After a year of media speculation and contradictory remarks by Tajik and Russian officials, the authorities in Dushanbe have finally made it clear that Tajikistan does not want Russian troops to return to defend the country’s southern border with Afghanistan.
Tajikistan and Russia are expected to sign a deal in 2012 allowing Moscow to extend its military bases in the Central Asian country for another 49 years. Initial agreement was reached during Tajik President Emomali Rahmon’s meeting with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev on September 2 (Kommersant, September 3).
The deal does not, however, extend to the re-deployment of Russian border guards along the Tajik-Afghan border (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 5). It contradicts predictions by some Russian officials, most notably Maksim Peshkov, director of the CIS department in the Russian foreign ministry and a former Russian ambassador to Dushanbe, who said the two countries’ leaders were considering bringing Russians back to Tajikistan’s southern frontiers (www.avesta.tj, August 3).
Tajikistan’s approximately 1,400-kilometer-long border with war-torn Afghanistan has been facing two major problems over the past two decades:
1. It has become a major transit route for drug barons trafficking narcotics from Afghanistan, which produces over 90 percent of the world’s opium.
2. According to Tajik officials, Islamic insurgents cross into Tajikistan from Afghanistan frequently en route to other Central Asian countries.
Over the years, Tajik officials – at least publicly – have claimed with growing confidence that the country is capable of defending its borders. Even in 2002, Nuralisho Nazarov, then the deputy-head of the Tajik border service, said Tajikistan did not need Russian troops to keep a watch on its frontiers.
In reality, however, the task does not seem to be an easy one for the impoverished country’s notoriously under-trained and underpaid servicemen. According to local media reports, between January and September 2011, groups of suspected militants and drug traffickers illegally crossed into Tajikistan on at least six separate occasions. Tajik officials said eight people were killed in clashes between border guards and the militants and drug traffickers (www.ozodi.tj, July 31).
However, it was the September 19, 2010 ambush on a Tajik military convoy in eastern Kamarob Gorge that highlighted the sensitivity of the border issue. At least 25 Tajik servicemen were killed in the ambush, which authorities blamed on a militant group allegedly led by the former Tajik Islamic opposition commander Mullo Abdullo. The interior ministry swiftly announced that the insurgents had crossed into Tajikistan from neighboring Afghanistan (www.avesta.tj, July 20).
In 2005, Tajikistan decided against extending the 1992 agreement with Moscow, which tasked Russian troops to protect the volatile border. In August that year, some 12,000 Russian servicemen handed over the task to their Tajik counterparts. Dushanbe and Moscow agreed that 300 Russian military advisors would remain on the Tajik-Afghan border. However, Dushanbe is currently set to reduce the number of Russian advisors to two dozen (Asia-Plus, August 11).
Tajikistan is one of the poorest former Soviet republics, and the country’s border guards are significantly less well equipped and funded than their Russian colleagues. According to the Russian Politcom.ru, however, the situation is improving, as Dushanbe has been investing international donors’ money to renovate dozens of military barracks, checkpoints, buildings and complexes along the frontier. Border servicemen’s wages have increased by 10 percent to 30 percent between 2005 and 2009 Politcom.ru suggests (www.politcom.ru, August 31, 2009).
The West – most notably, the United States and the European Union – has been generous in offering equipment, training and multi-million-dollar funds for the country’s border troops. (www.europe.eu, April 7, 2008). It seems that all sides realize that helping to protect the Tajik-Afghan border serves the interests of both Russia and the West.
If Tajikistan fails to protect its porous southern frontier, ever more heroin is likely to end up on Europe’s streets. It would also mean the spread of militancy from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Central Asia and on to Russia and Europe. It would be Europe and Russia that pay the ultimate price (Asia-Plus, September 14).
Tajikistan obviously does not have the capacity to cope with the task on its own, and depends heavily on international donors’ assistance. Russia and the West have no choice but to provide the assistance the impoverished nation needs to protect what many top Russian military commanders call the southern border of the CIS.
Officials in Dushanbe, too, are well aware the border is not their problem alone. Perhaps that is the reason why Tajik officials confidently say they do not need Russian border guards to return to Tajikistan.