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As coalition supply routes diversify, Tajikistan’s importance to the Afghanistan theater is only likely to rise. Afghanistan and Tajikistan have fostered a close relationship since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. The two countries share deep cultural ties and mutual security and economic interests. While Afghanistan is trying to expand trade with its northern neighbor for economic gains, Tajikistan favors a stable Afghanistan to tackle cross-border drug trafficking and terrorist activities threatening Dushanbe.
Tajikistan sits on Afghanistan’s northeastern border, lying adjacent to the Afghan provinces of Badakhshan, Takhar, Kunduz, and Balkh. The 749-mile (1206-km) border largely follows the course of the Amu Darya and Panj Rivers. Much of Tajikistan’s southeastern border with Afghanistan lies in the Pamir Mountain range—the junction of the Hindu Kush and the Karakoram Mountains and home to some of the highest peaks in the world.
The Tajiks are an ethnic group that speak a dialect of Persian (Dari) and live in an area extending from western China to Iran. The population of Tajikistan is approximately 7.3 million. Tajiks are the largest ethnic group in Tajikistan, comprising nearly 80 percent of the population. Tajiks are also the second largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, representing 27 percent of the population or roughly 8.8 million people. (Credible numbers about the demographic composition of Afghanistan are not available. The last census conducted in the country was in 1970s.) In Afghanistan, the Tajik population is concentrated in the northeast of the country along the border with Tajikistan, but communities are also found in the center and west of the country. Large Tajik populations in Afghanistan are also located in major cities such as Kabul, Herat, and Mazar-e Sharif. While the origins of the two populations and aspects of their language are similar, and there is some cultural overlap, the divergent national political trajectories of the two countries have created visible distinctions between them.
Apart from the Tajik ethnic group, Afghanistan and Tajikistan are also home to sizeable communities of Uzbeks. The Uzbeks are a Turkic ethnic group—the largest in Central Asia—and live in an area stretching from Iran in the west to China in the east. The Uzbeks are the second largest ethnic group in Tajikistan, accounting for 15.3 percent of the population or roughly 1.1 million people. They also represent a substantial minority in neighboring Afghanistan, comprising nine percent of the population or 2.9 million people. In Afghanistan, the Uzbeks live mainly along the northern border with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.
Both Afghanistan (80 percent) and Tajikistan (85 percent) are predominately Sunni Muslim of the Hanafi school of law. The Tajik and Uzbek ethnic groups in both countries are also predominately Sunni Muslim of the Hanafi school, although there is a small minority of Shia Tajiks.
The Soviet Socialist Republics in Central Asia, including Tajikistan, supported Moscow’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Many citizens of present-day Tajikistan served alongside the Russian troops in Afghanistan. The Central Asian nations benefited economically as a staging area for Soviet troops and supplies. However, Tajikistan’s material support for the Soviet Army made it a target for the Afghan mujahideen—supported by the US, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia—who launched attacks in 1987. Thousands of Tajiks and Uzbeks also secretly joined the Afghan jihad. Fighting with the likes of Afghan-Tajik mujahideen leaders Ahmad Shah Massoud and Burhanuddin Rabbani and their Jamiat-e Islami, these Tajiks were introduced to Islamism and Tajik nationalism.
After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, the collapse of the Soviet Union
, and Tajikistan’s subsequent independence in 1991, some of these Tajik mujahideen returned to form the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), which opposed the government of communist leader Emomali Rahmonov. In 1992, a brutal civil war erupted between the IRP and forces loyal to the government in Dushanbe, which lasted for five years. This coincided with the fall of the communist regime in Kabul to the mujahideen in 1992. The new Afghan President Rabbani and his Defense Minister Massoud allowed the IRP to operate and launch attacks Rahmonov’s government in Dushanbe from bases in northern Afghanistan and provided them with arms and training. Over 100,000 civilian refugees also fled from Tajikistan to Afghanistan.
In 1996, the Taliban, backed by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan
, took Kabul and forced the Rabbani government to flee to northern Afghanistan. Rabbani and Massoud then joined with Uzbek and Hazara opposition groups to form the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, also known as the Northern Alliance. Russia
, who viewed the emergence of the Taliban as a threat to their security, supported this Tajik-dominated coalition. However, they recognized that as the Taliban continued to seize more and more territory, Massoud’s forces would require bases from which to launch attacks into Afghanistan and receive supplies from their patrons. Therefore, increasing pressure was placed on the Rahmonov government and the IRP—now organized under the United Tajik Opposition (UTO)—to bring an end to the civil war; an armistice was signed in 1997. Dushanbe then reversed its previous policy and supported the Northern Alliance against its new enemy, the Taliban.
Not all elements within the IRP were satisfied with the peace agreement, however. Juma Namangani, an Uzbek commander in the Tajik IRP, rejected the armistice and formed the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). The IMU turned its attention west and sought to overthrow the government of Uzbek President Islam Karimov. With the support of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the IMU launched attacks from bases in Afghanistan and Tajikistan into neighboring Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan from 1999 to 2001. The IMU also fought alongside the Taliban against Massoud and the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan and became heavily involved in the drug trade across the Afghan-Tajik border.
Following the attacks of 11 September 2001, Dushanbe joined the US-led coalition to oust its old enemy, the Taliban. In return for offering its airspace and facilities, the US lifted economic sanctions—imposed because of Dushanbe’s conduct during the 1992-97 civil war—and began delivery of military and humanitarian assistance. The IMU, in contrast, fought against the US and its allies, and Namangani actually commanded Taliban forces at Taloqan in northern Afghanistan. While the IMU suffered heavy losses during the battle (Namangani was killed in the battle of Kunduz in 2001), the group survived and elements remained active in sanctuaries along the Afghanistan-Pakistan
border, under the leadership of Tahir Yuldashev. The IMU maintains links with other Islamist groups, including al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, and the Pakistani Taliban.1
While the IMU still seeks to topple the Uzbek government, it now also wants to establish an Islamic Caliphate that spans Central Asia.
Terrorism, Islamism, and the Taliban
Although the IMU was largely destroyed by the US and its allies in 2001, and although the IRP is now a legal political party in Tajikistan, Dushanbe is still concerned about the rise of Islamism (regardless of whether or not it is violent) and terrorism. The IMU is believed to be operating out of sanctuaries along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where the group fled with its Taliban and al-Qaeda allies in 2001 and where it has been active against US and Coalition forces since. Further, it is believed that the IMU is still active in Central Asia (Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan), and in some countries it has allegedly reconstituted itself as the Islamic Movement of Turkestan. Attacks in Tajikistan—and in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan—since 2001 have been blamed on “Islamic militants” and the IMU; and Dushanbe has used these attacks to justify its crackdown on “Islamic militants,” “Wahhabis,” Islamist groups, and religious people and organizations in general. The IMU also places a strain on Tajikistan’s relations with its western neighbor, Uzbekistan.
One thing that Tajik President Emomali Rahmon (formerly Rahmonov) and the opposition IRP can agree on is that neither side wants to see a resurgent Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. Mutual opposition to the Taliban was a major driving force behind the peace agreement that ended the civil war in 1997, after which both sides backed the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. The Taliban, which supports and fights with the IMU, represents a distinct threat to regional security and to stability along Tajikistan’s southern frontier—until recently patrolled by Russian soldiers. Thus, Dushanbe has supported the US-led effort to fight the Taliban and bring stability to the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border.
Afghanistan is responsible for more than 90 percent of the world’s illicit opium production, and fifteen percent of the opiates produced in Afghanistan are smuggled through Central Asia—mainly Tajikistan—en route to Russia, Eastern Europe, and China. Furthermore, twenty percent of Afghan heroin, which accounts for more than 90 percent of world supply, is trafficked through Central Asia. Tajikistan, however, is not just a transit route for drug smugglers, but has a higher-than-average rate of opiate abuse: 0.5 percent of the population aged 15 to 64 or 22,200 people. Moreover, the lucrative drug trade provides funding to the Taliban, their allies the IMU, and other terrorist and criminal elements that threaten to destabilize the country.
Tajikistan’s drug trafficking problem is compounded by weak security along the Afghan border and the proximity of poppy-growing regions in northern Afghanistan, although the rise of southern Afghanistan as the main area of opium poppy cultivation has alleviated some of the pressure on Tajikistan. Much of the porous Afghan-Tajik border lies in incredibly rugged mountains, and it has been very difficult for the Tajik authorities to police it. Thus, the US and international community have stepped in to provide funding to help strengthen security along the Afghan-Tajik border. Outposts and checkpoints on both sides of the border are being constructed and equipped with advanced technology, and the training of counternarcotics teams is underway. Furthermore, Iran
, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan have agreed to cooperate in combating illegal drugs and organized crime in the region.
Coalition Supply Routes
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon announced in February 2009 that his government would allow the transit of non-military supplies through Tajikistan to US and NATO troops serving in Afghanistan. This announcement comes at a critical time for the US-led coalition as it actively searches for alternate routes to supply the recently expanded operation in Afghanistan. The deteriorating security situation in the border regions of Pakistan— through which up to 90 percent of coalition lethal and non-lethal supplies travel —has put the eastern route in jeopardy. However, it still remains to be seen how Russia, which views Central Asia as its traditional sphere of influence and is believed by many to be behind the Kyrgyz decision to close the Manas airbase, will react to the opening of the Tajikistan line of supply.
Since the fall of Taliban in 2001, Tajikistan has sought to establish greater economic ties with Afghanistan. In order to facilitate trade between the two countries, the US funded the construction of a bridge across the Panj River, which opened in 2007. The bridge has increased the flow of Tajik goods into Afghanistan and has enhanced commercial opportunities on both sides of the river. In addition, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Iran agreed to form the Economic Council of the Persian-Speaking Union in 2008, and work is underway to improve transportation links—road and rail— and thus trade between the three countries. Afghanistan has also sought to import energy from Tajikistan. The three countries also agreed to set up a joint commission to explore possibilities into the transfer of 500 KW of energy from Tajikistan to Afghanistan and Iran. Other projects agreed upon included construction of Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Iran highway, a railway linking Tajikistan to Iran via Afghanistan, and power grids that connect Tajikistan to Pakistan and Iran via Afghanistan. A television channel aimed at promoting cultural ties between the three Persian-speaking nations is also under consideration.
1Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan,” Australian National Security , Australian Government , March 20, 2009; Alisher Sidikov, “Pakistan Blames IMU Militants For Afghan Border Unrest,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, July 02, 2008.