- The Washington Times - Friday, July 30, 2021

Russian commandos on Friday kicked off a series of military drills along the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan border, fueling questions about a regional power vacuum left by the unfolding U.S. and allied military withdrawal from Afghanistan that Russia and other players will seek to fill.

Russia’s Central Military District said in a statement Friday that about 1,500 Russian and Uzbek forces are taking part in the exercises, which will last through Aug. 10.

“The units of a peacekeeping formation and a special operations brigade of the Central Military District have completed their redeployment to the Termez training ground for joint drills with the armed forces of the Republic of Uzbekistan,” the Russian military said in a statement. “In the course of joint practical measures, the troops will accomplish the combat training tasks of ensuring the state’s territorial integrity.”

The drills come as insurgent Taliban fighters have seized a number of key border crossings in Afghanistan, leading to uncertainty across the region and questions about whether the fighting could spill beyond the nation’s borders. Earlier this month, a major Taliban offensive forced Afghan security forces to flee across the border with Tajikistan, which activated thousands of its own military reserves in response.

Days later, a Taliban delegation visited Moscow amid growing fears that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and growing Taliban offensive could spark chaos in the ex-Soviet countries in the region.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said the Taliban vowed that would not be the case.

“We received assurances from the Taliban that they wouldn’t violate the borders of Central Asian countries and also their guarantees of security for foreign diplomatic and consular missions in Afghanistan,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement earlier this week.

Russia’s influence over the former Soviet states bordering Afghanistan also is likely to hinder U.S. counterterrorism operations moving forward. With nearly all U.S. and NATO combat forces now gone from Afghanistan, the Pentagon is working to secure “over-the-horizon” capabilities that will allow it to strike terrorist fighters who could find safe haven in Afghanistan. The U.S. also recently launched a series of airstrikes to beat back Taliban advances toward major Afghan population centers.

But Moscow’s influence stands in the way of U.S. efforts to establish semi-permanent military bases or staging areas in former Soviet republics, making the American counterterrorism effort more challenging.

President Biden in April ordered the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan after nearly 20 years of war. That withdrawal is more than 95% completed, the Pentagon said recently, with just a few hundred Marines staying behind to protect the U.S. Embassy and the international airport in Kabul.

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