Kabul: Russia on Wednesday launched military exercises in Tajikistan as the Taliban continue their blistering offensive in neighboring Afghanistan. The insurgents in recent weeks have brought huge swathes of the country under their control as foreign troops withdraw, including Afghanistan’s main Shir Khan Bandar border crossing with Tajikistan.
Moscow is closely watching the offensive, concerned about the security of countries in ex-Soviet Central Asia where it maintains military bases. On Wednesday, about 1,000 troops at Russia’s 201st military base in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe took part in drills, Russian news agency Interfax reported. The agency cited a statement by Russia’s Central Military District as saying the exercises were meant for unit commanders and combat chiefs to get ready for “combat operations in a dynamically changing situation.”
Interfax reported that the exercises will run until the end of the week. Russia’s defense ministry said in a statement carried by the news agency that servicemen stationed at the military base had “repelled a massive missile strike by a simulated enemy” during the drills on Wednesday. The 201st base is one of Russia’s most important foreign bases and has the aim of helping maintain stability in Central Asia and providing support for Tajik troops. In 2012, Tajikistan gave Russia an extension on the base through 2042 so it could help police its border with Afghanistan.
On the other hand, NATO’s Deputy Secretary General said that the military alliance is not “running away” from Afghanistan, as international troops leave the country after nearly 20 years. Speaking to DW, Mircea Geoana stressed that NATO wants to continue to help Afghanistan, especially as the alliance is “fully aware” that there are security and political challenges ahead. “We know that putting an end to our mission is also entailing risks, we are lucid about these things,” said Geoana, a Romanian national who has been NATO’s deputy secretary general since October 2019.
“But the decision to put an end to the certain point of a long, protracted mission was something which was taken by all our allies, by our American friends and allies. And now we’re opening a new chapter,” he added. Geoana, speaking from NATO’s headquarters in Brussels, said some of the risks include the possible reversal of reforms, the loss of territory to the Taliban, as well as the impact of NATO’s departure on the morale of Afghan forces.
But, he stressed, “in the end, it’s up to the Afghan people to really decide what’s their future. It’s not up to us in perpetuity to decide on behalf of the Afghan people.” Responding to these kinds of concerns, Geoana stressed that opening a “new chapter” in Afghanistan does not mean NATO is abandoning the country or ending its support to its military forces.
The deputy secretary general specifically mentioned a trust fund for Afghanistan’s armed forces which is “fully replenished up to 2024” and said NATO continues to work alongside Afghanistan’s air force and train the country’s special forces. And he placed his hopes on a political solution to Afghanistan’s divisions. Geoana said NATO is encouraging “inter-Afghan peace talks because at a certain moment the room for diplomacy will arrive.”
This comes even as a military ceremony has been organized upon the completion of the Romanian Army’s mission in Afghanistan, which will take place on July 21, in the Arch of Triumph Square in Bucharest, informs the Romanian Ministry of National Defense (MApN). According to the cited source, on this occasion, pedestrian detachments representing the military structures of the Romanian Army that performed missions in this theater of operations, starting from 2002 until June of this year will march under the Arch of Triumph. The last Romanian detachment from the Afghanistan theater of operations, consisting of 140 soldiers, returned to the country at the end of June.
Meanwhile, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has said that peace in Afghanistan is crucial as Pakistan seeks to open trade doors into the Central Asian states, stressing on the Trans Afghan Rail Project as an important component of connectivity and a tool to enhance living standards in the region. The Pakistan prime minister, during his address at the Uzbekistan-Pakistan Business Forum on Thursday, said that the Trans Afghan Railway is the “most important project” for both countries.
“The connection between us and the people of Uzbekistan goes back centuries,” said PM Imran. “But how our business and trade relationships evolve depends on how quickly we connect with each other physically,” he said, referring to the Trans Afghan Railway Project. The Trans Afghan Rail is an ambitious project that seeks to connect Pakistan and Uzbekistan via Afghanistan, and later, other Central Asian countries could also potentially become part. He said that both Uzbekistan and Pakistan are “extremely keen” that there is peace in Afghanistan. “We are all hoping for a political settlement to take place there. Connectivity through Afghanistan would be hugely beneficial for all of us.”
Meanwhile, the United States will continue to solicit strong support for the Afghan peace process both regionally and internationally, US Homeland Security Adviser Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall said on Thursday. The White House adviser made the statement during the C5+1 meeting in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. The format includes five Central Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) plus the United States.
“We will continue to support negotiations to achieve a political solution that brings Afghans the peace they deserve and to build a strong regional and international support base for Afghanistan’s future”, Sherwood-Randall said. She noted that C5+1 members can do more jointly rather than alone or on a bilateral basis to address issues of common interest. “We will continue to provide security assistance to the Afghan National Defense Forces, as well as development and humanitarian aid. We will continue to take aggressive action against terrorist groups that threaten United States and that undermine the security of our allies and partners, including your countries”, Sherwood-Randall said. Also, US State Department is now requiring all contractors in Afghanistan “to ensure” that all their personnel are fully vaccinated for Covid-19, according to a department memo sent to contractors this week that was reviewed by CNN.
This order is a clear effort to stem rising Covid-19 infections among US personnel in Kabul after a series of recent outbreaks at the embassy there forced a shut down in operations, including visa interviews for Afghans who worked with the US military as interpreters and translators and are now applying to come to the US. The contractors must affirm that their employees are all vaccinated within 45 days of the July 13 decision, the memo says. In addition, any incoming contractors must be fully vaccinated before traveling to the country, the memo says. “The maintenance of a healthy and safe workplace is of the highest concern and mitigating risk to the workforce is of critical importance,” Michael W. Derrios, the department’s senior procurement executive, writes in the memo.
Also, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) spokesperson Ömer Çelik has said that the Taliban’s statements against Turkey’s presence in Afghanistan can be branded as a communication mishap. Speaking to reporters, Çelik said that the Taliban’s statement dated July 13 “has some negative remarks.” “We would like to evaluate this statement as a communication mishap,” Çelik said.
The Taliban warned Turkey on July 13 against possible plans to keep some troops in Afghanistan to run and guard Kabul’s main airport after the withdrawal of foreign troops, calling the strategy “reprehensible” and warning of “consequences.” Ankara, which has offered to run and guard the airport in the capital after NATO’s withdraws, has been in talks with allies, namely the United States, on aspects of financial, political and logistical support.
Also, the Presidential Palace stated that Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev in a meeting with President Ghani, said that his country is committed to its continued cooperation in various fields. President Ghani, on Thursday morning, on a two-day trip to attend the International Conference on Central and South Asia; traveled to Uzbekistan, where he met with President of Uzbekistan. The two sides discussed greater security on the Afghan-Uzbek border, economic and trade cooperation, electricity transmission, railways, and a regional consensus for peace in Afghanistan.
The two sides stressed that the conference should encourage everyone, especially the participating countries, to work for the peace process in Afghanistan and to support the system and the people. However, the Presidential Palace stated that Uzbek President has pledged that his country will continue to work with the Afghan people and people in a number of areas.
President Ghani also met with Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar. President Ghani also met with US delegation led by Homeland Security Advisor Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall at his residence in Tashkent on Thursday afternoon. Both sides exchanged views on the support for the ANDSF, US’ development and humanitarian assistance, and commitment in accelerating the peace process.
Sherwood-Randall assured Ghani that the US will implement its aforementioned commitments, and that the U.S. is moving forward strongly with Afghanistan, will make every effort to accelerate the peace process, and intensify its regional diplomacy in this regard. Ghani expressed gratitude for the U.S. cooperation with Afghanistan and called peace an important priority for the Afghan government and the great aspiration of the Afghan people.