DUSHANBE -- The Afghan Taliban's recent destruction of a bridge vital to Afghan-Tajik commerce has Tajik authorities preparing to safeguard their country from any Taliban resurgence.
The Taliban August 21 blew up the Olchin bridge in Kunduz Province, which serves as the main conduit for Afghan-Tajik motor traffic. The 300-metre-long bridge linked Afghan northern provinces to the Afghan border town of Sher Khan, a hub for Central Asian trade.
Five other bridges span the Panj River between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, but they are much smaller and serve the residents of the countries' border zones.
Until the Taliban destroyed the span, more than 100 Tajik trucks had been coming daily from Afghanistan with cement and various farm products, the Kunduz government says.
The loss of the "strategically significant" bridge severed Kabul's communication not only with Tajikistan but between Kabul and two Afghan provinces as well, Kunduz government spokesman Nematullokh Temur told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in an August 22 interview.
It also reduces suppliers of Afghan cement to one: namely, Pakistan, Afghan authorities say.
"Last week [August 15-21] the Taliban tried but failed twice to blow up the bridge," Temur said. "They succeeded on August 21."
Afghan authorities have made it their "top priority" to repair the bridge, he said.
Fighting in northern Afghanistan, which intensified in 2014, has severely affected Afghan-Tajik trade.
In the first half of 2016, trade between the countries reached US $313m (2.5 billion TJS), compared to US $555m (4.4 billion TJS) in the same period last year, according to the Tajik government.
While Tajikistan exported cement and farm products to Afghanistan, it imported fabrics, jewellery, decorative items and crockery.
Concerned Tajik traders include Zaituna Soliyeva, 55, of Dushanbe. She has been importing household appliances (such as sewing machines) and draperies from Afghanistan for five years.
"Now I'm afraid to travel to that country," she told Caravanserai. "I travel across the bridge twice a year ... In recent months, the Taliban have become more aggressive. Now they've blown up the bridge."
Dushanbe-based truck driver Ibrokhim Khasanov, 32, is also dismayed by the loss of his livelihood.
"I continued driving there even though the situation in Afghanistan has become critical," he said. "It's my daily bread. But when there's no bridge ... my work will be a hundred times more difficult, and the risks will grow greatly."
Clashes between border guards and the Taliban
Officials from both countries recognise the danger.
On August 10, Muhammad Hanif Atmar, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's national security adviser, conferred in Dushanbe about security with Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon.
They "discussed the joint merciless fight against terrorism, extremism and drug smuggling, as well as effective co-operation for strengthening the security system on the [shared] border", according to Rakhmon's website.
Other topics included "regulating border crossings via international bridges", the statement said.
Besides blowing up bridges, the Afghan Taliban have been relentless drug smugglers.
One day before they blew up the bridge, the Taliban tried to smuggle drugs into Tajikistan, Muhammad Ulugkhojayev, spokesman for the Tajik Border Troops, told Caravanserai.
Tajik border guards "halted an attempt to bring in drugs the night of August 20-21", he said.
In the ensuing shoot-out in Khamadoni District, Khatlon Province, "one smuggler was wounded and two were killed", Ulugkhojayev said. "The others [about six] escaped."
The Tajik forces identified the two dead smugglers as Afghan Taliban members Suhbatullo Jahongir and Muhammadso Muhammad, he added.
Frontier of peace
Tajik security agency officials August 19 in Dushanbe expressed their concern about the worsening situation on the border.
"Tajikistan needs international assistance, particularly technical assistance, to defend its borders effectively," State National Security Committee (GKNB) Chairman Saimumin Yatimov said at the news conference. "More than 85% of the border zone is mountainous ... So far, in spite of all these difficulties, we have the situation under control."
"Since the dawn of our independence, the Tajik leadership has drawn the international community's attention to terrorism," Sherali Khairulloyev, Rakhmon's assistant on security matters, said. "Each country must ... fight this problem. Tajikistan cannot do it alone."
Khairulloyev urged the international community to help build or renovate infrastructure in Tajikistan's border zone.