On May 7, several rockets were launched from the Hojagor district of Takhar province, Afghanistan into the neighboring Panj district in Tajikistan (Radio Ozodi, May 8). The Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) released a statement on the same day to claim responsibility for the attack (Eurasianet May 9). On May 8, the State Committee of National Security of Tajikistan (GKNB) claimed that “bullets accidentally ended up on the territory of Tajikistan” after a shootout between Taliban and ISKP forces near the Afghan-Tajik border.
The GKNB statement also noted the situation on the border was stable, and the Taliban was conducting operations to locate and disarm the perpetrators (Khovar, May 8). Taliban officials confirmed this by delivering a statement on May 9 promising that “efforts are being made to arrest the perpetrators of the rocket attack from Afghanistan into Tajikistan (Pajhwok Afghan News, May 9).” Several Tajik analysts and authorities nevertheless doubted the sincerity of this promise and blamed the Taliban for the attack.
Although there were no reported casualties or material damage, ISKP’s presence in Afghanistan is becoming more worrisome for the international community, and especially Central Asian countries. This was ISKP’s second rocket attack in Central Asia in a three-week period and prompted conflicting accounts and explanations, with blame assigned to both the Taliban and ISKP (Radio Ozodlik, April 19). This article, however, explains why ISKP was clearly behind the latest attack in Tajikistan and what its motivations were.
Mistrust Between Tajikistan and the Taliban
Although the Tajik government did not explicitly blame the Taliban, several Tajik experts claimed that the attack occurred with the Taliban’s blessing in order to exert pressure on the Tajik government to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. The attack was, according to this view, retribution by the Taliban for the Tajik government’s decision to provide sanctuary and support to the National Resistance Front (NRF) (Radio Ozodi, May 10). The NRF diplomatically and militarily opposes the Taliban, is based in the northern provinces of Afghanistan, and is led by Ahmad Massoud, the son of the deceased leader of the Afghan-Soviet War Ahmad Shah Massoud. Between May 4-8, the NRF targeted Taliban fighters in the Andarab district of Baghlan province, allegedly killing 27 (Aamaj News, May 9).
Fueling speculations were comments from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who was Afghanistan’s prime minister for several months in 1996 and was one of the leaders of the 1980s and 1990s mujahideen factions. On May 6, a day before the ISKP attack and following Hekmatyar’s meeting with the Taliban’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hekmatyar delivered a speech. In it, he blamed the Tajik government for providing sanctuary to the NRF and stated that this was equivalent to declaring war on Afghanistan (Asia Plus, May 10).
It may be far-fetched to interpret Hekmatyar’s comments as any indication that the Taliban were somehow responsible for the rocket attack against Tajikistan, however. First of all, ISKP and the Taliban are mortal enemies, and the Taliban would never empower and provide publicity to its fiercest enemy by allowing ISKP to carry out and claim the attack. Second, the attack dented the Taliban’s legitimacy and credibility by giving Central Asian states another reason to question the Taliban as a security guarantor. Third, Hekmatyar does not hold any official post in the Taliban, so his comments cannot be seen as authoritative.
Most likely, Hekmatyar’s comments are related to the commencement of NRF attacks on the Taliban in early May. The Taliban are frustrated by these attacks and the fact that the Tajik government is providing a sanctuary to the NRF 130 kilometers south of Dushanbe in Farkhor, where NRF fighters can recuperate, receive training, and travel to the front lines in Afghanistan (Asia Plus, May 10). Thus, it is likely that the Taliban used Hekmatyar as their talking head to send a message to the Tajik government that the Taliban leadership is aware of Tajikistan’s dealings with the NRF and will not tolerate such relations in the future, even though the Taliban itself had no involvement in the rocket attack.
ISKP’s Growing Capacity
With the Taliban eliminated as a possible perpetrator of the rocket attack in Tajikistan, there should be no doubt that ISKP was the perpetrator. First and foremost, ISKP claimed responsibility for it and published video proof with a man firing seven rockets in the direction of Tajikistan (Twitter/@war_noir, May 9). Moreover, Tajikistan has been the target of other ISKP terrorist attacks in the past, so this attack is not something that was totally unprecedented (Sputnik Tajikistan, November 9, 2019; Asia Plus, August 1, 2018).
Second, the attack continues the trend of ISKP coming into its own after the U.S withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021. In less than a year, the number of ISKP operatives has increased from 2,000 to roughly 4,000, with some new recruits coming from recently released prisoners in Afghanistan (PDF/UN Security Council, February 3). As a result, in the last four months of 2021, ISKP carried out 119 attacks in Afghanistan, a steep increase from the 39 which took place during the same period in 2020 (New York Times, May 1).
This ISKP attack in Tajikistan has dented the Taliban’s credibility as a security partner and undermined its promise that the territory of Afghanistan will not be used for launching terrorist attacks on foreign countries. The attack also represents ISKP’s transnational ambitions in Central Asia and growing capabilities that can create instability beyond Afghanistan’s borders. The conflicting narratives about the Taliban having a role in the attack is also indicative of the deep mistrust between Tajikistan and other Central Asian states and the Taliban.