A spate of militant clashes in Tajikistan may indicate that the conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan are spilling beyond their borders – a top concern for neighboring Central Asian nations and Russia.
The rise in violence comes as Pakistan wraps up an assault on militants in the north and Western forces intensify a campaign against insurgents in Afghanistan ahead of an Aug. 20 election. The offensives may be pushing foreigners fighting in either country to flee the conflict and return home.
"The situation at the Afghan border may deteriorate ahead of elections," Interior Minister Abdurakhim Qahorov warned last week. "Different criminal groups may try to seek temporary refuge in neighboring countries, including ours."
The issue of regional security was raised at a Thursday summit in Dushanbe with the presidents of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Russia.
"[Terrorism] threatens my brother's country. It threatens my country and our neighborhood," Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said Wednesday in Dushanbe.
Militants linked to Pakistan, Afghanistan
Tajikistan, which shares a 750-mile border with Afghanistan, sits on the front line of spillover effects.
Last Saturday, two explosions rocked Dushanbe. Nobody claimed responsibility for the attacks, but the Tajik government said the perpetrators were linked to the Taliban.
A week earlier, police detained three Tajik men whom the police allege were plotting terrorist attacks in the country. The Interior Ministry said they were "active members of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) [who] participated in the fights against the coalition forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan and against government forces in Pakistan's region of Waziristan." The US lists the IMU as a terrorist group.
In a faceoff Wednesday, the government claimed it had killed an IMU leader, Nemat Azizov.
Shoot-outs near Afghan border
Also this month, security forces have been involved in at least four shootouts in Tavildara, near the Afghan border. In one clash, they killed five militants from Russia who may been associated with five Chechens arrested earlier this month who were planning "to transfer money earned from drug trafficking to terrorist organizations in Pakistan and Afghanistan," according to the police report.
According to local media reports, government forces are also fighting the armed group of Mullo Abdullo, a former field commander who fought on the opposition during the 1990s civil war and left for Afghanistan after it ended because he was dissatisfied with the peace treaty. Villagers in Tavildara report that he has returned and brought "many armed men."
"The Taliban gave refuge to many Central Asian people – ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kyrgyz, etc., who were members of IMU or Islamist members of the opposition during the [Tajik] civil war," and it makes sense that they would now flee the troubled areas and go home, says Abdugani Mamadazimov, chair of the Association of Political Scientists based in Dushanbe. "Tavildara is just 500-600 kilometers (about 310-370 miles) away from ... Pakistan."
These fighters are probably not simply fleeing, but are going home with the task to destabilize, Mr. Mamadazimov continues.
Target: the new US supply route
The rise in violence may be tied to the United States attempts to find a new supply line through Tajikistan for its forces in Afghanistan, after convoys on its main route in Pakistan were repeatedly attacked by militants.
Tajikistan has agreed to provide its territory for the transit of nonlethal cargo to supply US troops in Afghanistan. This route, called the Northern Distribution Network, goes through the Baltics, Russia, and Central Asian states.
The Taliban have warned the Tajik government against cooperating with the US. "This is regarded as a participation in the aggression against Afghanistan," Abdul Vase Mutasim Agha, introduced as a director of Taliban's political committee, told Al Jazeera in May when the US-Tajik agreement on the transit corridor was reached. "This step of yours would lead to instability."
Just an internal affair
Some analysts, however, say the recent shootouts have little to do with Taliban and instead reflect domestic conflict.
MirzahudjaAkhmedov, an opposition field commander during the civil war, says these incidents are part of the standoff between the government and former warlords who fought in the opposition during the civil war.
Many of them still feel cheated, says Mr. Akhmedov. Although a peace treaty was signed in 1997 and warlords were folded into the government, once current President Emomali Rakhmon consolidated his power after 2000, they began to lose their seats.
"The government wants to control us. They didn't amnesty civil war fighters. They can arrest us any time and of course no one wants to go to jail," he says.
Security tightens in Tavildara
In any case, police and soldiersare apparently clamping down around Tavildara. They have set up 11 checkpoints along the 110-mile route from Dushanbe to Tavildara at which they register travelers' names and passport details. Villagers along the route say they don't recall ever seeing so many checkpoints. Security forces are also turning away journalists, saying it's too dangerous to travel further east.
About 40 miles southeast of Dushanbe, "there were armored vehicles and military trucks. It was clear to us that [the troops] were fighting a serious force," says Gulnara Ravshan, a local journalist who managed to get to Tavildara under cover.
Residents there told Ms. Ravshan that the fighters they had seen were from Afghanistan. Many have sent their children to Dushanbe and other places because they fear the militants may kidnap their daughters and forcibly recruit their sons.