A Bulwark Endangered: Tajikistan–Taliban Tensions Destabilize the Region
Historical tensions between the Taliban and Tajik government have reignited. Tajikistan appears to be offering support to Afghan resistance groups, and the Taliban are threatening to retaliate by supporting Tajik resistance groups. The Taliban’s poor management of security, growing energy debts, a border skirmish, and many other diplomatic pain points have only further inflamed the situation. As friction increases, regional security deteriorates, bilateral diplomatic relations worsen, and China and Russia fear losing their traditional regional bulwark.
Tajikistan is the only state in the region to overtly reject the Taliban as legitimate rulers of Afghanistan, re-inflaming historic animosity between the Tajik government and the Taliban that stretches back to the Soviet occupation. Time and time again history has put the Tajik government and the Taliban at odds. First, Tajikistan permitted the Soviet Union to utilize its territory as an advanced base for Soviet forces as they battled the mujahideen from 1979 to 1989. During this time, as many as 15,000 Tajik citizens were recruited to aid Russia with pacification efforts in Afghanistan.
Later when the mujahideen evolved into the Taliban and they faced resistance in the early 2000s, Tajikistan again provided safe haven for resistance forces, the Northern Alliance.
History repeated itself again after the 2021 Taliban takeover: after Kabul fell many of the current leaders of the National Resistance Front (NRF) found sanctuary in Tajikistan. Understandably, the Taliban harbor suspicions that the Tajik government is providing material, intelligence, and financial support to the NRF. Some of these suspicions may in fact be true, as unconfirmed reporting continues to suggest arms and ammunition are being funneled across the Tajik-Afghan border. Supposedly, these transfers have been orchestrated by the exiled “Supreme Council” with tacit approval from the government of Tajikistan.
Vexed by consistent conflict with Tajikistan, the Taliban is believed to have begun to respond in kind by hosting groups and individuals opposed to the Tajik government. While most reports on this have not been confirmed, former warlord Galbuddin Hekmaytar recently threatened that the Taliban would host Tajik resistance forces if the Tajiks continued to host the NRF. Although he does not have the authority to speak on behalf of the Taliban, it is notable that no Taliban officials contradicted his statements.
Plus, some evidence is damning. Reportedly, over 200 Tajik citizens who supported the Taliban’s insurgency and are members of Jamaat Ansarullah (a militant group attempting to overthrow the secular government in Dushanbe) have been managing security operations in five border districts in the Afghan province of Badakhshan, leading to Tajik complaints. In September 2021, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon ordered 20,000 security forces to the border after receiving reports that these Jamaat Ansarullah supporters were planning to cross the border from Badakhshan and infiltrate Tajikistan. Reports also surfaced that the Taliban were providing Jamaat Ansarullah members based along the border with Tajikistan with new US-made military vehicles, weaponry, combat gear, and other equipment.
Simultaneously, the Taliban announced the formation of the Mansouri Martyrdom Battalion, a special forces battalion with a specialty in suicide bombings, which would be deployed to border regions of Badakhshan with the mission of protecting the Taliban from external and internal threats. President Rahmon recognizes the gravity of this threat and has continued to improve defenses along the border since January 2022. He has also launched a sizable counter-insurgency operation in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan region, where Jamaat Ansarullah is primarily based, with the intention of heading off any organized insurgency.
Further complicating matters, Tajikistan is simultaneously grappling with disputes with additional neighboring countries, worsening and potentially catastrophic economic crisis, and increased unrest among dissidents in the Gorno-Badakhshan region.
China and Russia also recognize the seriousness of the situation. Both have historically used Tajikistan as a buffer state to keep them insulated from the unrest in Afghanistan. Furthermore, Russia desires to retain its sphere of influence in Central Asia and China seeks to contain terror threats from a Tajik-based separatist group hoping to liberate the Xinjiang province. These goals have been viewed as so important that Tajikistan is home to Russia’s largest foreign military base and one of China’s three foreign bases. Since the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, security assistance has increased significantly, and the US is now engaging more in Tajikistan as well. Both the US and Russia have committed recently to funding the Tajik military and border security with a combined $160 million USD.
The Taliban Point-of-View
Despite all the diplo-jargon coming out of Kabul regarding economic cooperation and solidarity throughout Central Asia, the Taliban understandably view Tajikistan as a threat. So long as the Tajiks continue to house the NRF and potentially other Resistance forces, the new government in Kabul will remain insecure both in the diplomatic relationship and regarding the security situation.
Whether any of the accusations and reports flying around are true is immaterial given that the Taliban believe them to be accurate.
The Tajik Point-of-View
The Tajik government’s bilateral policies have been cold and cautious with the Taliban. President Rahmon has been one of the loudest voices calling for the establishment of an inclusive government in Afghanistan. He appears to see the Taliban regime as relatively short-lived and believes that tensions only continue to grow.
The Taliban’s recent unexpected closure of a key border crossing to commercial traffic and seizure of approximately 100 Tajik trucks/drivers on the Afghan side of the border only further increased friction. Furthermore, ISIS-K’s claim that they launched a rocket attack across the border in early May led some sources to share that Tajikistan is frustrated by the Taliban’s lack of action to crack down on ISIS-K and fears that terrorism will thrive on its doorstep. A firefight between Tajik and Taliban border forces took place shortly after the rocket attack, reflecting increased tensions. Tajikistan is also growing increasingly impatient with the massive debt Afghanistan owes for the electricity it continues to import from Tajikistan, despite Taliban requests for leniency due to the extreme sanctions they are navigating. Recent reports of the Taliban persecuting ethnic Tajiks in Afghanistan have not helped matters.
While China and Russia have struck vacillating tones when dealing with the Taliban, they both appear to be hedging their bets by increasing security cooperation in Tajikistan. Russia dispatched a battalion of new T-72B3M tanks to its forward base in early December 2021. China, while denying reports it is actively patrolling in Northern Afghanistan, appears to have supplied new armored vehicles that have been photographed and filmed in the Pamir region.
Other regional powers are also beginning to listen to Tajikistan’s concerns, leading 7 regional states to call for the dismantling of several well-known terrorist training camps in Afghanistan at a recent summit hosted in Dushanbe.
While open war between Tajikistan and Afghanistan remains far-fetched, it is undeniable that the deep-seated levels of distrust have created an atmosphere that could rapidly spark hostilities on a grander scale. After all, both sides believe the other is actively supporting resistance and/or terrorist factions that foundationally threaten their authority.
China and Russia choosing to concentrate their relatively scarce international military power in Tajikistan make it clear how deeply both nations care about Tajikistan’s future. These military investments are ultimately an investment into retaining a bulwark and ally in a potentially highly unstable region. Incoming US security support further highlights Tajikistan’s role as ground-zero for containment.
In the broader context, what is playing out between the Taliban and Tajikistan gives the informed observer a glimpse into the mixed messaging when it comes to dealing with the Taliban. Despite all the grand proclamations of fraternal support and economic cooperation, few actually seem to trust them. With conflict brewing under the surface, it’s understandable why.