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Why Tajikistan holds the key to future resistance against Taliban

Panjshir was the last Afghan bastion to fall to the Taliban. However, the resistance forces still maintain that this is not the case. The impressive resistance put forth by Panjshir and the fighters is not something that has come about in recent times. Panjshir, and more importantly the Tajiks, have always wanted to hold on to their own in Afghanistan. Despite being a minority, the Tajiks have always had a larger part to play across crucial events marking the history of Afghanistan.

Tajikistan is the natural homeland of Tajiks and the Tajiks of Afghanistan always have an invisible umbilical cord connecting them to Tajikistan. The Taliban’s takeover has once again put the spotlight on central Asian countries, no more so than on Tajikistan. Given the close history the two countries share, it will be very interesting to see Tajikistan’s approach towards Afghanistan in the aftermath of US/NATO troops pullout.

Post 9/11, Afghanistan saw its Tajiks come to the fore of governance and economy after the Pashtun-driven Taliban was ousted. Since then, Tajiks have played an integral part in Afghanistan’s renaissance. Now, with the new Taliban government only allocating 2 out of 33 ministerial posts to the Tajiks, the fear is that their fortunes will once again be sidelined.

Controlled aggression: The Tajikistan way

As the Taliban enforced itself through province after province, thousands of Afghan soldiers fled to Tajikistan in fear of being killed or captured by the Taliban. Unlike some other countries, Tajikistan did not forcefully send these people back into Afghanistan.

Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmonov knows too well to keep his cards close to his chest. Historically, the people of Tajikistan have always opposed the Taliban, but a fraction of their people are also Taliban sympathisers a few being part of the Taliban setup as well.

While the Panjshir resistance was on, there were numerous reports of the Tajikistan government supplying firearms and essentials to resistance forces. But the same has been denied by the Tajikistan government.

What the Tajikistan government, however, did was stoke some fire during the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud, bestowing upon him the Order of Ismoili Somoni, Tajikistan’s highest honour. The same was also awarded to former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani. These two played a massive role in helping end the devastating civil war in Tajikistan during the 1990s.

Rabbani was the one who formed the “Northern Alliance” after fleeing Kabul owing to the Taliban capture of the city. He, along with a few other warlords such as Ahmad Shah Massoud, formed the Northern Alliance. Both were assassinated. While Massoud was assassinated days before the 9/11 attacks, Rabbani was killed in 2011.

Tajikistan openly took sides the last time Taliban were in power. They actively supported the Northern Alliance when the US invaded Afghanistan after 9/11. Both Massoud and Rabbani were ethnic Tajiks. Even as Massoud’s son Ahmad Massoud is fighting the Taliban, this honour instilled by the Tajikistan government is a significant development.

Unlike last, the Rahmonov government is forced to accept a Taliban government this time owing to the circumstances surrounding the surrender of the Ashraf Ghani-led establishment. However, Rahmonov has been very clear of wanting a government that is inclusive, giving equal importance to all the minorities, including Tajiks. Unfortunately, the same has not transpired in the announced cabinet. Barring Qari Fasihuddin and Qari Deen Hanif, the rest of the cabinet are Pashtuns with just one other Uzbek.

This is in stark contrast to the demographics concerning Afghanistan which has a population close to 38 million. Afghanistan has not had a census conducted of late, but unofficial estimates put the percentage of Pashtuns at 44 per cent. The Tajiks, who are considered a minority, are close to 25 percent. Hazaras and Uzbeks are at 9 per cent, while Aimaks, Turkmens and Balochis are at 4 per cent, 3 per cent and 2 per cent respectively. Some 4 per cent of the population are classified as “others”.

Given that the minorities together constitute over 50 per cent of the Afghan population, their bare minimum of a presence in the new cabinet is something Rahmonov will not take lightly. Even before the cabinet formation, Rahmonov commented that he and his government would reject any Afghan government “created by humiliation and ignoring the interests of the people of Afghanistan as a whole, including those of ethnic minorities, such as Tajiks, Uzbeks and others”.

It is noteworthy to remind that a group of 1,800 men from the border areas of Tajikistan wanted permission from Rahmonov to enter Panjshir and fight for the resistance forces against the Taliban. This request was, however, shot down by the government.

The new development will also put security-related threats on the spotlight for the Tajikistan government. First, Rahmonov will have to counter the rising radicalism across the region, more so, owing to a terror group returning to power in the neighbourhood. Groups that had been kept under control in Tajikistan may receive a new lease of life and also find tacit support from the Taliban to wage war against the Tajikistan government. The threat of ISKP (Islamic State Khorasan Province) is also ever-growing, owing to its interest in spreading wings across Central Asia.

Second, the familiar threat of narcotics terrorism will once again come back to life. Afghanistan is home to more than 90 per cent of the world’s illicit opium production, and 15 per cent of this is smuggled through Central Asia — mainly Tajikistan — en route Russia, Eastern Europe and China.

Furthermore, 20 per cent of Afghan heroin, which accounts for more than 90 per cent of the world supply, is also trafficked through Central Asia, mainly Tajikistan. Dushanbe is not just a transit route for drug smugglers, but also a very big market. Some 0.5 per cent of the Tajikistan population or close to 25,000 people aged between 15 and 64 have a higher-than-average rate of opiate abuse. The lucrative drug smuggling and trade also provides funding back to the Taliban, its allies and other terror groups that threaten to destabilise Tajikistan.

Tajikistan, Afghanistan & Afghan Tajiks: A complex web

Sharing a 1,200+ km border on Afghanistan’s northeastern border, Tajikistan plays a significant role in Central Asia. Having been part of the old Soviet Union, Tajikistan supported the Soviet’s takeover of Afghanistan in 1979 by sending its own men to fight and being a critical link for supplies sent to forces on the front.

Given the result of the takeover did not go as planned, this made Tajiks a ripe target for the erstwhile mujahideen. Hence, Tajikistan was targeted by terror groups in the late 1980s from within and outside owing to the growing influence of terror groups in the region. This also gave rise to the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), which opposed the ruler of Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmonov (who continues to be in power even today), resulting in a civil war.

Meanwhile, Burhanuddin Rabbani became the President of Afghanistan, and despite being a Tajik, supported the IRP initially. But once he was made to flee the incoming Taliban, he joined hands with the warlords to form the Northern Alliance and fight against the Taliban. As the Northern Alliance needed a lot of support in terms of logistics and supplies, he brokered a deal between Rahmonov and the IRP to end the civil war in Tajikistan, thereby getting Tajikistan’s backing to fight the Taliban. Post 9/11, the Northern Alliance was a key partner of US troops in the fight against the Taliban. With the fall of the Taliban in 2001, relations between Afghanistan and Tajikistan drastically improved.

As regards Tajiks in Afghanistan, they are the second-largest ethnic group in the country after Pashtuns. Over the years, they have become a part of Afghan’s elite society with a good amount of wealth and influence owing to their historical proximity with the Durani dynasty. Though they were primarily concentrated around the regions of Panjshir, Badakhshan and other provinces bordering Tajikistan, the city of Kabul now has a large percentage of Tajiks owing to their growing influence in the past decade in governance and policymaking.

Tajiks are mostly Sunni Muslims, thereby, becoming part of the Taliban of late. They speak a form of Dari with a Farsi dialect that closely resembles the one spoken in Iran. The Tajiks came under heavy fire during the Soviet invasion and soon after the Soviets returned, they were killed and chased out of their homes and farms. This led to the formation of warlords and the resistance forces, together named the Northern Alliance. Ahmad Shah Massoud was the biggest leader of the Tajiks and resistance forces. The necessity of having something like the resistance forces was felt more so after the 1998 attacks when the Taliban killed hundreds of Tajiks after taking over the city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

The Tajiks have only ever ruled Afghanistan twice in its history. The first time was in 1929 when Habibullah Kalakani ruled Afghanistan for nine months and the second time in 1992 when Burhanuddin Rabbani became President under the Peshawar Accord. Once the Hamid Karzai-led Afghanistan government came to the fore, the cabinet had numerous Tajiks in its ranks, and this gave them a lot of influence over politics and decision-making.

The Russia, China and India factors

The AfghanistanTajikistan border is estimated to have close to 15,000 militants having strong cross-border connections, according to Tajikistan’s Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzode. Hence, the security of the nation will be of paramount importance after the Taliban takeover.

Tajikistan is part of the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation) led by Russia. The CSTO is responsible for securing the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border as per a 2013 resolution agreed upon by the group members. Russia is reportedly building a new outpost and is also willing to position its troops in the border areas if needed. Some 30 per cent of Tajikistan’s GDP is from foreign remittances of its migrant labourers working in Russia. Tajikistan is also home to Russia’s largest military base outside Russia. While Russia has already started engaging with the Taliban, Tajikistan, which depends a lot on Russia, has been more independent with regards to a decision on recognising the Taliban government.

Tajikistan has already been carrying out military drills with other Central Asian countries in a bid to be better prepared for unforeseen circumstances. The country is also expecting a lot of refugees to flow in, in addition to thousands of them having already crossed over.

Tajikistan also does a lot of business with China. Recently, Dushanbe hosted a summit for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. And China is another nation that is actively liaising with the Taliban. Whether all this will influence Tajikistan’s approach towards the Taliban remains to be seen, especially with the ignoring of Tajiks in its new cabinet.

On the other hand, Tajikistan has been actively engaging with US troops and other countries with regard to the evacuation of people from Afghanistan. There is also talk that in future, US may consider Tajikistan as a place to base any operations it may want to conduct in Afghanistan’s northern regions, though its proximity to Russia may be the biggest barrier.

The Panjshir resistance also brought into focus India’s air base in Tajikistan which was a result of a lot of thought put into after the IC 814 Indian Airlines hijacking in 1999. It was named the Ayni Project and involved the opening of an air base outside India. In 2002, the Ayni Project began as a collaborative effort between the external affairs ministry and the security-intelligence establishment. Over the years, it developed into an Indian Air Force (IAF) base, known as Gissar Military Aerodrome (GMA).

It is located in a village called Ayni, not far from Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe. India and Tajikistan jointly manage it. The IAF also runs a small hospital at Qurgan Teppa in South Tajikistan for Tajik military personnel. It remains to be seen if India will engage with the resistance forces in any kind using this base and if Tajikistan will allow the same.

At the end of the day, Dushanbe is a small but vital cog in Central Asian diplomacy, more so now, owing to its long border with Afghanistan. Russia is not insurmountable with respect to its relations with Tajikistan and it too will know that it cannot take Tajikistan for granted owing to sudden interests in the region. US, on the other hand, will try to eke out any little possibility of opening another base next to Afghanistan as the Pakistan army and government have not been the best of friends of late. So, it is not surprising to think that Tajikistan holds the key to any future resistance against the Taliban.

(The writer is a Singapore-based Open-Source Intelligence analyst)

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