Uzbekistan and Tajikistan Conduct Joint Military Exercises amid Afghanistan Border Concerns
Aug 16, 2022
On August 3, a military delegation from Tajikistan arrived in Termez, Uzbekistan. This delegation’s arrival marked the beginning of the “Commonwealth-2022” exercise meant to promote bilateral defense cooperation, primarily by conducting joint military training exercises. During the opening ceremony preceding the joint-exercises, Uzbekistan’s Commander of the Southwestern Special Military District, Major General Zaynobiddin Iminov, and Tajikistan’s Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, Major General Egamzod Sharof Khudoyberdi, delivered opening remarks expressing optimism that the joint-exercises would result in fostering stronger friendly bonds between the two countries.
A defining point of the military exercises revolved around a simulated threat of both countries’ borders. According to Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Defense, during this exercise the threat was thwarted by “machine gunners, tanks, artillery, and other combat units.”
On August 9, toward the end of the exercises, Tajikistan’s Minister of Defense Sherali Mirzo arrived in Tashkent and met with Uzbekistan’s Minister of Defense Bahodir Kurbanov. During their meeting, Kurbanov expressed optimism about enlarging these ties. The meeting between the two Ministers also noted that the level of cooperation between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan’s has grown politically, economically, culturally, and also in the realms of humanitarian aid, defense, and security. The officials signed a joint agreement on “organizing the training of military personnel of the Republic of Tajikistan in higher military educational institutions of Uzbekistan.”
While not mentioned in official remarks, the simulated shared threat to both Uzbekistan’s and Tajikistan’s borders addressed in the exercises suggests that Afghanistan continues to pose security risks to both countries. In the recent months, both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have been targets of rocket attacks coming from Afghanistan, largely attributed to Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). ISKP has emerged as a threat to regional stability after the Taliban’s emergence to power because it seeks to undermine any Taliban attempts to forge diplomatic relations with neighboring government entities.
While both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan share the same security threats to their borders from Afghanistan, both countries have taken different approaches to Afghanistan’s new Taliban leadership. Tajikistan has taken a more overt stance against the Taliban regime. Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon frequently emphasizes Tajikistan’s refusal to recognize any Taliban-led government in Afghanistan so long as it excludes ethnic Tajiks, who make up a quarter of Afghanistan’s population, from government positions. Tajikistan has also lent support to the National Resistance Front (NRF). The NRF, headquartered in Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley, has emerged as the primary resistance entity against a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
By contrast, Uzbekistan has taken a more cordial route with the Taliban, especially in the realm of economic cooperation. In July, Uzbekistan hosted an international conference with representation from about 30 countries, including Taliban representatives. This conference gave political legitimacy to Taliban-led Afghanistan, especially since it was able to engage with other countries regarding economic connectivity and security.
While the United States has distanced itself from affairs in Afghanistan after withdrawing in 2021, it still has demonstrated a vested interest in regional security. Following the Commonwealth-2022 exercises, the United States commenced the “Regional Cooperation 22” military exercises hosted in Tajikistan. The six-day program involving participants from United States, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan consists of command-post exercises.
Based on the joint military exercises in Uzbekistan and the training program in Tajikistan, border security is clearly a priority for these countries. The largest threat to Uzbek and Tajik national security are the stability and integrity of their borders. Currently, Afghanistan has been the source of some of the most immediate danger to these countries’ borders.
While Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have demonstrated different approaches to engaging with the new Taliban-led Afghanistan, their recent uptick in military cooperation has demonstrated a willingness to cooperate in facing a shared threat. Moreover, the U.S.-Central Asian joint military exercises suggest that the United States is a ready partner to help secure Uzbekistan’s and Tajikistan’s borders. Despite any overtures from the Taliban that signal the desire to forge legitimate diplomatic ties, it is important for bordering countries not to ignore the threat coming from recently empowered militia groups in Afghanistan such as ISKP.