In a sign of how close the unrest in Afghanistan has crept to Tajikistan, two stray shells flew across the border during a recent bout of fighting, forcing Kabul to issue a blushing apology.
Interfax news agency cited a source in Tajikistan’s military as saying the 82-millimeter shells fell in the Farkhor district, which is situated along a wide section of the Panj River, a water course that straddles the frontier.
“Happily, nobody was injured and we have no objections to raise with Afghanistan. We support their fight to restore stability to the long-suffering land of Afghanistan,” the source told Interfax. No date was specified for when the incident took place.
Dushanbe-based newspaper Asia-Plus quoted Afghan media, which in turn cited an unnamed and high-ranking army source, as saying that security operations have successfully expunged Taliban forces from villages in the border area.
That will provide only scant comfort to Dushanbe, which has been in a state of intense anxiety for some months over the trouble rumbling to the south.
In May, Tajikistan’s Defense Ministry reacted to the worsening situation in Afghanistan’s Kunduz Province by ordering the formation of a secondary defensive line along the border. An official quoted by Asia-Plus said that additional forces and equipment had been dispatched to the southern Khatlon province to make up the numbers.
In an indication of the level of concern, President Emomali Rahmon ordered that reservists be drafted into reinforcing the security presence.
“We are in constant contact with the Afghan military and our allies in the (Collective Security Treaty Organization) — Tajikistan is now in a position to prevent any escalation in tension in territories along the border,” the military official told Asia-Plus at the time.
Afghan forces have also been struggling to battle Taliban militants in another near-border area — the far more remote Badakhshan province.
In late July, the Taliban reportedly captured a military base in the village of Teergaran in what appeared to underscore anew the limitations of Afghan forces.
TOLONews news service cited a police chief for the Badakhshan province as saying the base was surrendered to the militants following negotiations with the police and local forces holed up there.
While there are not strong reasons to believe the violence in Badakhshan has any obvious potential for spilling over into Tajikistan, the developments do point to a broader pattern that is unsettling for agitated Central Asian military planners.
When Afghanistan’s Defense Ministry announced on July 26 that security forces were embarking on major military operations in the north, it only confirmed what has long been obvious. Trouble is spreading away from the areas most commonly associated with the Taliban insurgency.
Tajikistan is taking security assistance from anybody offering it.
Russia’s military has a large presence, much of it in the south, near the border. The 201st Motorized Rifle Division is based in three facilities around Tajikistan: near Dushanbe, Kulyob, and Qurghon-Teppa. Its roughly 7,000 troops make it Russia's foreign largest military presence.
The United States too is providing assistance, albeit ostensibly as part of efforts to stem the flow of illegal narcotics pouring into the country from Afghanistan.
Russian-language media reports, meanwhile, are not providing any reassurances.
A recent analytical piece penned by Gafur Usmon in CentrAsia.ru — a website that tracks a typically pro-Russian and commensurately anti-Western line — is deeply caustic about Tajikistan’s ability to secure its own borders.
“What can Tajikistan answer with? For all intents and purposes, nothing. It’s armed forces are ranked 81st in the Global Firepower Index. According to the index, Tajikistan has 37 tanks, 46 other armored vehicles, 10 units of artillery, three multiple rocket launching systems, as well as 25 combat, 15 transportation and four training airplanes, and 20 helicopters, of which six are attack helicopters,” Usmon wrote.
Usmonov concludes that Dushanbe’s only saving grace is the Moscow-led CSTO alliance, which only recently carried out a major training exercise in Tajikistan.
Another feverish editorial, written by Igor Molotov for Russkaya Planeta, warns of an increasing and ominous U.S. interest in Tajikistan. The evidence offered for that are the few dozen million dollars — a relatively paltry amount by U.S. standards — spent by Washington on security assistance.
“In exchange for such generous contributions to the economy, the White House could suggest military cooperation through the positioning of military bases and other installations in the country. Over the span of 10 years, many U.S. politicians have very seriously advanced the idea of substituting Russian military bases in Tajikistan for American ones,” Molotov wrote.
Given the mood of paranoia currently prevailing in Moscow, it is not hard to imagine the suspicions aired in Molotov’s piece echo those among Russia’s military establishment.
One pundit quoted by Molotov, a member of Russia’s quasi-governmental Civic Chamber, Georgy Fyodorov, suggests the U.S. plans to drag Moscow into conflict in Central Asia with a view to sowing instability in Russia itself.
“In the words of the politician, Tajikistan is one of the most vulnerable spots in this respect, so the fact that there is a build-up of militants on the border of Afghanistan should surprise nobody,” Molotov wrote.
The thesis is sparse with convincing facts, but it is interesting for at least two reasons.
Molotov suggests that Rahmon’s regime itself may end up victim of U.S. machinations. Moscow has been busy for many years in successfully planting conspiracy theories throughout Central Asia as a device for weakening Washington’s sway governments there. It can be taken as read that should Tajikistan be gripped by any kind of political unrest, Russian media will be quick to identify the U.S. as the culprit.
Perhaps more worryingly though, if the paranoia evinced by Molotov’s piece does indeed in any way reflect thinking in Russian government circles, it follows that whatever Russian-U.S. security cooperation exists over Afghan-related issues is in free-fall.
If Central Asian governments’ worst fears are any anywhere near accurate — and that is questionable — this can only be bad news.