Evolving Situation in Afghanistan: Challenges and Prospects for India-Tajikistan Cooperation
Amb Yogendra Kumar
The Setting

The events in Afghanistan have come full circle since 18 October, 2001 when the US Special Forces were inserted from across the Central Asian borders. Whilst it might appear as history repeating itself, the circumstances have changed so radically that the future events will not unfold in an imitation of the ones set off with that crossing. If the dynamic of military conflict in 2001 is kept in mind, the “rapid collapse” of the Ghani government should not appear so surprising; recalling that military dynamic can also be a pointer towards the unfolding scenario in Afghanistan in the near to the medium term. The Taliban loss of Mazar-e-Sharif on 9 November was followed by the collapse of the Taliban front lines in the country and Northern Alliance entry into Kabul on 12 November. This military dynamic in Afghanistan is more like a mind game where the contending sides judge as to whether that particular military phase is favourable to them or not; as at that time, the abandonment of front-line by the losing side is achieved by means of psychological domination, bribes, as well as assurances of physical safety to its leaders. The leaders and the foot soldiers of the defeated side retreat licking their wounds and waiting for a propitious opportunity to generate a counter military momentum. This dynamic played out in the same manner in 2021 as well which also means that the Taliban capture of Kabul and large part of the country does not end the cycle of military conflict but that it might be an indeterminate pause before the next cycle begins, causing even bleaker socio-political dystopia and ravaged population.

Like the last 20 years of a US-supported political system in Afghanistan where social, economic, cultural and ethnic divisions only widened, the doubt about its new rulers is whether they are so configured internally as to be able to close these chasms – and how much time they have, given their own make up, to accomplish it. Afghanistan’s troubled history, especially of the last nearly half-century, indicates that it is not an easy task for any leadership especially as there are several external actors who have stakes in the Afghan affairs for the spill-over effects in either direction.

Since that 2001 crossing, the situation has become even more complicated because of the ongoing geopolitical churns. Before the beginning of the half-century of military conflict in Afghanistan, the per capita income in Afghanistan was higher than that of India and of China. Now, Afghanistan is a desperately poor country with its industry and agriculture devastated, its ethnic community fabric completely ruptured, coronavirus pandemic creating havoc, and nearly 1/3rd of its population facing unprecedented starvation; between 1950-2010, the average temperature increased by 1.8°C at twice the global average due to climate change[1] resulting in natural disasters like flooding and drought at the same time accompanied by desertification and destruction of topsoil. The task of governance, a semblance of normal economic activity to generate sufficient government revenues for its programmes, and the environmental sustainability of economic revival will be daunting tasks for any government. The Taliban leaders do not have the confidence of its technocratic class which is in a desperate flight out and many of them are under UN sanctions. A landlocked country, its integration into the wider international order – or, participation in today’s globalised world – is not easy to achieve especially as the Taliban’s own political philosophy is not so conducive.

The Taliban leaders face a serious trust deficit amongst its neighbours and the wider international community as well as domestically; the situation is the exact opposite of the agreement on a political framework on Afghanistan at the Bonn conference. Despite their assurances to bridge this trust deficit, their conduct remains under close scrutiny everywhere; their engagement with the Doha intra-Afghan dialogue was manipulative with a view to forcibly capture power and to engineer a chaotic exit of the incumbent President. Indeed, their entire approach to this dialogue process has raised questions as to the nature of power balance within their organisational structure, including its military as well as the links with the other terrorist groups and Pakistan’s ISI their disclaimers notwithstanding.

Since the takeover of power in Kabul, the announcement of the new government by the Taliban leadership was considerably delayed. The government has been announced as “interim” and, by their own admission, it has not been fully constituted. There is also no timetable about a regular government established under a legally valid process acceptable to the wider Afghan society and the international community, including its supporters in the region. There is even lack of clarity about its foreign and domestic policies.

Unfolding Scenario in Afghanistan

Taliban control over the entire country is not fully consolidated. The Panjshir Valley remains fluid despite their claims. The Tajik commanders, like Ahmed Masood, Amarulla Saleh, and the former Defence Minister Bismillah Khan still remain at large issuing statements on the social media, including the formation of a ‘government-in-exile’; Panjshir’s geographical configuration, stretching from the outskirts of Kabul to northern Afghanistan, makes it both strategic and difficult to control. Having influence in northern Afghanistan, non-Panjshir Tajik commanders, like Ata Noor, and Uzbek commander, Rashid Dostum, are outside the country to retain their bargaining leverage for their potential for stirring up trouble at an opportune time. By exercising their leverage with the Taliban, the Iranians have been able to relocate the former Herat Governor, Ismail Khan to Iran after his brief detention by the Taliban following their capture of the city. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, although in Kabul, and his ‘Hizb-e-Islami’ party have their own base in the Kunar region. The other significant ethnic group, the Shia Hazaras, also have their own anxieties given their past troubled relations with the overwhelmingly Sunni Taliban and in whom the Iranians have considerable interest; an Iranian-supported, battle hardened ‘Fatemiyoun’ group is also present in central Afghanistan inhabited by this community.

In a sense, the constituents of the erstwhile Northern Alliance exist even though they remain very weak and scattered but waiting for their time just like the Taliban did. With that possibility in view, the Taliban militia captured early the key northern Afghanistan cities on the borders of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan since the latter had become the main source of supplies to the Panjshir Valley during the Northern Alliance’s successful military campaign until their ouster in 2001.

The Taliban’s internal power struggle became evident as soon as the Ghani government collapsed. The Taliban leaders who posed for the ‘photo-op’ at the empty presidential palace were not the ones taking over the security of the capital. Mulla Baradar’s media projection as the next leader of the Taliban government, based on his claim as the head of the negotiating team at Doha, did not yield the expected government position; as the deputy leader in the new government, his profile is low and overwhelmingly out of sight. The position of Mulla Haibatulla, the leader of the Taliban, remains unclear despite some untenable projections that he occupies a position similar to that of Iran’s Supreme Leader: not making any public appearance despite the Taliban capture of power, he has issued only one statement about upholding international laws not in conflict with Islamic laws and the Afghan values. Mulla Hasan Akhund, “acting Prime Minister” being no longer described as “President” (without indicating the current “President” if any), is not being projected by the Taliban media as someone visibly in charge and running government affairs in the regime’s current infancy.

Being dominated by Sunni Pashtuns from Afghanistan’s southern and eastern regions, the Taliban are riven by power struggle between two dominant military groups and between their military and political wings. Western Afghanistan, including Kandahar, is under the militia controlled by Mullah Yakub, the son of the organisation’s founder Mullah Omar, who has been responsible for turning the military tide by his capture of Helmand. The eastern region is under Siraj Haqqani, the head of autonomous, UN-sanctioned Haqqani Network, who controls the military/security situation in Kabul; it is his men who disarmed the security detail of Hamid Karzai and provide ‘protection’ to both him and Dr Abdullah. His links with the foreign and other local Jihadi groups have been documented in the shadowy Af-Pak region; end of August, Dr Amin-ul-Huq, the former security chief of bin Laden, was publicly welcomed in Nangarhar being escorted by the Taliban, including Haqqani’s own Badri units, even as we note that the US drone strike against ISIS-K operatives also took place in the same area around the same time in retaliation against the suicide bombing at the Kabul airport.

These early signs of intensifying power struggle in the new regime indicate that the new regime is unlikely to be stable with a clear policy outlook; the haste on the part of several UN-sanctioned Taleban figures to capture government positions, despite the obvious discomfort of foreign representatives to engage with them, is a pointer towards growing politico-security instability with all the foreseeable, foreboding consequences. The lack of an “inclusive” government has already been noted by observers in respect of other regions, ethnic groups, and minorities especially women. Their deliberately ambiguous statements about the future policy of the Taliban regime in respect of human rights, freedom of expression, women’s rights especially about education and work, religious and cultural rights of the minorities, freedom of travel and emigration et cetera reflect this internal organisational incoherence.

Despite the Taliban leadership’s assurances about the Afghanistan territory not being allowed to be used by the large number of terrorist groups, all countries, including this leadership’s somewhat sympathetic neighbours, are still assessing its capacity to carry them out as well as its real intent. There have been credible reports about these terrorist groups participating in key Taliban campaigns against the previous government. Most recently, the Pakistani Chief of Army Staff has himself stated, following Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) attacks, that the Taliban are expected to prevent such attacks from across the border. In an interview given to a CNN reporter in August[2], an ISIS-K operative active in the Kabul area, said that his organisation had no difficulty in operating in the city and penetrating Taleban checkpoints; he took the reporter in his car on a drive through the city. The possibility of these terrorist groups laying hands on the sophisticated weaponry, left behind by the departing US forces, is quite real and a matter of concern to all of Afghanistan’s neighbours.

Clouding the regime stability outlook are the rapidly deteriorating socio-economic conditions in Afghanistan whilst the new leadership is embarked on the uneasy path of consolidating power. The UN Secretary General[3] has warned of a looming ‘humanitarian catastrophe’ with nearly half the population needing urgent assistance to survive; the situation will worsen with severe drought and coming harsh winter. The heavily aid-dependent economy is in a freefall with the blocking of World Bank assistance and US seizure of the country’s currency reserves leading to the banks in Afghanistan running out of cash. The food prices are on a steep rise with a large number of internally displaced Afghans. There have been street protests against the new rulers against the stoppage of salary payments to civil servants and suppression of the rights of the Afghan citizens accreted over 20 years. Such pressures, arising from awareness of a fading opportunity, are likely to widen the internal fissures and fault lines within the Taliban leadership as different figures jostle for power. It would also give renewed hope to the regime opponents just as the early failings of the Karzai government did for the ousted Taliban.

External Environment

Notwithstanding the sudden rush of triumphalism in various quarters, the entire world is concerned about the developments there because of the country’s recent history; the inherent fragility of the emergent political arrangement, beset with urgent critical challenges domestically, is unlikely to abate in the absence of a wider, international consensus. The swiftness of the Taliban takeover of the capital has resulted in many of its external backers losing leverage over its leadership. The early Pakistani mediation attempts for a more “inclusive” government have manifestly failed and the DG ISI’s hasty visit to Kabul on the eve of announcement of the “interim” government has harmed the latter’s international image besides being unproductive and inept. Pakistan’s diplomacy is geared towards encouraging enhanced engagement by foreign countries with the new regime; accusing India of “obstructionism”, it has excluded it from its outreach spotlighting its fundamental approach towards Afghanistan.

A certain geopolitical configuration is evident amongst countries viewing developments there in terms of loss of US influence: this also opens the possibility of reassessment of regional balance of power from their perspective. Russia, China, Iran and, even, Pakistan are relieved at the US military departure. But, concerns about developments in their respective “backyard” inject a note of suspicion about the other country’s intentions. Both Pakistan and China see an opportunity for Afghanistan’s inclusion into China’s geo-economic – and, hence, geopolitical – orbit which the Taliban leadership presently looks at favourably to get out of its isolation which Russia will not view with equanimity; Chinese-Pakistan military liaison has acquired strategic dimension with reported Pakistani army participation in highly restricted, even for Chinese officials, Joint Staff Department within China's Central Military Commission[4] and at the headquarters[5] of Western Theatre Command (Xinjiang) and of Southern Theatre Command and at the Ministry of State Security with the first’s area of responsibility stretching from Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan up to India.

In both the Pakistani and Chinese diplomatic outreach, there has been no attempt to ascertain India's approach. Iran’s suspicions have been expressed in its foreign office condemnation of the Taliban’s siege of the Panjshir Valley where, according to former Iranian President Ahmadinejad[6], Pakistan has been directly engaged in operations. Qatar, which hosted the Doha talks, has been most proactive, followed by Turkey and Pakistan, to open up commercial air operations, hoping thereby that a modicum of wider international cooperation with the Taleban regime might follow. But, all countries, without exception, have concerns about the regime policies especially about international terrorism and, even, a fear about a possible state collapse yet again. The Taliban attempt to seek some kind of legitimacy through invitations to Pakistan, China, Russia, Iran, Qatar and Turkey for its installation ceremony was a non-starter with none of the invitees taking up the offer.

All countries are also putting Pakistan under pressure to exert stronger influence on the Taliban to square with the international community’s expectations; Pakistan is urging them, through extensive diplomatic consultations, to stabilise the regime as a way of moderating its behaviour. Whilst the Taliban leaders themselves have reached out to India on account of its regional influence, all other countries across the geopolitical ‘divide’, with the exception of Pakistan and China, are also reaching out to India for sharing assessments about the regime’s potential stability and acceptable conduct: these standards were laid out in the UNSC resolution number 2593 (30 August 2021) held under India’s chairmanship. A critical dilemma concerns delivery of a significantly scaled up humanitarian assistance, in quantity and geographical coverage, and the manner of its delivery without according to the regime any semblance of legitimacy. It is a difficult choice, including for India with its profoundly benign image amongst all ethnic groups, being made confoundingly complicated with the ongoing power struggle, leadership policy confusion, and under-resourced administrative machinery – a looming regional and global disaster in more ways than one!

Central Asia, including Tajikistan

Central Asia has radically changed, geopolitically and otherwise, since the time of entry of the first US soldier into Afghanistan in 2001. The US does not have a presence although EU countries remain the region’s biggest economic partner. Russia casts itself as a ‘net security provider’ for Central Asia although China is assiduously developing its own security/military footprint. This represents a more nuanced approach about the two countries’ own national security concerns as also towards regional security; it also represents the contradictions between their geopolitical objectives and perceived security threats from Taliban’s rise as well as vis-à-vis the Central Asia’s regional interests. The Central Asian countries want to resume their trade and economic cooperation despite its future outlook but are not in a position to render any substantial aid.

Regional Multilateral Organisations

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) comprises the Central Asian countries (except Turkmenistan) plus Russia, China, India and Pakistan and has an SCO Contact Group on Afghanistan which aims to create a kind of cordon sanitaire on the Afghan-Central Asia border apart from assisting in the country’s socio-economic development. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), comprising Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, has also been convened to assess the security situation arising from the Taliban takeover; the organisation’s Secretary General said in a statement on 16 September that it will hold several large-scale military exercises in Tajikistan in October. [7] These organisations, at different levels, were convened almost simultaneously in Tajik capital Dushanbe; the combined hybrid summit meeting of the two organisations were addressed in virtual mode by Prime Minister Modi (17 September) where he emphasised recognition of the “new system” by “global community collectively and after due thought”. These two organisations, having several other countries as observers/dialogue partners, are focussing on the recent Afghanistan developments where the lead in consultative process is being taken by Russia and China. Tajik President and other senior figures have been vocal about Taliban policies, especially in Panjshir. SCO’s Dushanbe summit declaration outlines special initiatives for addressing both terrorism and other security threats.

Tajik political analysts, possibly reflecting opinion in some circles, speculate that Chinese President’s decision and consequential Russian President decision to stay away from the Dushanbe summit reflects their divergence in the approach to the Taliban regime with the former (China) being more accommodative[8]. Tajik media quoted Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov that “no one is in hurry to recognise Taliban” and how they implement their promises is under watch.

Despite SCO envisaging a regional role under Chapter VIII of the UN Charter, it is geopolitically significant that CSTO, an entirely Russia-dominated organisation, is putting ‘boots on the ground’ in response to the Taliban takeover. Mid-October, 3 CSTO exercises in proximity to the Tajik-Afghan border, namely, reconnaissance, logistics, and collective rapid reaction forces, have been announced. CSTO Secretary General has also stated that “aggravation of situation” [9] on the border will be responded to collectively by the organisation.

Russia and China in Central Asia and on Afghanistan Border

Russia has a military presence in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan which has been significantly strengthened even in the pre-Taliban period on a scale disproportionate to the requirement of the possible conflict spill-over from Afghanistan. Following the Taliban capture of posts on Tajikistan and Uzbekistan borders, Russia moved its tanks close to the Tajik-Afghan border indicating a regional signal about its heightened military profile. Russian border guards were withdrawn from the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border in 2005 whilst the reports of China-Tajikistan intelligence cooperation involving the construction of 11 border posts (and a training centre) have emerged.
[10] Tajikistan has also put 20,000 troops on the border and is considering a national call-up. There have been unprecedented joint Russian-Tajik-Uzbek military exercises on the Tajik-Afghan border as well as Russian assurances of providing military hardware. Without having any military alliance, joint Uzbek-Russian military exercises have taken place for the first time near Termez on the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan border in addition to Russian assurances for military hardware supplies.

The Chinese have a small but well-equipped military contingent in the Gorno-Badakhshan region (Shaimak) of Tajikistan; they have also been carrying out joint anti-terrorism exercises in this region around Ishkashim. The Chinese also had an arrangement with the previous Afghan government for joint construction of border post and training of Afghan border guards on the China-Afghan border in the Wakhan Corridor. It hardly bears mentioning that the Chinese military infrastructure in Xinjiang, in close proximity to the Central Asian-Afghanistan border is highly developed. A Russian analyst Yevgeny Pogrebnyak has commented that “Russian commanders” have not only noted but taken steps to counter unwarranted and unwanted Chinese military expansion in the region[11].

In August 2021 at the height of the conflict in Afghanistan following the Taliban capture of its northern provinces, Russia and China held large-scale anti-terrorism military exercises in Xinjiang region to achieve greater interoperability in terms of their military equipment and transport. Despite a certain schadenfreude at the messy US exit, the Chinese are concerned and hoping that the Taliban would, somehow, be able to prevent militant Uighurs from slipping into Xinjiang across the Afghanistan-China border or the usual route across Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan: “Chinese observers believe it is unlikely that terrorist groups will enter Xinjiang through Wakhan corridor. They are more likely to threaten China through Central Asia countries” [12]. There is, thus, Chinese military/intelligence presence in POK, the Wakhan Corridor, Tajikistan-Afghanistan border and increasing direct security presence in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan which reflect their deepening strategic stakes in these two countries even if it signifies the dilution of security and economic ‘division of function’ between Russia and China in the Central Asian region. This increasingly uneasy modus vivendi between the two big powers is accompanied by an unprecedented military/security arms lock between China and Pakistan; this developing strategic trend would have implications for Afghanistan as well.

It also bears mentioning that, according to unnamed ex-Afghan military official and Tajik border guard officer, the Taliban have relocated
[13] the Uighur terrorist fighters of the Turkistan Islamic Party from Badakhshan to the Nangarhar province (also an ISIS stronghold), a gesture which is unlikely to satisfy the Chinese because of its proximity to the CPEC projects in Pakistan.

Tajikistan

The alarm in Tajikistan is quite palpable even though the Chinese media is trying to calm nerves down there. During the capture of northern Afghanistan cities by the Taliban, voices of known Tajik militants were recorded, including some Gorno-Badakhshan Tajiks: the current Tajik leadership has carried out military operations in the Ishkashim area in Gorno-Badakhshan and in its mountainous Garm region a few years ago where residual anti-government sentiment still lingers nearly quarter-century after the Tajik Civil War (May 1992–June 1997). A Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Tajik Service (RFE/RL) report[14], dated 25 September, mentions that a Tajikistan militant, Mohammed Sharifov aka “Arsalon” belonging to a 10-year old Ansarullo terrorist group, has been put in charge of the border districts of Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province and several militants, armed with US weapons[15], are gathering to probe possible ingress routes in the Gorno-Badakhshan and Darvoz regions; the Taliban have officially denied it but the report quotes local sources in confirmation. In recent times, there have been reports about the power struggle between central Tajik leadership and local power brokers (“Authorities”), anchored in local nationalism and smuggling networks, in the Gorno-Badakhshan region[16]: besides their small base, the Chinese have conducted joint anti-terrorism exercises with Tajikistan there and local residents state that the number of Chinese soldiers there is quite large even as they keep a low profile. As Tajikistan enters a delicate leadership transition phase, President Rakhmon’s concerns are manifest in his visit to the region after the SCO/CSTO summits.

As a Taliban (Tajik) military commander from the Afghan Badakhshan, Qari Fasihuddin, was leading the Panjshir Valley operations, the Tajik President conferred posthumously the country’s highest award to late Ahmed Shah Massoud whose tomb was desecrated in the main Panjshir city of Bazarak just then; several leaders of the ‘National Resistance Front’, led by his son, are reported to be in Tajikistan. Tajik Foreign Minister, at his virtual meeting with his US, Indian and other counterparts (8 September), stated that Taliban used “aviation with the help of third countries to attack Panjshir where ethnic Tajiks were murdered.” [17] Russian foreign office advised[18] both Tajikistan and the Taliban regime (30 September) to settle differences amicably amidst reports of both sides bringing troops on their border with Taleban asserting as a normal deployment whilst Tajikistan remains silent; the ISIS-claimed blast in the Shia mosque in Kunduz (8 October) was, however, ascribed by the local Taliban official to inadequate security as a result of the movement of the Taliban troops to the Tajik border. As the US Secretary of Defence expressed concern about Tajikistan disallowing defected Afghan pilots to leave, the Taliban “acting” Deputy Prime Minister, Mullah Baradar stated (26 September), “Tajikistan interferes in our affairs, for every action there is a reaction” [19]. Similar strong words have been uttered by other Taliban leaders as well and, as of now, there has been no movement on the understanding between Tajik President and Pakistan Prime Minister (17 September) for negotiations between the Taliban and the Tajik opposition leaders.

Quite manifestly, the evolving security scenario in northern Afghanistan and adjoining regions in Tajikistan, partly a fallout of the recent phase of conflict in Afghanistan and a leadership transition in Tajikistan, is beginning to draw attention of other powers, both ‘resident’ and ‘non-resident’. Russia is offering to help construct border posts on Tajikistan-Afghanistan border and US is also lending a helping hand.

Uzbekistan

Whilst its resources are better, dilemmas bedevil the Uzbek leadership too. Influential ethnic Uzbek commanders, like Rashid Dostum, had considerable links with the Uzbekistan leadership and their control in the adjacent regions in Afghanistan was seen as reassuring: now, he is a potential partner in anti-Taliban counter mobilisation. Its short border is well guarded but its concern is about anti-government elements sneaking through the longer Tajik-Afghan border; the triumphalism of the Islamic elements following the Taliban takeover would certainly be noted by the government. The Russian participation in its defence as well as its own in Tajikistan and Uzbek President’s participation in the CSTO summit, at the instance of President Putin, shows that the strategic calculations are changing there too. Uzbekistan also received a large number of ethnic Uzbeks, including soldiers and aviators with their hardware, taking refuge in the country. Many of them have also been allowed by the Uzbek government to leave for US and other places. Although officially denied, the US has been interested in some kind of basing arrangement in the country for surveillance over Afghanistan.

It has maintained contacts with the Taliban regime. At the SCO summit, the Uzbek President advocated unfreezing of Afghanistan’s assets in foreign banks. Termez is a major trade hub for Afghanistan and Central Asia and Uzbekistan would be a major beneficiary once the financial condition of the new Kabul regime improves as also from the supply of electricity. The Uzbek Foreign Minister flew[20] into Kabul (7 October) for discussions with the Taliban leadership about the resumption of these links with the latter promising security to Uzbek officials and citizens working on the Afghanistan side of the border. Taliban officials also appreciated Uzbek President’s advocacy of the unfreezing of the previous Afghan government’s assets abroad.

Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan has had a tense relationship with the Taliban over the security of its border; it also strengthened its border defence once the Taliban approached their side of the border. The President attended the SCO summit as a non-member/dialogue partner where he expressed keenness to coordinate anti-terrorism responses. It has had a dialogue relationship with the Taliban for a very long time and continues with it since the takeover. It did not close the border trade after the Taliban capture of the border post and expects to benefit from it. It also has a long-standing interest in the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) which it hopes can be pursued more vigourously following the regime change in Kabul.

Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan has also had quite high level dialogue with the Taliban regime; the Kyrgyz Deputy Chairman, Security Council, travelled to Kabul to meet the new leadership. Yet, its concerns about exfiltration of terrorism and radicalism from Afghanistan and political instability are real. It also has concerns about the fate of Kyrgyz people in the Wakhan Corridor who have suffered at the hands of the Taliban; the Tajik government, however, did not accede to the Kyrgyz government request to facilitate the transit of the fleeing Kyrgyz through Tajikistan. Its military relationship with Russia has become even stronger after the Taliban takeover. At the Dushanbe summits, it wanted coordination amongst the members to prevent any spill-over from Afghanistan, including migration. The Chinese have their own security concerns due to Kyrgyzstan’s political instability and its location on the exfiltration route from Afghanistan of the Uighur radicals.

Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan has also favoured dialogue with the “new authorities” in Afghanistan to understand their real intentions; the Kazakh ambassador in Kabul has already met the “acting” Foreign Minister to discuss bilateral trade. It hopes to benefit from the reopening of trade, especially wheat/wheat flour exports via Termez with Afghanistan. The Kazakh President strongly supported the CSTO position about no foreign bases in the territory of the member states as also about non-admission of refugees from Afghanistan.

Possibilities for India-Tajikistan Cooperation in the Current Scenario

Tajikistan’s strategic importance for India remains undiminished due to its location and its own transformed geopolitical context. This is despite its attenuated influence in an Afghanistan under the Taliban; yet, contingent upon the future conduct of the present Taliban leadership and uncertain Pushtun control over northern Afghanistan, the remnants of the old Northern Alliance under a new leadership can always make a bid for power if the Taleban control falters sometime in the future. Tajikistan’s anxieties about both the current Afghan regime’s conduct and possible turmoil in its proximate regions remain strong, especially in the context of its own domestic development, an incipient leadership transition, and security challenges. Conscious of its own recent history and the disturbed situation south of the border, it needs to take even greater recourse to external balancing now that the Russian and the Chinese military/security footprints are growing in the country.

India does not have the same strategic heft as either of the two powers but Tajikistan realises the value of relationship with India, as it does with other regional and extra-regional powers, including US and the EU. As there has been recent media comment on Ayni, it may be useful to quote Ambassador Abhyankar, “although India had refurbished the airfield under a bilateral agreement with Tajikistan, Russia still holds the rights over civil aviation space in Central Asia. Only Russian cooperation will make it possible for India to use the airfield.” [21] Yet, this purported Tajik-Russian position does not comport with the establishment of the Chinese military base, including a heliport, in Gorno-Badakhshan the information about which was shared post facto by the Chinese with the Russians through a think-tank network. [22] It needs mentioning that this airfield was used by the Indian Air Force for the evacuation of Indian and Afghan nationals around the time of the Taliban takeover of Kabul.

As the situation remains quite fluid in Afghanistan clouded by an uncertain international outlook for the Taliban regime, our approach to India-Tajikistan relationship may have multiple dimensions, some of which would require wider international collaboration. There is scope for the use of the Ayni airfield even for non-civilian purposes given a degree of strategic convergence between India, Tajikistan, and Russia in the context of the security uncertainties in Afghanistan. Like the other powers – be they Russia, China, US et cetera – India can also offer its niche assistance in strengthening the Tajik-Afghan border, a step which would be welcome to other Central Asian countries as well for reasons explained earlier. To prevent a potential regional cascade of radicalism spurred by current jihadist triumphalism and - more seriously - increased political fragility in Tajikistan and other Central Asian countries, the Indian diplomacy could be geared to strengthening socio-economic circumstances in the country to attenuate radical impulses there. In the context of developments in Afghanistan, their enduring links with Afghan leaders of Tajik and other non-Pashtun ethnicity could be tapped even whilst India’s own links are quite strong with them and the ethnic groups across the Afghan demographic diversity: the country’s biggest asset in Afghanistan is the wide popularity enjoyed by India in the population there. Depending upon the evolution of the situation in northern Afghanistan, there may be possibility of cross-border delivery of humanitarian assistance as well. Given the linguistic commonality, joint India-Tajik media/cultural “products” would also have a salutary effect on an ideologically charged regional environment.

Prime Minister’s unprecedented address to the combined SCO-CSTO summit reflects a changing direction in our strategic approach to Afghanistan and Central Asia, including Tajikistan. External Affairs Minister, after his call on the Tajik President (16 September), tweeted that the two countries are “strong partners in fighting terrorism, fundamentalism and radicalism.” This year, there have been several visits of the senior figures in the two governments as well as on the sidelines of other multilateral events outside. The bilateral relationship is an active one covering the entire spectrum ranging from military, security, political, economic and technical, cultural spheres.

Concluding Remarks

The larger context – nay, paradigm – is the threat of Afghanistan collapsing into a geo-strategic black hole, a desperately failed state battered by all manner of imported ‘political models’, not least being the Pakistan-exported one; one “model” not tried, indeed, is the indigenous one, that is, Gaffar Khan’s transformative political mobilisation in the Af-Pak region based on the traditional Afghan ‘loya jirga’ system. The Tajik anxieties, undoubtedly greater than other Central Asian countries, reflect their own vulnerabilities due to a very long border crisscrossed by smuggling and radical networks. A cascade triggered by the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan will ripple through Central Asia via Tajikistan – and, of course, in all other directions leading to more ‘forward’ postures of external stakeholder countries and to the “regionalisation of conflict”, as the UN Secretary General has described this syndrome[23]; that could be yet another tragic cycle with a widening gyre. The intrinsic contradictions of such ‘forward’ postures are likely to make a fluid situation increasingly volatile; Tajikistan, especially Gorno-Badakhshan, is also in India’s strategy proximity.

The current geopolitical line-up is being perceived by some to be a stabilising factor for Afghanistan and conducive for stability in Southwest Asia and the larger Central Asia, including Xinjiang. History of Afghanistan disproves such facile affirmations even more so in the absence of a massive humanitarian assistance and technocratic support for effective governance.

Prime Minister Modi has said repeatedly that India will provide such assistance along with other countries. India’s own assistance is urgently needed to prevent a catastrophe. India is undertaking – and needs to – further scaling up its engagement across the board with Tajikistan as well to allay the leadership’s anxieties and join other countries in stemming any spill over from Afghanistan in these uncertain times for that region.

References

[1]Jariel Arvin, ‘How inaction on climate change can worsen the crisis in Afghanistan’, (Vox, September 15, 2021)
[2]CNN, ‘Clarissa Ward's chilling interview with ISIS-K leader’ (31 August, 2021)
[3]Al Jazeera, ‘UN chief warns of “humanitarian catastrophe” in Afghanistan’ (31 August 2021)
[4]Paul D. Shinkman, ‘New China-Pakistan Axis Undermines U.S. in Afghanistan, Strengthens Uighur Persecution’ (U.S. News & World Report, 6 August 2020)
[5]Amrita Nayak Dutta, ‘Pakistan's Army officers deployed in Chinese PLA's Western and Southern Theatre Command: Intel reports’ (First Post, 1 October 2021)
[6]WION, ‘EXCLUSIVE: Pakistan will face consequences of its actions in Afghanistan, warns ex-Iran president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’ (7 September 2021)
[7] AFP, 'Russia-led bloc to hold military drills on Afghanistan border', The Hindu, September 17, 2021
[8]Asia Plus, ‘The game of Beijing and Moscow. Why Putin did not attend the SCO and CSTO summits?’ (17 September 2021)
[9]Asia Plus, ‘CSTO Secretary General: in case of aggravation of the situation on the border, the CSTO member states will provide assistance to Tajikistan’ (15 September 2021)
[10]Catherine Putz, 'China in Tajikistan: new report claims Chinese troops patrol large swaths of Afghan-Tajik border' (The Diplomat, June 18, 2019)
[11]Paul Goble, ‘Russian Military Seeking to Counter Growing Chinese Role in Central Asia’ (Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 88, June 18, 2020)
[12] Staff reporters, ‘How big a security threat does China face as Taliban draws closer to border with Xinjiang?’ (Global Times, July 13, 2021)
[13] Reid Standish, ' Taliban 'Removing' Uyghur Militants From Afghanistan's Border With China' (RFE/RL's Tajik Service, 5 October 2021)
[14]RFE/RL's Tajik Service, ‘Tajik Authorities Concerned About Taliban Plots To Infiltrate From Afghanistan’ (25 September 2021)
[15]Farangis Najibullah and Mumin Ahmadi, ‘ Taliban Said To Have Rearmed Tajik Militants And Moved Uyghur Fighters From Chinese Border’ (RFE/RL's Tajik Service, 4 October 2021)
[16]International Crisis Group (ICG), ‘Rivals for Authority in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan’ (14 March 2018)
[17]Foreign Minister of Tajikistan, ‘Participation of the Minister of Foreign Affairs in a virtual meeting on Afghanistan’ (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Tajikistan, 8 September 2021)
[18] Reuters, 'Russia urges calm between ally Tajikistan, Afghanistan' (30 September 2021)
[19]ANI, ‘Taliban accuse Tajikistan of interfering in Afghanistan's internal affairs’ (26 September 2021)
[20]Eurasianet, ‘Uzbekistan foreign minister jets into Afghanistan for talks’ (8 November 2021)
[21] Rajendra M Abhyankar, Indian Diplomacy: Beyond Strategic Autonomy', Oxford University Press (New Delhi, 2018), p. 290
[22] Stephen Blank, ‘China's Military Base in Tajikistan: What Does it Mean?’ (The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 18 April 2019). See also ICG report (n. 14): ‘Russian sources indicate that the growing Chinese presence in Central Asia is a source of sensitivity for Moscow (Crisis Group interview, Russian official, Bishkek, February 2016) …. A Russian expert with extensive experience in Tajikistan expressed indignation that Chinese officials would not have informed their opposite numbers in Moscow of plans for an installation in GBAO. The Chinese, he noted, are Russia’s “strategic allies [in Central Asia but] they do not always tell us what they are doing. They are very self-confident” (Crisis Group interview, Dushanbe, October 2017)’.
[23] UN Secretary General, ‘Report of the Secretary General on the Work of the Organisation' (New York: United Nations Document no. A/73/1, General Assembly of Official Records, 73rd Session 2018)

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