By Nazarali Pirnazarov
SHURO-OBOD, Tajikistan (Reuters) - The three Tajik construction workers were quietly mending a road near the Panj River last month when they stumbled on a group of men with assault rifles who had crossed over from Afghanistan in broad daylight.
The gunmen shot and wounded one worker and took the two others back across the river into Afghanistan. A few days later, Tajik border guard commanders negotiated the release of the kidnapped pair through elders of nearby Afghan villages, the border guards say.
It's the sort of incident that has become increasingly frequent near towns like Shuro-obod on the Tajik-Afghan border, where what was once one of the heavily guarded frontiers of the Cold War has all but melted away.
Tajikistan, the poorest country in the former Soviet Union, is now barely defended from armed smugglers, kidnappers and what its rulers say is a looming threat from Islamist insurgents looking for a new front in their global holy war.
"Terrorist organizations are expanding their activity and the situation is further complicated by their resurgence in neighboring Afghanistan," President Imomali Rakhmon said in his annual address this year.
At a section of the border near Shuro-obod visited by Reuters there was no fence, no evidence of servicemen patrolling, and the nearest Tajik border guard post was several kilometers (miles) away.
The border is a major route for narcotics from Afghanistan, the world's main producer of opium used to make heroin, to Central Asia and on to Russia and Europe.
The only barrier to anyone wanting to cross is the river, which meanders through deep canyons, about 50 meters wide at this time of year. Smugglers float across using tire inner tubes as rafts, locals say.
The threat of violent Islamism spilling over into ex-Soviet central Asia has grown more acute since NATO member states pulled out most of their forces from Afghanistan, leading to a deterioration in security there.
The risk was brought home by Taliban attacks on the Afghan city of Kunduz, not far from the border, first last year when attackers briefly seized the city and then again last week when the Taliban launched another offensive.
The United States and Russia, major powers in the region, look to Tajikistan to act as a bulwark against the spread of Islamist violence, but it is ill-equipped.
Its national security expenditure which includes border protection is just $164 million a year, and its security forces are creaking. Last year one of its most elite police commanders left the country and joined the Islamic State group. Tajik officials believe he went to fight in Syria.
While the Afghan Taliban have yet to mount major cross border attacks, Tajik officials fear domestic Islamist fighters could ally with Islamic State or other groups across the frontier, using Afghanistan as a base for an insurgency.
Ever poor and fragile, Tajikistan has grown even poorer in recent years. It is struggling with a collapse in the prices of its few exports and the impact of recession in Russia, which has forced thousands of Tajik migrant laborers to return home finding no job prospects.
Rakhmon, a 63-year-old former Communist collective farm boss who took power in the months after the Soviet Union broke up, survived a civil war against Islamist rebels in the mid-1990s with Russian support.
Last year he cracked down on political opponents, accusing an Islamist political party of being behind a failed coup attempt. The party has since been outlawed, a move which critics say may radicalize its supporters.
Parliament voted this year to eliminate term limits for Rakhmon, allowing him to stay in office indefinitely.
Shuro-obod locals earn their living by farming, beekeeping and cultivating pistachio orchards. The porous border provides another livelihood for some, who have become as mired in the cross-border trafficking as Afghans on the other side, residents say.
Some of the recent kidnappings may have been a way of settling commercial disputes, said Hairatsho Jonkhoni, a former policeman who now works for a road construction company.
"Locals themselves are to blame. If they weren't involved in crime, there wouldn't have been any kidnappings," he said.
"There are cases when random innocent people are kidnapped and the culprits (among Tajiks involved in smuggling) remain unpunished."
Local people say they often spot Afghans on Tajik territory.
"The Tajik-Afghan border is extremely criminalized and corrupt on the Tajik side," said regional political analyst Alexander Knyazev.
Large-scale incursions by Taliban or Islamic State fighters appear unlikely for now, he said. But there is a risk that corrupt border guards who now provide safe passage to smugglers for money would do the same for militants, said Knyazev.
Russia used to station its own border guards on the frontier until 2005, and after that kept a regiment in the Tajik city of Kulyab, 42 km (25 miles) from the Afghan border. But Moscow pulled the regiment out in December last year and moved it to the capital, Dushanbe, about 200 km further away.
Tajikistan says it is doing its best to meet a huge challenge, monitoring a border that stretches for 1,345 kilometers (840 miles).
The Tajik border guard service said in February it was reinforcing the frontier after intelligence reports showed there were about 5,000 gunmen in adjacent Afghan territories. It said last week border guards had killed five intruders in January-March this year, without report its own casualties.
"The government of Tajikistan is taking all the possible measures to strengthen the border with Afghanistan," a spokesman for the service said.
But its capability is limited. Border guard outposts are located 10-15 kilometers apart. Foreign aid helps, but is modest. Servicemen in Shuro-obod drive Toyota trucks paid for by the U.S government, which also funded refurbishment of a border guard outpost at nearby Sari Gor.
According to Security Assistance Monitor, a website tracking U.S. security and defense assistance programs worldwide, Washington provided $29 million in such aid to Dushanbe in 2014.
That dropped to only about $8 million in 2015 but could jump again after the Pentagon proposed in February to allocate $50 million to Central Asia over the next two years to help counter the Taliban, Islamic State and other militant groups.
(Reporting by Nazarali Pirnazarov; writing by Olzhas Auyezov; editing by Peter Graff)