Afghan insurgency seen spilling into Central Asia

KABUL (Reuters) - Islamist militancy is spreading north from Afghanistan into Central Asia, threatening to disrupt NATO supply lines snaking through the former Soviet region, Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan said.

A string of clashes between troops and militants in Central Asia this year has prompted talk of Islamist fighters infiltrating the volatile and impoverished region used by the United States to ship supplies to its troops in Afghanistan.

Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s outgoing envoy to Afghanistan, said the West should focus on curbing Taliban attempts to spread their influence in northern Afghanistan where the country borders Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

“Of course we are concerned with this ... but I think at this moment it is for the United States and NATO to be concerned about it,” he told a small group of reporters at the Russian embassy compound in the Afghan capital, Kabul.

“It’s in the best interests of NATO to curb them. ... So far NATO has not been defeated. We still have time,” added Kabulov, a veteran diplomat who worked in the Soviet embassy in Kabul throughout the Russian occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The overland northern supply route for U.S. troops starts in Europe and goes through Russia and Central Asia before it reaches Afghanistan. The United States put it together this year after its main link via Pakistan came under growing militant attacks.

NATO-led forces are concerned with the Taliban’s tightening grip on northern Afghanistan that could disrupt supply lines.

Last month, militants hijacked two fuel trucks near Kunduz, a Afghan city on the main Central Asia-Kabul highway, prompting NATO forces to carry out an air strike to prevent what they said was a Taliban plan to organize suicide attacks.

Diplomats say extremist groups, inspired by the Taliban’s success in north Afghanistan, are regaining strength, tasked by the Taliban with disturbing stability in broader Central Asia.

Kabulov said the trend was still at its infancy and could be reversed. “If it does happen, it will be an awful scenario and not only for Afghanistan and neighbors. But for that the war in Afghanistan should be lost. We are not yet at that stage.”

He said the West, its focus trained on fighting a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, was ignoring other pressing problems such as deteriorating security in Tajikistan, a volatile nation still recovering from a bloody civil war in the 1990s.

“NATO has a big heart but of course it’s not too big to keep concerns about both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and add concerns about Tajikistan,” he said.