Afghanistan Article

One against the Taliban. Why Tajikistan is in conflict with the new authorities of Afghanistan

Written by The Frontier Post

Temur Umarov

Tajikistan does not often make it into the world news, but has begun to appear there regularly in recent weeks. The reason is the tough position taken by the Tajik authorities with regard to the situation in Afghanistan, where the Taliban recently came to power.

It would seem that everything should be the other way around. If anyone in Central Asia needs to worry about good relations with the Taliban, it is Tajikistan. The Tajik border with Afghanistan is long, mountainous and difficult to control. The Tajik army is considered the weakest in Central Asia. Most of the drug traffic from Afghanistan to Russia and Europe passes through Tajikistan , and in recent years, terrorist attacks have occurred in the country more than once.

However, unlike its neighbors in Central Asia, as well as Russia and China, Tajikistan is not only in no hurry to establish ties with the new authorities in Kabul, but has taken on the role of their main enemy and supports the remnants of the opposition forces in Afghanistan. Officially, President Emomali Rahmon justifies this position by saying that the Taliban cannot be trusted because they violate the rights of national and religious minorities. But rather, the fact is that in this way Rahmon hopes to raise his own popularity both domestically and in the international arena, and the military alliance with Russia allows him to feel confident in relations with the Taliban.

Loud words

Recently, President Rahmon has returned to the topic of Afghanistan’s misfortunes under the Taliban in almost every speech he has made – even in those not related to foreign policy. In particular, he dwelled on this issue in a solemn speech at the celebration of the 30th anniversary of Tajikistan’s independence on September 8.

At the concert in the evening of the same day, the main number was the performance of the singer Fahimi Fano, who fled from Afghanistan. His song was dedicated to the great role of Rakhmon in the peaceful development of Tajikistan – in the hall they listened to the song while standing, and after the concert, Rahmon personally talked to the singer.

At meetings with world leaders and at international venues, Rahmon never tires of repeating : “Tajikistan will not recognize any other government formed in this country through oppression and persecution, without taking into account the position of the entire Afghan people, especially all of its national minorities.” Rahmon said ethnic Tajiks make up more than 46% of Afghanistan’s population, although most researchers estimate their share at 20% .

Tajikistan is the only country in the region that promised to host up to 100,000 refugees from Afghanistan in the summer . Rahmon also posthumously awarded the leaders of the anti-Taliban movement (ethnic Tajiks) – the legendary commander of the Mujahideen Ahmad Shah Massoud and the ex-President of Afghanistan Burkhanuddin Rabbani – with the Order of Ismoili Somoni, I degree.

There are persistent rumors that Tajikistan also supports the remaining opponents of the Taliban – the Afghan National Resistance Front in the Panjshir province (more than 98% of the province’s population are ethnic Tajiks). This is the only territory that the Taliban have not yet fully taken over. According to some reports, the leaders of the resistance are now on the territory of Tajikistan : Ahmad Masud Jr. and the former vice-president of Afghanistan, the self-proclaimed acting President Amrullah Saleh. It is also reported about a hundred Afghan pilots who fled to Tajikistan and are waiting there while their documents are being prepared to move to Europe or the United States.

In response, the Taliban declared that they would not allow “interference in the internal affairs” of Afghanistan, and pulled up troops to the Tajik border. Tajikistan is also actively demonstrating its military readiness. For the first time in the years of independence , hundreds of thousands of servicemen, as well as soldiers from the reserve, were alerted to check their combat training. 20 thousand soldiers were sent to the border with Afghanistan. For the first time in several years, Rahmon personally visited areas of the country bordering Afghanistan, where he spoke to the military and hosted a military parade.

Cautious affairs

Nevertheless, it is too early to say that Tajikistan and Afghanistan are on the brink of war. Rahmon’s rhetoric sounds harsh, but he acts with extreme caution. Both the president and other high-ranking Tajik officials refrain from attacks against the Taliban itself, and in their criticism insist that the new Afghan government is not inclusive enough because it does not include sufficient representation of national minorities.

Rahmon hardly ever mentions the Taliban directly, and if he does speak about it, it is very vague. For example: “The coming to power of the Taliban movement further complicated the already complex geopolitical process in the region.”

Many of Dushanbe’s bold statements remain on paper. For example, the July promise of the Tajik authorities to accept 100,000 refugees is unlikely to be fulfilled in the foreseeable future. In September, Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda said at a meeting with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees: “… in 20 years no international organization has provided practical assistance in creating an infrastructure for receiving refugees and asylum seekers. In this regard, in the Republic of Tajikistan there is no opportunity to receive a large number of refugees and asylum seekers. “

In fact, Dushanbe returns thousands of refugees back to Afghanistan and does not publish real statistics. In mid-October, the head of the State Committee for National Security, Saimumin Yatimov, said that up to 600 Afghans are trying to cross the border every day, and at the moment the number of Afghan refugees in the country is 15 thousand . That is, growth is comparatively small, so that by the beginning of September, when the Taliban came to power only, they already numbered 10,000.

Officially, Tajikistan denies all reports that it supports the Afghan National Resistance Front. And the stay in the country of Ahmad Massoud Jr. is explained by the fact that he came to Dushanbe for negotiations with the Taliban, which did not take place.

Tajikistan also did not break off trade relations with the new Afghan government, although Afghanistan accounts for only 1.5% of the country’s total trade. The main article of Tajik exports to Afghanistan – electricity – continues to flow, although the Taliban have nothing to pay with yet, and their debt to Tajikistan has exceeded $ 11 million .

There are those in the ranks of the Taliban who are ready to mend relations with Tajikistan. However, Rahmon can hardly afford such an arrangement. His regime is already going through hard times due to economic difficulties and general fatigue from his almost thirty years of rule. Playing as an ethnic nationalist and protector of all Tajiks, regardless of country of residence, is what provides Rahmon with support in Tajik society.

Internal and external support

Ever since the Taliban took over Kabul, Tajik social media has been flooded with material about Afghanistan. Users share scary photos from there, call on the international community to pay attention to the fate of Tajiks in Afghanistan, post posts in support of the resistance forces, ask to sign petitions on, and so on .

No less popular is the criticism of Tajikistan’s neighbors – for example, Uzbekistan for being ready to negotiate with the Taliban. Tashkent is indeed more active than others in cooperating with the Taliban. For example, the head of the Uzbek Foreign Ministry, Abdulaziz Kamilov, became the first high-ranking official from the region to hold talks with the Taliban in Kabul.

Uzbekistan also speaks of inclusiveness and worries about the rights of Uzbeks in Afghanistan, but unlike Dushanbe, Tashkent does not regard Afghan Uzbeks as “its own”, does not consider them to be representatives of the Uzbek diaspora, but primarily treats them as citizens of Afghanistan.

Indeed, if the pre-Soviet societies living on the territory of modern Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan had much in common, then a hundred years later the differences became more than similarities. At the beginning of the 20th century, Moscow constructed and institutionalized ethno-national identity in the Soviet republics for decades. And if for the inhabitants of Central Asia today national self-identification is something self-evident, then in Afghanistan the ethnonyms “Tajik” or “Uzbek” are used in many respects arbitrarily and strongly depend on the circumstances.

People in Dushanbe cannot but understand that there is no supranational community of Tajiks. However, President Rahmon throughout his political career positioned himself as “the guardian and patron of all Tajiks in the world” (as his associates publicly call him), and the leadership of Tajikistan actively encourages nationalist sentiments in society.

Rahmon often uses nationalist rhetoric to boost his rating. Especially now, against the backdrop of a downturn in the economy, record inflation and the dire consequences of the pandemic, playing a radical nationalist remains the only way for Rakhmon to maintain his popularity.

The political crisis in neighboring Afghanistan gave the long-term Tajik leader a chance to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of society – he again made the mantra about the “peaceful sky over his head” donated by Rahmon, from which the society began to get tired, urgent.

An added bonus to domestic support was the attention from the international community. Rahmon turned out to be the only leader from Central Asia who was invited by French President Emmanuel Macron to negotiate in Paris.

Rahmon’s European tour kicked off on October 11 in Belgium , where the President of Tajikistan met with President of the European Council Charles Michel, EU High Representative for Foreign Policy Josep Borrell and other international and Belgian officials. And on October 13, at a meeting with Macron, Rahmon discussed what assistance France could provide to Tajikistan to stabilize the situation. The French president especially noted Tajikistan’s “stable position” on Afghanistan.

Tajikistan is not going to go into direct confrontation with the Taliban. Rather, by acting a little more risky than its neighbors, the Tajik leadership hopes to add to its popularity both domestically and internationally. Dushanbe can afford such a risk, because it is sure that in the worst case, the Russian military will come to the rescue, ensuring security on the Afghan-Tajik border. Moreover, in addition to Russia, Tajikistan is closely cooperating militarily with China .

Given that the situation in Afghanistan is unlikely to stabilize in the foreseeable future, the Afghan issue could add energy to the Rahmon regime for several more years. At the same time, Dushanbe is careful not to go too far in its rhetoric. As a result, Rahmon still has the opportunity to establish contact with the Taliban if the pressure on the border with Afghanistan becomes too dangerous.

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