On September 14–17, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan locked heads in the biggest military conflict between the two sides to date. What started as another border skirmish between the Kyrgyzstani and Tajikistani border guards quickly grew into a major military conflict that raged for three days and left behind at least 110 dead and 218 wounded on both sides (Kloop, September 20).
Kyrgyzstan called the conflict “a premeditated armed act of aggression” and stated that Tajikistan “treacherously encroached on the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Kyrgyzstan” (Mfa.gov.kg, September 18), whereas Tajikistan accused Kyrgyzstan of “an act of aggression” and escalation of the conflict (Khovar, September 18). On September 19, the heads of the national security services of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan signed a protocol on stabilizing the border situation and establishing peace between the two countries (Radio Ozodi, September 19).
This military conflict bore many similarities to the bloody conflict that took place between the two countries in the same region in April 2021. It also hinted at a worrisome trend of frequent, large-scale and intense interstate military conflicts that threaten peace and stability in Central Asia.
At least 150 border conflicts have erupted since Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan became independent 31 years ago (Kaktus Media, September 20). However, nothing has ever come close to the latest conflict in terms of its scale and intensity.
The first irregularity was the scale. In contrast to previous conflicts, fighting ensued along the whole perimeter of the Kyrgyzstani-Tajikistani border in Kyrgyzstan’s Batken and Osh provinces, which neighbor Tajikistan’s Sogd Province and Jergetal region. The second irregularity was the military equipment that was used in the conflict. The Kyrgyzstani and Tajikistani armed forces used tanks, multiple launch rocket systems, armored vehicles, attack drones and military helicopters to batter each other (Kloop, September 16). The use of such lethal, and wide-ranging, weaponry is simply unheard of in Central Asia.
The third abnormality was the unprecedented level of death and destruction. In addition to the 59 dead and 198 wounded, the Kyrgyzstani side reported the displacement of 136,770 people and material damages worth approximately $18.5 million (24.kg, September 19). The Tajikistani side has only reported at least 41 dead and 20 wounded (Radio Ozodi, September 19).
The fourth irregularity was the fact that the fighting took place in Kyrgyzstani settlements far beyond the disputed areas. Analysis from third-party media outlets of available evidence supports claims that “Tajik armed groups have indeed been engaged in capturing territory instead of simply trying to defend their own land” (Eurasianet, September 17). These details have pushed some experts to label the conflict as “an armed military incursion by Tajikistan,” as “attacks [were recorded] on infrastructure and civilian objects located at a distance from areas that are politically or juridically disputed” (Twitter.com/magdagul, September 19).
The underlying reasons for the border conflict between these two countries were the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the subsequent need to have demarcated borders. Former Soviet republics pushed for materialization of their borders through infrastructure such as roads, fences and outposts, which gradually led to securitization of daily life in border areas. Proliferation of checkpoints and other infrastructure that limited free movement created a situation in which people often faced corruption and disrespect from border guards of neighboring countries. People living along the Kyrgyzstani-Tajikistani border were no exception to this trend, and their dissatisfaction with the situation created a problem for authorities and politicians to solve.
However, instead of expressing the political will to address the disputed territories and a commitment to long-term, and often unpopular, negotiations, Kyrgyzstani and Tajikistani politicians exploited growing nationalist rhetoric to garner public support and mobilize voters with promises to demarcate the border without giving up a single centimeter. For example, Kyrgyzstani President Sadyr Japarov and National Security Service Chief Kamchybek Tashiev prioritized the issue of demarcating borders in Kyrgyzstan’s interests during their 2020 parliamentary election campaign (Politmer, October 19, 2020). If securitization of borders planted seeds for border conflicts, politicization of borders led to their proliferation and intensification.
In the context of politicians promising their voters that they will put an end to the demarcation process, the space for concessions has grown narrow. Both for Kyrgyzstani and Tajikistani authorities, “It is a very unpopular decision to give away land, and without this, it is impossible to resolve any territorial disputes” (Kloop, September 16). In truth, negotiations have not moved forward because Bishkek and Dushanbe insist on using various Soviet maps from different periods for demarcation purposes. After another round of negotiations failed in March 2021, a major conflict engulfed the Kyrgyzstani-Tajikistani border at the end of April 2021, which left behind 55 dead and 300 wounded (Asia-Plus, December 2, 2021).
Although both countries agreed to settle border disputes only via diplomatic means after that conflict, it, in fact, marked the point of no return. The negotiations stalled soon afterward, and Kyrgyzstan closed down its border with Tajikistan. From there, the countries embarked on a course of militarization. The Kyrgyzstani government bought Bayraktar TB2 drones from Turkey (Radio Azattyq, December 18, 2021), and Tajikistan announced its plans to start the production of Iranian military drones (Asia-Plus, May 17). Less than one and half years later, the countries find themselves battling one another in a bigger, more intense and bloodier military conflict than ever before.
The history of conflicts between these two countries shows that protocols on establishing peace on the border will not bear much fruit. The shooting has ended, but the underlying reasons remain unaddressed. Both sides continue to blame each other for what happened, and negotiations do not seem to be a prospect in the near future. Such behavior presents a worrisome trend of Bishkek and Dushanbe moving away from diplomatic solutions toward further escalation through use of force. If Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan fail to reach a sustainable agreement on their shared border, the wider Central Asia region and its neighbors risk finding themselves in an increasingly precarious security situation.