A shootout occurred on March 21, on the border of Afghanistan and Tajikistan, between armed Afghans and residents of the Shuroabad District (in southwestern Tajikistan). Four people died. According to local residents, three armed Afghan smugglers entered Dekhi Qozi village. They took four local residents hostage, wanting to kidnap them to Afghanistan. But the hostages resisted the captors’ attempts; in the ensuing shootout, the smugglers and a 52-year old hostage were killed. A source in the State Committee for National Security, which protects Tajikistan’s state border, confirmed the incident but said no details were available (Fergananews.com, March 23).
Hostage-taking is a frequent occurrence among residents of Tajikistan who fail to pay Afghan dealers for drugs smuggled across the border. Illicit drug traders’ relatives are often taken hostage. The case on March 21 was the first recorded incident in which hostages killed their captors. According to official data, five armed clashes took place between smugglers and Tajikistani border guards in March 2013; five bandits and a Tajik border guard were killed in this period (Fergananews.com, March 23).
A porous border with Afghanistan is also a critical problem for Uzbekistan. A few days earlier, several Afghan citizens illegally crossed into the territory of Uzbekistan, attacked a border patrol and attempted to seize weapons being held there. Three Afghan nationals were killed in the clash (NewsRu.com, March 17).
According to the Uzbekistani border guards’ report, “On March 14, 2013, a border detail from Uzbekistan patrolling the Aral-Paygambar Island [an Uzbekistani territory in the middle of the Amu Darya river, which separates Afghanistan from Uzbekistan] noticed over 30 Afghan citizens. They ignored the patrol’s legal demand to leave the Uzbek territory, and about ten violators attacked the patrol and attempted to seize their weapons.” The border patrol was forced to discharge their weapons at the Afghans, following several warning shots they made into the air. “Four Afghan citizens were wounded in the clash, three of whom died. The rest of the illegal border crossers disappeared into their own territory. The [surviving] wounded citizen of the neighboring country was immediately attended to by medical personnel” (NewsRu.com, March 17).
The border guards decided to return the dead and wounded detainees to Afghanistan, but “the officials at the Afghan border protection service refused to take their citizens back,” the Uzbekistani border agency’s press service reports (NewsRu.com, March 17).
However, Afghanistan’s border police commander, General Mohammad Jan Mamozai, denied that the Afghan citizens had illegally crossed into the territory of Uzbekistan. According to the general, the border guards shot at seven Afghans who had gone into a forest on an island in the middle of the Amu Darya. Three of the men from Kaldar district were killed while four others survived the shooting. They were attacked on Afghan territory, the commander alleged. Haji Sharfuddin, a tribal elder from the district, denounced the killings as unjust. He said the civilians had not crossed the border into Uzbekistan (Pajhwok Afghan News, March 17).
According to Uzbekistan’s border service, violations of the country’s border by Afghans have been growing more frequent in recent months. Twenty-two cases of border violations occurred and a total of 106 Afghan citizens have been detained by Uzbekistani patrols since the beginning of 2013 (12news.uz, March 16).
According to former Uzbekistani law enforcement officer and security expert Ubaidullo Khakimov, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which is banned throughout Central Asia, has been making attempts recently to smuggle its fighters into Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. “Instability in the Ferghana Valley and along the Kyrgyz and Uzbek borders stems from an upsurge in terrorist activity in the region.” IMU militants want to “return to the Ferghana Valley and bolster their position there,” Khakimov argued. “As long as mountain passes are covered with snow, it will be quite difficult for them [IMU fighters] to do so, but they will try to smuggle some of their people there in the spring.” However, the transportation of militants “has already started to a certain extent,” the analyst said. Indeed, an unnamed employee of the Uzbekistani National Security Service’s analytical department claimed that at the moment, the IMU is vigorously recruiting and training militants in districts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, located near the border with Central Asia (Interfax, March 12).
But Yadgor Norbutaev, a journalist with the Fegananews.com portal, does not believe Afghanistan presents a real threat to Uzbekistan. According to Norbutaev, Afghan citizens could not have attacked Uzbekistan’s territory (Fergananews.com, March 23). As the author notes, the forested Aral-Paygambar Island in the middle of the Amu Darya, where the March 14 armed incident occurred, is protected by more than one hundred Uzbekistani border patrol agents. Moreover, several frontier and border towers are located on this island. A poor, ethnically Turkmen village is located near the island along the Afghan side of the river. Consequently, Norbutaev does not believe that the poor Afghani farmers would be able to attack such a well-protected territory (Fergananews.com, March 23).
According to Norbutaev, on the eve of the withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops and materiel from Afghanistan, scheduled for the end of 2014, Tashkent is deliberately disseminating rumors about the Afghan threat. By this method, Uzbekistan’s authorities hope to convince the United States to leave the weapons being pulled out of Afghanistan in Uzbekistan (Fergananews.com, March 23). The vast majority of supplies being transported along the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) route to Afghanistan traverse Uzbekistan, and it is expected that the same will be true for the reverse transit of supplies, vehicles and weapons being withdrawn from the Afghan theater (see EDM, March 26, April 2).
Sergei Abashin, the chief of the Central Asia department at the Russian Institute of Ethnology, largely agrees with Norbutaev that Tashkent actively uses the Afghan threat to cajole Washington into providing Uzbekistan with military aid. Nonetheless, he admits that Uzbekistan’s stated fears have some basis in reality. “After the withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force troops, the situation in Afghanistan will be worse. It is possible that Afghanistan may split into a few states: Uzbek and Tajik [areas] in the North, and [a separate] Pashtu [territory] in the South,” Abashin told Jamestown (Interview with the author, April 3). As mid-March illustrated, the border regions between Afghanistan and Central Asia remain porous, and are apparently becoming more so. And as 2014 approaches, the Central Asian republics are growing ever more concerned about their ability to secure their frontiers in the face of a possible power vacuum following ISAF’s withdrawal.