FROM OLIVER AUGUST IN BEIJINGEMBATTLED Taleban forces in northern Afghanistan are trying to cross into Tajikistan, threatening to spread armed conflict in Central Asia.
Russian guards along the Tajik border have been involved in intense fighting with retreating Taleban units after recent US bombing raids.
A group of armed men approached one border point at midnight on Sunday and opened fire in an attempt to cross into Tajikistan. They retreated 30 minutes later when Russian guards called in reinforcements, but an eventual mass exodus could endanger US bases in the region.
Taleban commanders are said to have held regular talks with their Tajik counterparts over possible escape routes. The remote Afghan-Tajik border is practically impossible to seal, even with almost 20,000 Russian soldiers deployed.
Taleban forces in northern Afghanistan are led by Juma Namangani, a notorious Central Asian guerrilla, who maintains a fiercely defended base on Tajik territory and enjoys considerable support in parts of the country. Namangani, an Uzbek national and fundamentalist Muslim, fought for five years in the mid-90s Tajik civil war. He is Central Asia’s most wanted man after Osama bin Laden having carried out several failed assassination attempts against President Karimov of Uzbekistan.
Namangani commands about 10,000 non-Afghan fighters, including Tajiks, Pakistanis and Chechens, near the city of Taloqan in northern Afghanistan. He is said to be part of the Taleban high command, but his troops have recently been cut off from supply routes, making defeat and a hasty exodus more likely.
The departure of thousands of Taleban troops from Afghanistan to Tajikistan would signal a momentary victory for the Northern Alliance but could destabilise neighbouring countries with large Muslim populations.
Encouraged by the influx of Taleban fighters, extremists in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are likely to oppose American use of local air bases. It is also feared that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), led by Namangani and listed by the White House as a terror group, would trigger violent clashes and undermine the safety of US servicemen in the region.
The BBC Monitoring Service reported from local sources this week: “Representatives of the IMU are holding talks with Tajik field commanders on the possibility of returning to their detachments in Tajikistan. It looks as if the darkest predictions of the Central Asian special services on how the situation could develop are coming true.”
Tajikistan is fast emerging as one of the hottest military prizes in the region. The Northern Alliance has long received supplies from the former Soviet republic. Now, Taleban forces are keen to use the country as a possible escape route.
Simultaneously, the US is seeking to base fighter aircraft at three Tajik air bases. Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, visited the country last week as Washington seemed to lean towards the eventual deployment of ground troops in Afghanistan.
Land-based airstrikes would be easier than using carrier-based warplanes and long-range bombers, the Pentagon said this week.