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Friday, September 17, 2021

Explained: Why the rise of Taliban has put Tajikistan in a spot

Tajikistan lies on Afghanistan’s northeastern border, adjacent to the Afghan provinces of Badakhshan, Takhar, Kunduz and Balkh.

Written by Mira Patel , Edited by Explained Desk |
Updated: August 24, 2021 9:47:49 am
A Russian soldier looks through his sniper's rifle during a joint military drills by Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan at Harb-Maidon firing range about 20 kilometers (about 12 miles) north of the Tajik border with Afghanistan, in Tajikistan, Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021. (AP Photo)

Over the last few days, Taliban forces have swept across Afghanistan, finally capturing the capital city of Kabul on Sunday. The Afghan government, created, funded, and trained by the United States, has capitulated in the face of the Taliban assault. As American and NATO troops leave the country, their leaders have made it increasingly apparent that they want nothing more to do with the conflict. With the Taliban set to challenge the limits of Afghan democracy, the last vanguards of human rights will likely be the Afghans themselves along with neighbouring states with national security interests in the region. Some, like Pakistan, are prepared to embrace the Taliban with open arms, while others, like Tajikistan, greatly fear their growing influence.

As scenes emerge of civilians desperately trying to leave Afghanistan, many will likely seek refuge in neighbouring Tajikistan. Already, reports indicate that approximately 1,600 Afghan soldiers have fled to Tajikistan in the last week. On Monday morning, several media outlets stated that former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was amongst them. However, Tajikistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied that claim and later reports claimed he was in Uzbekistan. As the situation unfolds, Tajikistan will not only have to contend with an onslaught of refugees but also with security concerns ranging from the export of terrorism to the increase of cross-border drug smuggling.

History of relations

Tajikistan lies on Afghanistan’s northeastern border, adjacent to the Afghan provinces of Badakhshan, Takhar, Kunduz and Balkh. The 1200-km border is also home to the junction between the Hindu Kush and Karakoram Mountains, and is characterised by its rocky, inhospitable terrain. For a long time, Tajikistan was considered to be under the influence of the Persians, and many ethnic Tajiks residing in Afghanistan retain similar cultural values. Today, Tajikistan, a small landlocked Central Asian nation, has a predominantly Muslim population and is largely considered to be undemocratic, volatile, and economically unstable.

Until 1991, Tajikistan was a part of the Soviet Union. When Moscow invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Tajikistan, along with the other Soviet Socialist Republics in Central Asia, supported the takeover. Tajikistan’s support for the Soviets made them a target of the Afghan Mujahadeen who launched attacks against the country in 1987. Due to the close cultural and kinship ties between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, many Tajiks secretly joined the Afghan jihad, fighting alongside the Mujahadeen.

After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, several of these Tajik soldiers returned to form the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) which opposed the ruling communist leader of Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmonov, who remains in power today. A brutal civil war emerged between the IRP and the government which lasted from 1992 to 1997; around the same time as the Mujahadeen fell in Afghanistan. The new Afghan president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, an Afghan-Tajik, allowed the IRP to operate from Afghanistan and also provided the group with arms, ammunition and training. After Rabbani was eventually deposed by the Taliban in 1996, he went on to form the Northern Alliance, a diverse coalition based out of northern Afghanistan that opposed Taliban rule.

Rabbani required material support from Tajikistan and towards that end, convinced the IRP and Rahmonov to agree to a ceasefire that would end the civil war. Rahmonov, from Tajikistan’s capital of Dushanbe, officially announced his support for the Northern Alliance and later backed the US invasion of Afghanistan. However, some factions within Tajikistan still supported the Taliban and continue to pose a security challenge for Dushanbe. Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, relations between Afghanistan and Tajikistan have improved considerably but that progress is likely to be reversed in the wake of recent developments.

Concerns for Tajikistan

Rahmonov will fear three major implications of Taliban rule in Afghanistan. First, he will have to consider the sentiments of Afghan-Tajiks, some who have been welcomed in the Taliban’s ranks but the majority of whom passionately reject the group. Second, Dushanbe will be cognisant of the rise in extremism caused by the dominance of the Taliban, and the impact it will have on radical factions within Tajikistan who aim to establish an Emirate of their own. Thirdly, Tajikistan will have to find ways to police its porous border with Afghanistan in order to prevent illicit drugs and refugees from overflowing into the country.

Afghan-Tajiks form the second largest ethnic group in the country, second only to the Pashtuns. They dominate Afghanistan’s northern Panjshir valley, home to the legendary Mujahedeen commander and resistance leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud. Smaller concentrations of Tajiks live in Herat province, on the western border with Iran.

Tajiks also make up a large percentage of the population of Kabul, where they have been politically significant and economically successful. Tajiks are said to maintain strong ties with their families and ethnic kin, making the fate and treatment of Afghan-Tajiks extremely important to their neighbours in the north. Given that, as a group, they largely oppose the Taliban, Rahmonov will have to maintain a fine line between keeping the peace and asserting his objection to the group.

Compounding the problem, Central Asian Nations will also be apprehensive of the spread of Taliban ideology. Tajikistan for one, is a secular state, and will likely fear the morale boost that the Taliban could provide to radical Islamists within Central Asia. Tajikistan’s Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzode recently asserted that there are 10,000-15,000 militants across the Afghan-Tajik border, many of whom have cross-border connections. Additionally, significant quantities of illegal opium passes from Afghanistan to Europe through Tajikistan. The country already has a considerably high rate of drug abuse and will view the Taliban, who derive most of their funding from opium, as exacerbating that problem.

Faced with these border concerns, Tajikistan has called upon its partners in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) for assistance. The CSTO, a Russian-led security bloc, requires its member states, which also includes several other Central Asian nations, to help shore up the Tajik-Afghan border as per a 2013 resolution agreed upon by the group. Russia for its part has agreed to provide $1.1 million to build a new outpost on the Tajik-Afghan border and has said that it is prepared to activate its roughly 6000 troops positioned in Tajikistan if needed. Recently, Dushanbe participated in joint military exercises with other Central Asian nations in an attempt to check the combat readiness of its armed forces and has relocated 20,000 troops to strengthen the country’s forces on its border with Afghanistan.

Lastly, Tajikistan will expect to receive an influx of refugees from Afghanistan. During the civil wars in both countries, large numbers of people crossed the border between the two nations. Similarly, with the most recent Taliban advance, reports have emerged of thousands of people anxiously trying to leave the country.

Unlike Uzbekistan which captured and returned all Afghan citizens who attempted to enter, Dushanbe has allowed them to stay. Tajikistan said it is ready to accept up to 100,000 refugees from Afghanistan and has already started making provisions for their arrival. However, if Taliban rule is anything like it was in the late 1990s, Rahmonov should expect that number to increase significantly.

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