TERMEZ, Uzbekistan – A small grave decorated with red stars overlooks the Amu-Darya, the mighty Central Asian river that delineates much of the border between the former Soviet Union and Afghanistan. The lonely monument is a testament to Moscow’s futile attack on Afghanistan, launched from this scorching border town 20 years ago.
Now the southernmost point in the newly independent republic of Uzbekistan, Termez is bracing itself for an invasion in the reverse direction.
In the past week, the radical Islamist Taliban militia swept through the Afghan opposition’s last major stronghold near the border with Uzbekistan. While armed clashes on the frontier are highly unlikely, the offensive triggered concerns throughout the region – including Russia – that the “pure” brand of Islam practiced by the Taliban could spill over the border, bolstering Uzbekistan’s nascent Islamist movement and disrupting neighboring Tajikistan’s fragile peace process.
Uzbekistan’s 90-mile border with Afghanistan has been completely sealed off. After taking the opposition capital of Mazar-e-Sharif over the weekend, Taliban forces on Wednesday swept into Hairaton, the Afghan town across the Amu-Darya from Termez, without a fight.
After the fall of Hairaton, frontier troops have been put on high alert. In Termez the half-mile-long bridge across the Amu-Darya, originally built to transport war materiel to the Soviet Army in Afghanistan, has been closed for more than a year. A sign next to the bridge, picturing a soldier holding a gun, reads: “Uzbekistan’s border is sacred and inviolable.”
Locals in Termez appear much more relaxed about the Taliban presence across the border than their government does. “Why should I be scared?” says one young man in the center of town, pointing to his gleaming new minivan as a measure of his confidence. “Look. In the town everything is quiet. Here I’ve seen the army all my life.”
Residents agree that during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, there was a much greater military presence in Termez. Now, only occasionally does a military truck rumble through the street or a soldier in fatigues pedal by on a bicycle.
“Worried?” says another young man casually. “Why? We have the Russians. They’ll help.”
While President Islam Karimov has been attempting to assert Uzbekistan’s self-reliance during the first seven years of independence from Moscow, the town of Termez is awash with rumors that there already are – or soon will be – Russian soldiers stationed on the border with Afghanistan.
Reliable sources in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, say that Moscow is probably supplying military advisers to Uzbekistan, which, like 12 other successor states of the Soviet Union, belongs to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
“If the Taliban cross the border, then maybe we’ll invite the Russians,” says a source close to the Foreign Ministry in Tashkent. “But I’m sure they won’t cross.”
Nevertheless, the Taliban advance into northern Afghanistan has brought Uzbekistan and Russia closer, a development that Moscow can only welcome after losing a great deal of influence over Central Asia following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In May Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Russia created an alliance to combat religious extremism. And last week, as the Taliban fighters moved toward Mazar-e-Sharif, the head of the Russian general staff, Anatolii Kvashnin, and Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Boris Pastukhov flew to Tashkent. In a joint statement, Russia and Uzbekistan called on the Taliban to end their advance and reserved the right to take all necessary measures to protect the CIS border.
Tajikistan, which experienced a bloody civil war after independence from Moscow and now is going through an uneasy peace process, relies heavily on assistance from Russia. Some 25,000 Russian troops are stationed along Tajikistan’s mountainous border with Afghanistan.
Tajikistan reportedly has close ties to the ethnic Tajik general Ahmed Shah Masoud, who is fighting the Taliban from his base in northeastern Afghanistan. As Taliban forces approached within miles of the Tajik border, President Imomali Rakhmonov of Tajikistan appealed on Tuesday to the CIS to strengthen border security and to the United Nations to help negotiate a peaceful settlement to the Afghan civil war.
Of the three post-Soviet Central Asian republics bordering Afghanistan, Turkmenistan has reacted to the Taliban victories the calmest.
Since independence, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has sought to have his country take on a neutral position in the region. In the past his government has refused to condemn the Taliban, possibly because of a gas pipeline that is planned to run from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan.
In Termez a sense of calm belies the tense situation on the border. Even in the vicinity of the bridge to Afghanistan, Uzbek border troops bathe in a creek and tend to their sheep. Across the river, Hairaton appears quiet, the lights of its defunct port facilities twinkling in the sunset.
Last year, when Taliban forces briefly took the city, several shells accidentally fell on the Uzbek side. This time, however, it appears both warring factions in Afghanistan avoided provoking the nervous Uzbek government.
“The situation is more serious today because the Taliban are well prepared,” says a Foreign Ministry source in Tashkent. “I think that this time they will not repeat their mistakes.”
Some observers believe that the recent string of Taliban victories could change the Uzbek government’s position toward the fundamentalist Islamic movement, which now controls at least three-fourths of Afghanistan.
Uzbekistan still does not recognize the Taliban as a legitimate authority in Afghanistan and in the past has aided the ethnic Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum, who until recently had his anti-Taliban base in Mazar-e-Sharif until recently. General Dostum’s whereabouts are unknown, and his associates in Termez are maintaining a low profile.
A month ago the leader of the Taliban movement, Mulla Mohammed Omar, warned Uzbekistan and Tajikistan not to allow opposition forces to use bases in their countries.
The Uzbek government fears that the Taliban victories could precipitate a flood of refugees from Afghanistan, say humanitarian aid workers, though they don’t expect a mass exodus to Uzbekistan and no refugees have yet crossed the border.
“The big fear of the Uzbek government is that ethnic Uzbeks will cross the border and that it will be difficult to turn them back because of nationalistic feelings,” says one aid worker. “But these ethnic Uzbeks don’t feel Uzbek, they feel Afghan. After 20 years of fighting [in Afghanistan], the Uzbek government is afraid they’ll come here only to regroup and rearm.”