The Return of Taliban: Tajikistan’s Role in Central Asia?
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The Return of Taliban: Tajikistan’s Role in Central Asia?

By Vidhee Makwana

Image Attribute: A Tajik frontier guard stands on a bridge to Afghanistan across the Panj River at the Panji Poyon border outpost, south of Dushanbe / Source: Shamil Zumatov, Reuters

Image Attribute: A Tajik frontier guard stands on a bridge to Afghanistan across the Panj River at the Panji Poyon border outpost, south of Dushanbe / Date: March 2021 / Source: Shamil Zumatov, Reuters

The return of the Afghan Taliban to Kabul and its takeover of Afghanistan while ousting the Ashraf Ghani government has caused ripples in the international community. This development is not only going to alter the geopolitics of South Asia, but also cause concerns in neighboring Central Asia over the threats emanating from Afghanistan. Central Asian Republics (CAR) fear a spillover of the unstable security situation in Afghanistan. This is particularly true for Tajikistan, as it is considered amongst the most impoverished and volatile of the post-Soviet states. This article attempts to highlight the impact of the evolving situation in Afghanistan on Tajikistan and the kind of challenges it may face. Tajikistan shares over 1000 km of protracted and a permeable border with Afghanistan in the northeast which also happens to be a confluence of the Hindu Kush and the Karakorum mountains. Both nations share history, culture, and values. Moreover, Tajiks make up the second-largest ethnicity, about twenty-seven percent in Afghanistan after Pashtuns who constitute forty-two percent.

The Tajiks in Afghanistan have been the biggest opponents of the Taliban. Their resistance to the Taliban first began with the then Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani who was in power during 1992-2001. He was an Afghan Tajik who was overthrown by the Taliban in 1996 after they assumed power in Afghanistan. Rabbani along with Ahmad Shah Massoud then proceeded to form the Northern Alliance to fight against the Taliban rule.  At present, while there have been a fraction of Tajik voices who have spoken in support of the Taliban citing cultural similarities, Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rakhmon has largely spoken against the Taliban ideology and voiced his support to the Northern Alliance. After the recent Taliban offensive in the Panjshir Valley, there was a revival of the erstwhile Northern Alliance which is now a newly formed military alliance called National Resistance Front (NRF) led by Ahmad Massoud and Amrullah Saleh from Panjshir, has received massive support from the Afghan Tajik community as well as from Tajikistan. The eventual fall of Panjshir has raised multiple questions regarding NRF and its effectiveness as opposed to the Taliban. It is believed that leaders like Saleh and Massoud have sought refuge in Dushanbe.


Video Attribute: Tension is rising between Afghanistan and Tajikistan (video link). In September 2021, the Taliban warned the Tajik government against meddling in Afghanistan's internal affairs. / Date: October 2, 2021 / Source: Al Jazeera's YouTube Channel

The situation in Afghanistan is just compounding on Tajikistan’s existing issues: unstable economy, undemocratic political system, and the threat from religious radicalism. Dushanbe faces some immediate repercussions, like a resurgence of the extremist elements in the region who aspire to establish a caliphate, and an uptick in the refugees and smuggled drugs. It becomes imperative for Tajikistan to prevent the smuggling of drugs as it is the Taliban’s largest source of funding; illegal opium is smuggled from Afghanistan into Tajikistan, then to Russia eventually reaching Europe.

Even though the Taliban explicitly mentioned that their interests solely lie in Afghanistan and that it wouldn’t interfere in the affairs of the CAR, they have been recruiting Tajik jihadists with the help of Al Qaeda, to form a base in the northern region of Afghanistan (close to the Tajik border), propagating the Taliban ideology in the rural communities and setting up Madrasas. Another pressing concern for the Tajiks is the presence of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) closer to their border, a handful of Taliban militants who aren’t averse to the idea of the “new Taliban” have come out in support of ISKP as it claims to expand their reach to the Central Asian region. Moreover, some Tajik provinces which are closer to the Afghan border have been spotted hoisting Black flags usually associated with ISKP. The ISKP threat had materialized earlier in April 2015 when the head of Tajik Special Police, Colonel Khalimov who was trained in both the U.S. and Russia defected to the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL). The same year, he surfaced in a video demanding a Sharia ruled the state of Tajikistan. He also accused the Americans of training military personnel to kill Muslims.

Regardless of the many challenges, Tajikistan could use the political situation to its advantage. President Rakhmon has openly voiced his concerns against the Taliban, saying he wouldn’t recognize a government “created by humiliation and ignoring the interests of the people of Afghanistan as a whole including those of ethnic minorities”. Dushanbe’s position on this issue didn’t toe the line of the two major actors in the region: China and Russia. This depicts the emerging role of Tajikistan as an important actor in the region.


Video Attribute: Hundreds of Tajiks from the southern town of Kulob say they're prepared to join anti-Taliban militias in Afghanistan (video link). The Afghan fighters are based in the Panjshir Valley, a predominantly ethnic-Tajik region that has repelled Taliban incursions in the past. / Date: August 27, 2021 / Source: RFE/RL's YouTube channel

The Tajik-Afghan border is the weakest link in Central Asia’s security. This has been keeping Moscow on the edge since the stability of the CAR region is in its best interest, considering it still hasn’t recovered from its wounds of extremism and the two wars that it fought for the relative peace in Chechnya. Russia hence aims for peace and stability in the region since it doesn’t want extremist elements to trickle into Russia. Aside from Russian interests, Tajikistan is also a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (an intergovernmental military alliance) and is the only member country to share a border with Afghanistan which makes it essential for the CSTO countries to provide security and support to Tajikistan. Russia who is also a member of CSTO has one of the largest overseas military bases in Tajikistan which makes it an imperative security partner. On the other hand, Western countries are hunting for potential opportunities to partner with Tajikistan. Therefore, Moscow would not like to alienate Dushanbe, making it easier for Dushanbe to push forward its security demands and concerns.

Terrorism is not a new phenomenon in the region, in fact, one of the foundational reasons for the creation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was to counter terrorism. It aimed at regional stability and led one of the most successful counter-terrorism operations by creating the Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure in 2002. It also created the SCO-Afghanistan contact group in 2005. With the security concerns shifting from West Asia to CAR and the rise in terrorism, it remains to be seen how the SCO strategizes to deal with Afghanistan’s security situation. It is also important to note that China has formally initiated talks with the Taliban, though there hasn’t been a formal recognition. This also could be a huge factor influencing the counter-terrorism strategies of the SCO.

Tensions have been constantly rising on the Afghan-Tajik border and diplomatic relations have been deteriorating between Kabul and Dushanbe. Tajikistan held two military parades in provinces bordering Afghanistan; Rakhmon still pledging his allegiance to the Afghan government in exile has raised threat perceptions for the Taliban. These developments have resulted in a troop build-up on both sides increasing the security concerns for many states in the region which led Russia to intervene urging both countries “to resolve any dispute in a mutually acceptable manner.”                                                        

The situation in the CAR is complex with a multiplicity of state and non-state actors and their vested interests. A power struggle seems inevitable considering the perplexing nature of the alliances amongst the state actors has resulted in the non-state actors gaining an upper hand. This is going to be a major national security concern for several countries in the region. The spillover of the conflict from Afghanistan could potentially lead to the region becoming a shatter belt altering the geopolitics of Central Asia and South Asia coupled with a never-ending power struggle.

About the Author

Vidhee Makwana (ORCID ID: 0000-0002-9272-6073) is a Postgraduate Research Scholar at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), India.
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