Fear Thy Neighbour: The Tajik-Afghan Stand-Off

On October 18th, week-long military drills took place near the Tajik-Afghan border. The Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization exercises saw over 5,000 Russian, Tajik, and Uzbek troops engage in various training scenarios amidst spiralling tensions between Dushanbe and Kabul. Tajik president Emomali Rahmon still refuses to acknowledge the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate government, while Kabul accuses Tajikistan of harbouring anti-Taliban resistance movements. This exercise marks the latest in a series of military build-ups and parades along both sides of the border, according to Reuters. The stage is set for a potentially devastating confrontation.

Militarizing the Tajik-Afghan border risks undermining the countless historical, cultural, and economic ties which bound these countries together for centuries. Political scientist Kemel Toktomushev argued that strict borders do not promote peace nor reconciliation. They only reinforce misunderstanding, ignorance, and ingrain an “us versus them” mentality. Furthermore, Dushanbe must stop antagonizing a country teetering on the edge of collapse. The Taliban are plainly not preparing any incursions. Afghanistan is facing bankruptcy and famine. A United Nations report released on the 25th estimates that 23 million Afghans will be starving this winter. Tajikistan should at the very least send food and humanitarian aid to its neighbour, instead of flaunting tanks or reconnaissance planes.

The Rahmon regime dreads that history may repeat itself. The Tajik Civil War, which pitted former communist and secular government forces against a predominantly Islamic opposition from 1992 to 1997, killed approximately 35,000 people, destroyed over 37,500 homes, and dispersed hundreds of thousands of refugees throughout Central Asia, according to Open Democracy. Afghan Mujahideen leaders, embroiled in their own civil war at the time after the fall of the Soviet-backed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, inspired the Tajik Islamic Renaissance Party (I.R.P.) to fight pro-state forces. Battle-hardened Afghan guerrilla fighters like Ahmad Shah Massoud, who controlled territory near the Tajik border, sent medicine, food, weaponry, and instructors into refugee camps to help the Tajik opposition, according to U.S. Army engineer Scott Tousley. President Rahmon is terrified that the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan last August could embolden Islamist radicals within Tajikistan to rebel against the government once more.

Dushanbe’s fears of extremist spillovers from Afghanistan are not unfounded, especially in light of reports alleging that an Afghan-based Tajik terrorist group named Jamaat Ansarullah intends to infiltrate Tajikistan, according to Asia Plus. Additionally, the Rahmon dynasty is deeply concerned by the rise of Islamic State’s “Khorasan” cell (IS-K) in Afghanistan. IS-K members dream of establishing a caliphate that would include parts of Tajikistan, according to the Centre for Strategic Studies. The fact that Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov, the U.S.-trained head of the elite “OMON” special forces unit, suddenly defected to ISIS in 2015 is an ominous illustration of how vulnerable Tajikistan is to jihadi subversion.

Yet sabre-rattling with Afghanistan will have a detrimental impact on Tajik society. The Rahmon dynasty, determined to cling onto power, could easily instrumentalize hostilities with Kabul to crush dissent at home. Reports from the International Partnership for Human Rights, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, the Coalition Against Torture and Impunity, and Human Rights Watch all agree that Tajikistan already ranks among the most repressive and corrupt states in the world. There have been cases of Tajik security services torturing local warlords and their followers to make them confess to belonging to extremist organizations like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan – even though suspects often have little to no affiliation with these groups, according to Arab and Islamic Studies researcher Christian Bleuer.

Worryingly, the Rahmon regime could also broaden its counterproductive and intrusive “de-radicalization” measures if tensions with Kabul are left unresolved. As political scientist Edward Lemon amply demonstrated, Tajik authorities regularly exploit the threat of radical Islam to impose restrictive religious laws. Although these policies have positive effects when state-backed imams replace dangerous fundamentalist preachers, they also, as historian Vijay Prashad observed, are alienating Tajikistan’s Muslim population.

Dushanbe’s military grandstanding will do little to change the fact that the Taliban now rule Afghanistan. For the sake of regional peace and stability, Tajikistan has no choice but to adapt and follow the example of Central Asian neighbours like Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan in normalizing relations with Kabul.