Decoding Tajikistan’s Critical Approach towards Taliban
Dr Pravesh Kumar Gupta, Research Associate , VIF

The quick rise of the Taliban after the US troops started to withdraw from Afghanistan has left the country’s neighbours in a difficult situation. Pakistan, a long-time ally of the Taliban, was pleased with the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan. China, Iran, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan hoped for some sort of collaboration with the Taliban considering that they could not do much about Afghanistan’s domestic politics. However, Tajik authorities have adopted a different attitude and a more critical one concerning the Taliban’s victory and conduct. The continued and strong opposition of Tajik President Emomali Rahman to Taliban rule in Afghanistan has raised many questions. Some of these questions need to be answered. How has Tajikistan, a small country, posed such strong opposition to the Taliban? How will it affect the Taliban 2.0 regime in Afghanistan? Will Tajikistan be able to get some respectable place for ethnic Tajiks in the Taliban’s rule?

Why is Tajikistan opposing the Taliban?

Tajikistan is a post-Soviet state with Muslim majority population which included secularism as an integral part of its political regime. President Emomali Rahman is the only Soviet era and longest-serving leader in Central Asia. The formation of ethnic identity based on shared historical past was the key aspect of the national building process in Tajikistan. And this was also significant for the consolidation of power and sustainability of the state. Any threat of revival of Islam internally or externally was suppressed by the Tajik government. Taliban is considered as a threat to ethnic Tajik identity in Afghanistan as also a catalyst for the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in Tajikistan; therefore, Dushanbe’s stern response was inevitable.

Domestic Compulsions

It is crucial to recall that President Rahman was Tajikistan’s President when the Taliban controlled most of Afghanistan in the 1990s. Moreover, he backed the Northern Alliance, a group of ethnic Tajiks opposing the earlier Taliban rule in Afghanistan. In 2001, when a US-led military invasion ousted the Taliban, none of the current Central Asian leaders were in office except the Tajik President. Consequently, even after the recent Taliban takeover of Kabul, Tajik authorities continue to offer moral support to ethnic Tajiks in Afghanistan.

Tajikistan shares an ethno-cultural bond with ethnic Tajiks in Afghanistan, who make up roughly a quarter of the population. Consequently, the Tajik population is very sentimental that their Afghan Tajik brothers are deprived of what they deserve by the newly appointed Taliban regime. As a matter of fact, President Rahman’s apparent concern for Tajiks in Afghanistan has gained him some rare public sympathy in Tajikistan. It is crucial as he prepares his eldest son, Rustam Emomali, to succeed him as president.

Tajikistan has posthumously awarded the country's highest civilian honour to renowned anti-Taliban Tajik-origin leader Ahmed Shah Massoud and former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani.1 This has sent a powerful message to the Taliban administration in Kabul about the necessity for an inclusive government.2 Pakistan’s relation with the Taliban is quite evident; therefore, when Pak Foreign Minister Qureshi visited Dushanbe last month, he received a firm massage from Tajik President regarding the New Taliban Government.3 He said that Tajikistan would not recognize Taliban regime until it formed an inclusive government. He also condemned the atrocities of Taliban fighters against the ethnic minorities in Afghanistan.4

With the announcement of the interim Taliban government, which had almost zero minority representation, the Taliban's pledges seem to be fading. This has further fuelled Tajikistan’s critical approach towards the Taliban.

Taliban’s Role in Tajik Civil War

The Taliban’s negative role in the Tajik Civil War is another reason that Tajikistan’s leadership might find it challenging to engage with the Taliban. During Tajikistan’s Civil War, from 1992 to 1997, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) was a key player in a coalition of groups battling the Tajik government. Taliban had supported the Islamic opposition during the Tajik Civil War. Taliban trained Mujahidin were sent to Tajikistan to fight alongside the Islamic forces. The conflict concluded with a peace accord that stipulated that members of the warring opponents would fill 30 percent of positions in government. As a result, IRPT was legalized and became the second-largest party in Tajikistan after Rahman’s People’s Democratic Party of Tajikistan.5

To further weaken President Rahman’s control, the IRPT was also viewed as a significant threat. In September 2015, after years of putting pressure on the IRPT and its leadership while also eliminating its presence in state institutions, the government claimed that an officer in the Defense Ministry had witnessed an attempt to stage a coup by IRPT. The party was swiftly labelled a terrorist organization, and all of its activities were immediately halted in Tajikistan. The IRPT was subsequently banned in Tajikistan in the same year.6

On September 11, Tajikistan’s top Islamic cleric, Saidmukarram Abdulkodirzoda, gave an interview to the official news agency Khovar where he stated that mending relations with the Taliban is out of the question.7 He also said that Islam is about compassion and brotherhood; however, the terrorist group known as the Taliban claims to be an Islamic state and executes women, children, and brothers who are not what Islam teaches.8 Tajikistan’s senior clerics, including Abdulkodirzoda, are appointed and are strictly answerable to the government. Thus his words may be considered as the voice of the Tajik authorities.

Tajikistan’s Advantageous Position

Tajikistan shares a long and porous border with Afghanistan; therefore, it has been most vulnerable to the threats arising from Taliban advances. Dushanbe depends on Russia for its security management through Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and Russia also maintains a military base in Tajikistan. Moreover, security threats from Afghanistan are shared by both Russia and China. As a result, Tajikistan has leveraged its geostrategic position to gain strategic benefits from Russia and China.

This is why Tajik President and his administration are so confident in voicing their temper against the Taliban. Tajikistan’s military, despite its small size, has always received assistance from larger countries. Tajikistan receives most of its weapons from Russia. China has also been expanding its support for its armed forces for more than a decade. China has also offered monetary assistance to Tajikistan to build military outposts along its border.9 These countries had also held multiple military exercises with Tajikistan. While not sending weaponry, the United States, NATO, the European Union, and the OSCE have provided money and equipment for border posts, surveillance equipment, off-road vehicles, and other similar goods.

Both Moscow and Beijing have voiced confidence in their ability to deal with the Taliban. Still, both are concerned about the presence of terrorists from their own countries in Taliban-allied organizations now operating within Afghanistan. Although the Taliban had pledged not to allow the terrorist groups to use Afghan territory to target any third county, these assurances hold inconsequential significance. Therefore, Russia, China and Uzbekistan kept diplomatic channels open with the Taliban while preparing for a spill-over. But these countries have restrained themselves from making any anti-Taliban statement.

Tajikistan’s anti-Taliban remarks were commended internationally though indirectly. Many western reporters have proposed that President Rahman could not have made such remarks without the Russian agreement.10 Russia has an indirect stake in Afghanistan, and to have the upper hand in the ongoing developments in Afghanistan, it is strategic to support Tajikistan’s viewpoint. With this, Russia has also found an opportunity to reassert its strategic influence in Central Asia, which seemed to be fading with the decades-long Chinese intrusion. Conversely, it provided an opportunity for the Tajik President to use the situation for internal use of the issue, bringing him closer to his own people. French President invited Tajik President to Paris to have an exchange of view on Afghanistan.11 Also, some high-level visits from the Western countries to Dushanbe were made concerning the developments in Afghanistan and Tajikistan’s position.

Taliban and Dynamics of Pakistan-Tajikistan Relations

On September 17, 2021, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) held its 21st Summit in Dushanbe. As is evident, the focus was on the developments in Afghanistan and related challenges. On the sidelines of the Summit, Tajikistan and Pakistan held bilateral dialogue. One more time, President Rahman raised the issue of ethnic minorities in Afghanistan with Pakistani PM Imran Khan. He said that peace and security in Afghanistan would be restored once all political and ethnic groups' interests are guaranteed.12 He further stated that one of the essential objectives today is to quickly end the violence and tensions in Panjshir province by proclaiming a ceasefire and opening routes to provide humanitarian aid to the people.13 To this, PM Imran Khan responded by saying that conflict in Panjshir is a common concern. Therefore, Tajikistan should use its influence over Afghan Tajiks, and Pakistan will use its influence over the Taliban to resolve this conflict.14

Pakistan’s objective in Afghanistan is to have a pliant government in Kabul. Now that the Taliban has taken over the country, Islamabad is doing everything possible to help them sustain themselves. There were reports of Pakistan’s airstrikes in Panjshir province that killed many anti-Taliban fighters, including Fahim Dashty, the Anti-Taliban resistance force spokesperson.15 Afghan Ambassador to Dushanbe also blamed Pakistan for these airstrikes. However, Pakistan refuted these reports. There have been widespread protests against Pakistan in different parts of Tajikistan, stimulated by the Tajik government's attitudes towards the Taliban. Tajikistan’s response towards the Taliban is a serious concern for Pakistan as Dushanbe is crucial for Islamabad’s outreach to Central Asia. Therefore, Pak authorities are giving much attention to Tajikistan. However, the Taliban’s behaviour is so unpredictable that even Pakistan cannot guarantee anything except to pose herself as a negotiator.

Conclusion

Multiple factors drive Tajikistan's critical attitude towards the Taliban. First, being the cradle of Tajik identity, the key factor is the moral obligation to support ethnic Tajiks in Afghanistan. Second, it will help Tajik President elevate his stature and make a smooth passage for power transition in favour of his son. Thirdly, foreign aid and assistance to sustain its security infrastructure and humanitarian endeavours will help Tajikistan sustain its economic deficiencies to some extent. These factors altogether have pushed Tajik authorities to adopt this approach. However, it will be interesting to watch how Tajikistan manages to sustain its anti-Taliban stance in the long term. For now, it is more or less visible that Taliban 2.0 is not much different from the Taliban in the 1990s. Therefore, there are bright chances that Tajikistan’s position may get further validation.

References
  1. Dipanjan Roy Chowdhary, “In a message to Taliban, Tajikistan honours Ahmed Shah Massoud”, the economic times, September 4 2021. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international/world-news/in-a-message-to-taliban-tajikistan-honours-ahmed-shah-massoud/articleshow/85916501.cms?from=mdr
  2. Ibid
  3. “Meeting with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi”, Ministry of Foroegn Affairs of Tajikistan, August 26, 2021. https://mfa.tj/en/vienna/view/8483/meeting-with-pakistani-foreign-minister-shah-mahmood-qureshi
  4. Ibid
  5. Mira Patel, “Explained: Why the rise of Taliban has put Tajikistan in a spot”, Indian Express, August 24, 2021. https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-how-the-rise-of-taliban-has-put-tajikistan-in-a-spot-7456846/
  6. “Tajik Islamic Party Banned, Given Deadline To Stop Activities”, RFE/RL's Tajik Service, August 28, 2015 https://www.rferl.org/a/tajik-islamic-party-banned/27213877.html
  7. “Saidmukarram Abdulqodirzoda: Taliban want to tarnish this sacred religion in the name of Islam” Khovar Tajik, September 11, 2021. https://khovar.tj/2021/09/88998saidmukarram-abdul-odirzoda-tolibon-az-nomi-islom-ba-amal-o-kasif-dast-zada-in-dini-mu-addasro-do-dor-kardaniyand/
  8. Ibid.
  9. China to build outposts for Tajik guards on Tajikistan-Afghanistan border, the Reuters, September 26, 2016. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-tajikistan-china-border-idUSKCN11W0T1
  10. Bruce Pannier, “Tajikistan: The Taliban's Toughest Critic”, RFE/Rl Gandhara, September 13, 2021. https://gandhara.rferl.org/a/tajikistan-taliban-relations/31458364.html
  11. “Macron invites Tajik President to visit France”, Ani news, August 26, 2021. https://www.aninews.in/news/world/europe/macron-invites-tajik-president-to-visit-france20210826155336/
  12. Speech at a press conference following talks with the Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan Imran Khan, September 17, 2021. http://www.president.tj/en/node/26549
  13. Ibid
  14. “Speech of the Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan Imran Khan at a press conference following talks with President of the Tajikistan”, Ministry of foreign affairs of Tajikistan, September 17, 2021. https://mfa.tj/en/main/view/8642/speech-of-the-prime-minister-of-the-islamic-republic-of-pakistan-imran-khan-at-a-press-conference-following-talks-with-president-of-the-tajikistan
  15. “Panjshir bombed by Pakistani Air Force drones: Reports”, India Today, September 6 2021. https://www.indiatoday.in/world/story/panjshir-bombed-pakistani-air-force-drones-smart-bombs-reports-1849570-2021-09-06

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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