By Jason Wahlang*
In recent months there has been a significant expansion of the Taliban power within Afghanistan. It includes areas once controlled by the Northern Alliance—particularly Badakhshan, Takhar and Panjshir, which the Taliban had largely failed to capture in the 1990s. The international community has maintained a cautious stand vis-à-vis the Taliban, but Tajikistan, which shares a border with Afghanistan, has been critical of the Taliban. In almost every speech, even the ones not related to foreign policy, President Emomali Rahmon referred to the misfortunes of the Afghan people under the Taliban.1 Addressing the UN General Assembly in September 2021, Rahmon stated that the release of thousands of terrorists by the Taliban has put Afghanistan “on the path to becoming a breeding ground for international terrorism”.2
Based on the reminiscences of the Taliban rule of the past, the changed scenario in Afghanistan has been a constant source of security and economic concerns for Tajikistan. It has decisively thrown its weight in support of a resistance movement against the Taliban and has made a clarion call for the establishment of an inclusive government in Afghanistan.3 Acting Taliban deputy prime ministers Abdul Salam Hanafi and Abdul Ghani Baradar have accused Tajikistan of interfering in the internal affairs of Afghanistan.4
Tajikistan was a key supporter of the Northern Alliance in its resistance to the Taliban regime in the 1990s and enjoyed close ties with fellow Tajik leaders from Jamiat-e-Islami, particularly former president Burhanuddin Rabbani and commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, popularly revered as the “Lion of Panjshir”. Recently, in early September, at a time when the Taliban were struggling to extend their control over the Panjshir Valley, Tajikistan posthumously awarded country’s highest honour (Order of Ismoili Somoni) to both Rabbani and Massoud for facilitating and mediating inter-Tajik talks in the period 1993–1996 and making a significant contribution to the peace process in Tajikistan.5 Therefore, Tajikistan’s aversion to dealing with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan should not entirely come as a surprise. Its confrontational stand towards the Taliban can be attributed to the following reasons.
In Afghanistan, where ethnic and tribal disputes are carried over through several generations, the return of a non-inclusive Taliban regime, comprising of majority Pashtuns with a sprinkling of Tajiks and other ethnic groups, has led to growing demand including from Tajikistan for an inclusive and representative government in Kabul.
For much of its recent history, Afghanistan has been ruled by various Pashtun dynasties. In the 1890s, there was a shrill campaign to Pashtunise Afghanistan. With the exception of King Habibullah Kalakani (1929) and former president Burhanuddin Rabbani (1992–2001), both ethnic Tajiks, Pashtuns have dominated Afghanistan’s political history and governance. The emergence of organisations such as Setam-a-Milli (an anti-Pashtun Tajik organisation) and Afghan Millat (a pro-Pashtun organisation) further complicated the inter-ethnic relations in the 1960s.6 Following the Soviet invasion in 1979, the Tajik-dominated Jamiat-e-Islami emerged as one of the most powerful anti-Soviet resistance groups. Led by Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmad Shah Massoud, Jamiat continued to play a significant role in post-Soviet Afghanistan. After the collapse of the Najibullah Government in early 1992, a coalition of mujahideen groups came to power in Kabul. Soon Rabbani took over as the president of Afghanistan. Four years later, with the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in 1996, the Tajik militia led by Massoud emerged as a key component of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. Though Massoud was killed in a suicide attack two days before 9/11, his forces along with Uzbek and Hazara elements of the Northern Alliance provided vital ground support to the US forces in their effort to overthrow the Taliban regime.
Post 9/11, the Tajiks enjoyed a significant share of influence in the governance, economy and politics of the country.7 However, the return of Taliban to power after two decades has led to a loss of influence for the Tajiks, as well as for the Hazaras and the Uzbeks. It is no surprise that the resistance against the Taliban regime first emerged from the Panjshir Valley, a Tajik stronghold, mainly led by former intelligence chief and vice president Amrullah Saleh and Ahmad Massoud, son of late commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. Several of these Tajik leaders have found sanctuaries in Tajikistan from where they seem to be guiding the anti-Taliban resistance front, ostensibly with the tacit support of Tajikistan’s leadership.8
Tajikistan fears that the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan may embolden the radicalised sections within the country to crank a call for ‘jihad’. During the Afghan–Soviet War in the 1980s, many Tajiks had secretly joined the ‘Afghan Jihad’, introducing them to Tajik nationalism and Islamism. Later, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of Tajikistan as an independent state in 1991, these radicalised Tajiks formed the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), an opposition to Emomali Rahmon (then Rahmonov) government. Meanwhile, after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in 1996, Massoud and Rabbani along with other anti-Taliban resistance leaders had formed the Northern Alliance, a Tajik-dominated coalition. The Northern Alliance needed support bases for launching operations which necessitated a fragile truce between the Rahmon Government and the IRP. It led to the end of the civil war in 1997 and Tajikistan joining the resistance against the Taliban.
With the Taliban making a full comeback, there have been reports of Taliban employing the Tajik terror group Jamaat Ansarullah9 as border guards in the Badakhshan Province.10 It is known in Tajikistan for its strident anti-government views. The possibility of Taliban using Ansarullah fighters to fuel unrest in Tajikistan remains a major security concern for Tajikistan. Therefore, faced with security concerns, Tajikistan has taken defensive measures to reinforce its border security. It includes military drills, increased troop deployment in the border areas and anti-terrorism exercises with China and Russia.11 The humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan has also led to a refugee influx in bordering Central Asian states. Tajikistan has taken initiatives to resettle about 1,00,000 Afghan refugees.12 There are, however, concerns about possible infiltration of Ansarullah and pro-Daesh jihadi elements amidst the refugees from Afghanistan.
Tajikistan is a member of both the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). These are organisations with considerable Russian leverage, therefore, any step taken by Tajikistan vis-à-vis the Taliban is most likely to have Russian support. For now, Russia has refused to recognise the Taliban regime until there is an inclusive government in place13 , a stand similar to that of Tajikistan. As a major security provider in the region, Russia has also weighed upon the Taliban to retain its promise of peace with its neighbours, including Tajikistan.14 It has further called upon both Tajikistan and the Taliban to avoid confrontation.15
The Taliban government in Kabul is yet to be formally recognised by any world power. Given Tajikistan’s unease over the developing situation in Afghanistan, the coming months can see a more strident role of Tajikistan. President Rahmon, who had a tough time dealing with the civil war in the 1990s, and has since struggled to keep the militant Islamists under check, would be cautious not to let the past repeat itself. Since Tajikistan is also economically the most fragile country in Central Asia16 , threats from regional and international terrorist networks add to its vulnerability. Rahmon may be using the anti-Taliban sentiments among the Tajiks to stoke up nationalistic fervour to consolidate his position vis-à-vis the Islamists in domestic politics.
While Russia has avoided recognising the Taliban government so far, its diplomatic engagement with the Taliban, especially within the Moscow Format, has only grown with time. Russian recognition of the Taliban government in future—along with China and other Central Asian states—would certainly put to test Tajikistan’s position vis-à-vis the Taliban.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.
*About the author: Mr Jason Wahlang is a Research Analyst in the Europe and Eurasia Centre at MP-IDSA, New Delhi.
Source: This article was published by Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses
- 1.Temur Umarov, “Why Tajikistan is Taking a Stand against the Taliban”, The Moscow Times,26 October 2021.
- 2.“Speech by the President of the Republic of Tajikistan at the General Debates within the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly”, Permanent Mission of the Republic of Tajikistan to the United Nations, 23 September 2021.
- 3.Bruce Pannier, “Tajikistan: The Taliban’s Toughest Critic”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 13 September 2021; and Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury, “Tajikistan Sends Stern Message to Taliban on Minorities in Government”, The Economic Times, 12 September 2021.
- 4.“Taliban, Tajikistan Embroiled in Battle of Words, Saber-rattling”, EurasiaNet, 30 September 2021; and Najibullah Lalzoy, “Tajikistan Interfering in Afghanistan’s Affairs: Mullah Baradar”, The Khaama Press, 28 September 2021.
- 5.See “Signing of Executive Order on Awarding Order of Ismoili Somoni to Former President of Afghanistan Burhanuddin Rabbani” and “Signing of Executive Order on Awarding Order of Ismoili Somoni to Former Minister of Defense of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, National Hero of Afghanistan Ahmad Shah Massoud”, President of the Republic of Tajikistan, 2 September 2021.
- 6.See Frishta Ali, “Afghanistan: The Rise of Ethnic Consciousness Through History”, Leibniz Institute for Social Sciences, 8 July 2015; and Abubakar Siddique, “Sources of Tension in Afghanistan and Pakistan: A Regional Perspective. Afghanistan’s Ethnic Divides”, Barcelona Centre for International Affairs, January 2012.
- 7.Saikiran Kannan, “Why Tajikistan Holds the Key to Future Resistance Against Taliban”, India Today, 17 September 2021.
- 8.See Nastassia Astrasheuskaya, “How Tajikistan Became Hub for Afghanistan’s Resistance”, Financial Times, 29 September 2021.
- 9.Jamaat Ansarullah or ‘Society of Allah’s Soldiers’, known in Afghanistan as ‘Tajik Taliban’, is a terrorist group formed in 2010 by Tajikistan’s opposition commander Amriddin Tabarov. Estimates suggest that the group has about 100–200 members. Since its formation, the organisation has had ties with militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan including the Taliban. See Edward Lemon, “Talking Up Terrorism in Central Asia”, Wilson Centre, No. 38, December 2018; and Mumin Ahmadi, Mullorajab Yusufi and Nigorai Fazliddin, “Taliban Puts Tajik Militants Partially In Charge of Afghanistan’s Northern Border”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 27 July 2021.
- 10.Mumin Ahmadi, Mullorajab Yusufi and Nigorai Fazliddin, “Taliban Puts Tajik Militants Partially In Charge of Afghanistan’s Northern Border”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 27 July 2021.
- 11.Military drills were conducted in August, September and October 2021. Military drills in August were conducted at the Tajikistan–Afghanistan border including Base 201 and involved more than 500 troops. The Peace Mission Drill was conducted in September as part of the SCO initiative for counter-terrorism. In October, three military drills were held by Russia as part of the CSTO initiatives in Harbmaidon and Momirak training fields in Khatlon Province of Tajikistan near the Afghan–Tajik border. The drills were held during 10–23 October and involved more than 4,000 military personnel. See “Joint Exercise of the Armed Forces of the Three Countries Completed in Tajikistan”, Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, 10 August 2021; “Peace Mission-2021 Exercise”, Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, September 2021; and “Russia-Led CSTO to Hold Three Military Drills in Tajikistan this Month”, Asia-Plus Tajikistan, 6 October 2021.
- 12.“Tajikistan Says It’s Ready to Shelter Up to 100,000 Refugees from Afghanistan”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 23 July 2021.
- 13.Pjotr Sauer, “Russian Recognition of Taliban Regime ‘Not on the Table,’ Says Afghanistan’s Pro-Western Ambassador to Moscow”, The Moscow Times, 18 October 2021.
- 14.Christopher Rickleton, “China and Russia Urge Taliban to Keep Security Promises”, The Moscow Times, 17 September 2021.
- 15.“Russian Official Urges Tajikistan, Taliban to Avoid Confrontation”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1 October 2021.
- 16.Natalie Tarbox, “Understanding the Persistent Poverty in Tajikistan”, Borgen Magazine, 1 December 2020.