In the ten months since seizing power in Afghanistan, the Taliban has consistently stressed that its political control has eliminated armed unrest in the country. But undercutting the mullahcracy’s confident assertions is ongoing resistance centered in the northern Panjshir and Baghlan provinces. Last month (May), the National Resistance Forces of Afghanistan (NRF), a loose alliance of anti-Taliban factions consisting primarily of former members of the country’s military and police (many of them trained by the United States military), recently announced a new offensive against the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate (IE) to “liberate” the Panjshir and Andarab valleys (Hasht e Subh, May 8).
Further muddying the situation as the Afghan IE attempts to reassert its authority in Takhar and Badakhshan border provinces, Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-KP) militants have not only also contested the Taliban’s control but even fired rockets into neighboring Tajikistan. The fluid security situation on the Tajikistani-Afghan frontier has attracted the attention of Russia, China and the US. Each of these rival powers is providing assistance to Tajikistan to strengthen its southern border with Afghanistan while Dushanbe simultaneously copes with domestic disturbances in its restive eastern Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) (see EDM, May 24, June 1).
In a rare bilateral convergence of efforts, both Moscow and Washington are contributing money and expertise to help strengthen Tajikistan’s southern frontier with Afghanistan. While Russia began offering military security assistance to Tajikistan immediately following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the US has provided Tajikistan with over $300 million since 2002 to help combat security threats. Moreover, the United States is planning to help fund construction of Tajikistan’s new border guard facility at Ayvoj in 2022 (Tj.usembassy.gov, September 1, 2021).
Since 2016, China has also assisted Tajikistan, having built a security post near Shaymak, in Tajikistan’s GBAO, to monitor Afghanistan’s eastern Wakkan Corridor (see EDM, December 7, 2021; The Straits Times, October 29, 2021). Efforts to reinforce Tajikistan’s southern border represent the most significant international intervention in South Asia since the Taliban victory in Afghanistan ten months ago.
Yet complicating the picture is Tajikistan’s internal social and economic unrest: once the poorest republic in the Soviet Union, Tajikistan is now the poorest state in the post-Soviet space. Beyond Tajikistan’s limited resources to deploy toward border security, rising civil unrest in GBAO, its largest province, further complicates the government’s efforts to secure the frontier.
Bilateral Tajikistani-Afghan relations are further soured because among Afghanistan’s post-Soviet Central Asian neighbors, Tajikistan has been the most stridently vocal in its opposition to the IE. Tajikistan has persistently called for Afghanistan’s Pashtun-dominated Taliban regime to create an inclusive government with all ethnic minorities represented, especially Tajiks in northeastern Afghanistan, as the primary precondition for extending its recognition (see EDM, September 10, 2021 and October 26, 2021). Worse still for the Islamic Emirate is that Tajikistan has also sought the international support of other countries for Tajik-Afghan Ahmad Massoud, who leads the NRF (Hasht e Subh, November 1, 2021; Tfiglobalnews.com, May 9, 2022).
The Taliban, in turn, has harshly criticized Tajikistan for covertly assisting the NRF and jihadist groups fighting its rule in northern Afghanistan, and it has threatened retaliatory measures. For instance, former Afghan mujahideen warlord and Taliban supporter Gulbuddin Hekmatyar threatened that the Taliban could assist Tajikistan’s armed opposition in Afghanistan to create problems for Dushanbe (ASIA-Plus, May 10).
Of the outside powers, Russia has the longest inside track in Tajikistan: its 201st Motorized Rifle Division has been in place there since the 1991 fragmentation of the Soviet Union. But the security relationship extends beyond the conventional military presence. In late 2021, The Russian ambassador to Dushanbe announced that his country would build a new border guard post on the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan (TASS, December 27, 2021). And on May 11, Tajikistan’s Majlisi Oli (parliament) approved a grant agreement with Russia, providing $1.1 million for the construction of a border checkpoint (ASIA-Plus, May 11).
Despite ongoing tensions in the bilateral relationship, there are some intriguing signs of a softening of Dushanbe’s position toward the Taliban. The Tajik media has reported that on May 14, Tajikistan’s government sent former State Committee on National Security officer Samariddin Chuianzoda to Kabul as a representative of Dushanbe. This was the first direct diplomatic interaction between the two estranged neighbors since the Taliban’s takeover last August (Bomdodrus.com, June 2).
While the Taliban released no official announcement about Chuianzoda’s visit, it is likely that topping the agenda was the deteriorating situation in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan region since sporadic protests began there last November. Bordering Afghanistan’s own Badakhshan province, GBAO is increasingly an uncontrolled center of rising resistance to the central government and beset by a lucrative trans-border drug trade. Four days after Chuianzoda’s diplomatic mission, Tajikistan’s Ministry of Interior launched a “counterterrorism operation” in the region to “ensure public order” after reporting that members of an organized criminal group had received weapons and ammunition from “outside the country” (Centrasia.org, June 12). Dozens have died in the ensuing unrest, with no end in sight.
Despite some apparent cooling of tensions between Dushanbe and Kabul, the stresses wracking Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan can be expected to intensify in the foreseeable future. The Taliban’s increasingly authoritarian rule, coupled with the regime’s economic incompetence, will likely alienate Afghans and generate support for the NRF. Meanwhile, to the north, Tajikistan’s continued crackdown in GBAO on unauthorized rallies and protests will contribute to a further hardening of the country’s autocratic central government as well as the progressive merging of local armed resistance groups with drug lords, organized crime and jihadist terrorist formations. Of the “big three” powers currently providing assistance, only Russia with its 201st Motor Rifle Division can offer direct “boots on the ground” military assistance to Tajikistan, if needed. But as the Afghan-Tajikistani border is 843 miles long, it remains to be seen if—with the Kremlin’s resources and attention largely redirected to its war in Ukraine—the 201st’s roughly 7,000 troops are up to their task.