country. In the southern province of Helmand, nine of 10 districts in the provincial capital have reportedly fallen to the Taliban.
Speaking online at the Aspen Security Forum this week, U.S. Afghanistan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said he planned to meet with the expanded “troika” – Russia, China, and Pakistan– in the coming days to discuss Afghanistan. Kabulov meanwhile lamented that Iran has not yet been included in the expanded “troika.” Kabulov pointed to the state of American-Iranian relations as the reason for Iran’s continued exclusion from the discussions.