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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Frets As Taliban Takes Over Afghanistan

With northern Afghanistan now in the hands of the fundamentalist Taliban militia, Russia and its Central Asian allies are bracing for a potential flood of refugees -- and the specter of a fervently Islamic neighbor on their very doorstep.


Russia and Tajikistan put their troops on the Tajik-Afghan border on alert Monday, Interfax reported. On Sunday, Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov warned the Taliban not to cross the border.


The Taliban militia, which denies having designs on its Central Asian neighbors, now controls almost all of Afghanistan and all major towns. Only two mountainous provinces in the northeast, bordering on Tajikistan, remain in the hands of anti-Taliban guerrilla commander Ahmad Shah Massoud.


Abdul Rashid Dostum, the former communist warlord of northern Afghanistan, fled from his capital of Mazar-i-Sharif to Turkey over the weekend after a key supporter changed sides and invited the Taliban into the city.


Moscow has long feared that the warfare it helped begin in Afghanistan 18 years ago eventually would spill over into the Moslem republics of Central Asia. Now, with the collapse of the buffer zone of north Afghanistan, many in Moscow fear the Taliban's next goal will be Tajikistan, a condition for preventing a domino effect throughout Central Asia," Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said Monday, Interfax reported.


While Moscow no longer controls the Central Asian republics, it signed a collective security agreement with most of them in 1992. Further, Russia maintains some 20,000 Russian and Tajik troops in remote and mountainous Tajikistan to guard its borders with Afghanistan and to shore up the government in Dushanbe. Moscow considers its troops the main bulwark against the spread of chaos from Afghanistan into Central Asia and Russia.


Russia fears not only Islamic fundamentalism, but also the smuggling of weapons and drugs from lawless Afghanistan. The country is one of the world's biggest producers of opium and heroin, and is awash with weapons supplied by the Soviet Union and the United States when the two superpowers fought their proxy war there.


Political Islam could become a potent force in parts of Central Asia, say analysts, though this would likely be a long-term development.


In Tajikistan the armed opposition to the Dushanbe government was partly motivated by Islamic ideology and sometimes used Islamic connections to get arms and training in Afghanistan. With peace still not guaranteed in Tajikistan, Russia fears the country remains vulnerable to unrest spreading from Afghanistan.


In parts of the neighboring Uzbekistan, Islam fuels underground opposition to the authoritarian government of President Islam Karimov.


"National identity is not very fixed in the Central Asian states, and Islam is one source of that identity," said Roland Dannreuther, a Central Asia analyst at the University of Edinburgh.


Dannreuther says Russia sees Uzbekistan as a key ally in the region -- even though Uzbekistan allows no Russian troops on its territory.


Were Uzbekistan to become politically unstable, through the development of an Islamic opposition or by overreaching itself in its own regional ambitions, then Russia's position in the region would be untenable, he says.


The long-term nightmare scenario in Moscow is that Russia's substantial Moslem minority could one day come under the influence of extremist Islam, causing headaches for Moscow itself.


In the short term, Moscow fears a flood of refugees fleeing the Taliban's repressive rule. Girls' schools have already been closed in Mazar-i-Sharif and women told not to work outside the home. A particular worry for Russia is the tens of thousands of refugees from Tajikistan's civil war who fled to Afghanistan in 1992. They have been a source of recruits for the Tajik opposition, says Alexander Golts, defense correspondent for Russia's Itogi magazine. The Russian military fears the Taliban might use them to infiltrate Tajikistan.