By Negmatullo Mirsaidov
Tajik troops August 17 march at the Chorukhdarron training ground near Khujand and the Uzbekistani border. [Negmatullo Mirsaidov]
KHUJAND -- Faced with guarding a 1,344 km-long border with Afghanistan, Tajikistan is taking no chances.
Law enforcement agencies might say that extremism- and terrorism-related crimes are under control nationwide, but they remain concerned about the potential threat from extremist organisations that decide to go underground.
In one sign of improvement, Sughd Province registered 230 extremist offences in the first half of 2017, 100 fewer than in the same period last year, according to the province's prosecutor's office.
Such progress, though, has to be measured against evidence that militant groups could move to Central Asia.
The "Islamic State" (IS), for one, could decide to flee imminent defeat in Syria and make its way to Afghanistan, where a branch of IS already operates, warn Tajik observers.
Militants who regard Afghanistan and Pakistan as "Khorasan Province" in their idea of a caliphate could move the "theatre for military action from the Middle East to Central Asia", Nasimrajabi Ahmadi, an Afghan political scientist, told Caravanserai.
If the various extremist groups in Afghanistan ever unite with IS, "a serious threat for Tajikistan and other Central Asian countries will arise", predicted Akhmadi.
"The long stretch of border that Tajikistan shares with Afghanistan" means that Tajikistan is a "probable place for militant infiltration", he said.
The effort to revive "IS, combined with its supporters' cruelty and bloodlust", means a major threat for Central Asia, agreed Abdukhalil Sharipov, a retired Khujand police colonel who spoke to Caravanserai.
The perpetual threat posed by such insurgencies outside Tajikistan is the major reason for holding counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism exercises year after year, say Tajik security officials.
Tajik forces regularly train with allied troops from the US and from international bodies like the Collective Security Treaty Organisation.
The most recent such drills, which included no foreign forces, took place at the Chorukhdarron and Nurafshon training grounds in Sughd Province August 15-17. Caravanserai attended the exercises.
Top-level officials present at the exercise spoke of the dangers Tajikistan seeks to contain.
"The political and military situation in the Middle East, the situation in Afghanistan, and the series of terrorist attacks in European countries have compelled us to put in place timely measures to bolster our country's security, and for the Central Asian region as a whole," Tajik Defence Minister Sherali Mirzo told troops of the Sughd Province garrison August 17 after the completion of those exercises.
"Terrorism is a new form of undeclared war waged by extremist forces," he continued. "We always need to be on the lookout."
"We need to strengthen both our country's defensive capacity and the unity of the people in fighting those who conspire to destroy our peace," Abdurakhmon Kodiri, the chairman of the Sughd provincial government, told troops during the exercises August 17.
The August 15-17 drills in Sughd Province involved more than 30,000 troops, including 12,000 reservists.
Regular troops and reservists trained together under live fire as they simulated counter-terrorism operations. They used 200 armoured vehicles, 70 pieces of artillery and 10 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.
"The Defence Ministry General Staff drew up and implemented a plan to guide interaction among military units, law enforcement agencies and civil defence organisations," ministry spokesman Faridun Makhmadalizoda told Caravanserai during the exercises August 17. Participants came from the "municipal, district and provincial levels" of government, including mayors and district governors, he added.
The Russian Ministry of Defence attempted to pass off images from a video game as 'proof' the US military was aiding militants. Social media users debunked Moscow's claims.
Popular support in Central Asia for Islamist insurgencies in the Middle East and beyond is waning.