In the aftermath of 9/11 and NATO’s renewed strategic emphasis on developing its partnership with the Central Asian states, Tajikistan has increasingly sought to enhance its security assistance from foreign states. With this strategy, Tajikistan’s leaders risk damaging their security relations with Moscow, though they try to balance these increasingly complex ties with Dushanbe’s traditional reliance upon Russian assistance. Dushanbe also risks undermining still further the security of its own border with Afghanistan, which is used for trafficking narcotics, weapons, people, and possibly weapons of mass destruction materials (Avesta, September 17).
This delicate balance is underscored by tracing the recent movements and meetings of Sherali Khayrulloyev, Tajikistan’s Minister of Defense. On September 20 he received an Indian military delegation in Dushanbe, discussing the deepening of existing bilateral ties aimed at improving military-technical cooperation, since Tajikistan’s armed forces critically lack modern, effective weapons and equipment. Moreover, the Indian delegation also suggested holding future joint military exercises and may examine cooperation aimed at supplying Tajikistan with enhanced air mobility options (Avesta, September 20). On September 21 Khayrulloyev received Zenon Kuhchak, Poland’s ambassador to Tajikistan, who is equally keen to foster bilateral security relations involving the supply of military equipment and opening Polish military institutions to Tajik military personnel (Asia Plus, September 21). The Tajik Ministry of Defense is eager to receive foreign help from multiple sources, and working with Poland would also help strengthen Tajikistan’s ties to NATO and commitment to its Partnership for Peace program. But such attempts to secure additional foreign aid in building stronger military capabilities send mixed signals to Russia as well as the United States.
Tajikistan has received around $2.3 million in U.S. military assistance in 2004. Such support focuses on helping to reform its post-Soviet force, crippled by the civil war in the 1990s and chronically underfinanced, as well as encouraging modernizing military structures and expanding its contacts with the Alliance. U.S. security assistance tends to concentrate, rightly so, on training and bilateral confidence-building measures. These programs also seek to modernize the Tajik Ministry of Defense, a long-term and arduous process, and upgrade existing communications systems (Asia Plus, September 16).
Currently the strong Russian security presence within Tajikistan dictates near total reliance upon Moscow, which has constrained Tajikistan’s foreign policy options. Russian analysts and military specialists believe that Tajikistan’s current plans to ask Russian border guards to leave the country will dangerously expose the Tajik-Afghan border to the weak Tajik security structures. In their present form, the Tajik border service is incapable financially, professionally, and practically of providing anywhere near the level of protection to the Tajik-Afghan border currently afforded by Russian border troops, which are also far from perfect. But by raising the specter of a weaker and further exposed border area, in the interests of possessing sovereign control over these structures and carrying out these duties independently, Tajikistan has made clear that it requires greater levels of foreign financial support. Here it is likely to look to Washington. It can argue that other states, including India, with indirect security interests are also providing help, but what is needed is real fiscal support and root-and-branch reform of its border service.
Russia and the United States share similar concerns relating to Tajik border security. But planners in Moscow believe they have shouldered the burden in a way that the United States has not. Its joint military exercises in Tajikistan in mid-September illustrate the point. The battalion tactical exercise rehearsed repelling an attack launched by international terrorists in mountainous areas. Based on a battalion drawn from the Russian 201st Motorized Rifle Division in Dushanbe and conducted in the Mumirak military range in the southern Khatlon region near the Tajik-Afghan border, units of the Russian border guards were joined by Tajik counterparts and other Tajik security structures. The armored vehicles, ground-attack aircraft, and combat helicopters participating were predominantly Russian and not Tajik (Itar-Tass, September 14). Trouble or a crisis in the border area would almost certainly trigger a response from the Russian military and security units located in Tajikistan, while the security structures of the country itself would struggle to cope with a combat operation and would flounder if attempting such ventures independently.
In this sense Russian security personnel are outwardly calm about the prospects for Tajikistan’s independent protection of its own borders. As Gleb Pavlovsky, president of the Effective Policy Foundation in Moscow recently observed, “I see no threat to Tajik-Russian relations in connection with the withdrawal of Russian border troops from the Tajik-Afghan border.” He is not alone. The strong bilateral ties between Russia and Tajikistan seem set to continue, as the trans-border issue of narcotic trafficking draws the two together. None of the proposed changes to the present arrangements remove Russia’s continued interests in the security of the southern CIS borders. Tajikistan’s search for foreign help from countries as diverse as Poland and India result from the sheer weakness of its security and armed forces, a fact known in Russia for some time. But whether the American taxpayer is prepared to fund such an experiment remains to be seen.