It’s clear the Kremlin has its doubts about the ability of US and NATO troops to contain Islamic militants in Afghanistan. Thus, it’s not surprising that Russian officials are expressing a desire to redeploy border forces along the Tajik-Afghan frontier. At the same time, it appears that Russia wants international back-up.
Russian troops patrolled the Tajik-Afghan border from the tsarist era until 2005, when Tajik President Imomali Rakhmon told them to leave. At the time, according to US Embassy cables released by WikiLeaks, the president told the US ambassador that he forced the Russians out because they were plotting against him and were suspected of trafficking narcotics. Allegations of drug trafficking remain widespread and, as many observers including a Western diplomat now in Dushanbe asserts; “whoever controls the border, controls the smuggling.”
Last summer, Russian officials began dropping not-so-subtle hints that Moscow wanted to reestablish its border presence. Victor Ivanov, Russia’s anti-narcotics chief, suggested Dushanbe needed help stemming the flow of narcotics, noting that 60 percent of the heroin arriving in Russia first crosses from Afghanistan into Tajikistan. Then, in December, former Moscow envoy Maxim Peshkov claimed that Russian and Tajik officials had discussed the possibility of Moscow taking over security duties there. The Russian Embassy denied Peshkov’s widely reprinted assertion, explaining that the comments are taken out of context.
Since Russian border guards departed -- by some estimates they numbered up to 25,000 troops, and were controlled by the FSB, Russia’s KGB successor -- Moscow has provided several dozen advisors to the Tajik border service. The agreement governing their deployment will expire in March. Tajik and Russian officials tell EurasiaNet.org that, following a round of negotiations in mid-February, the two sides are negotiating a new agreement that is expected to be signed by April. What will be contained in the new agreement remains a subject of speculation.
Tajik officials and experts are resisting Russian pressure, painting their determination to guard their own border in patriotic strokes. “The return of Russian border guards would not fit in with the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Tajikistan,” Ashurboy Imomov, the head of the Law Department at the National Academy of Sciences, declared in a February 17 editorial.
Meanwhile, Russian government sources, mindful of the disastrous decade-long Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, are wary of being drawn into the Afghan conflict again. To hedge against that possibility, they are considering the deployment of a multinational force along the Tajik-Afghan border, an official from the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow, speaking on condition of anonymity because he did not have permission to speak to the media, told EurasiaNet.org.
“Given the instability of the existing regime in Afghanistan, there could emerge the probability of being drawn into a conflict,” the Foreign Ministry official said. “One option Russia is considering is the development of collaboration among the [Tajik] border guards and a special reaction forces of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization [SCO] and ISAF,” he said, referring to the Eurasian security body dominated by Russia and China and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Russia’s 201st Motorized Division -- which most observers estimate has 10,000 troops currently deployed in Tajikistan -- would not be involved, the diplomat stressed.
The odds of Russian troops returning to the border alone are “close to zero,” he added. But Moscow will continue its technical assistance to the Tajik border guards to maintain its presence on the frontier.
Some in Moscow would like to see Russian troops back in full force as both protector and point of pride. A retired Russian intelligence officer who served for years on different parts of the Tajik-Afghan border and, at present, works in a Kremlin-affiliated think tank, believes a return of Russian border guards to Tajikistan would benefit all sides.
“Russia is interested in a military presence in Tajikistan, mainly for satisfying its political ambitions,” the expert told EurasiaNet.org, suggesting a return of the troops could come with economic incentives to Dushanbe. “In recent years, the military and technical cooperation between Russia and Tajikistan has weakened. Five years ago, Russian border troops left Tajikistan; a bit later, the Russian Aluminum Company [RUSAL], which promised Tajikistan huge investments [up to $2 billion] for the completion of construction of the Rogun hydropower plant, also left. The return of the Russian border guards would contribute to both countries’ advantage.”
Rogun, for certain, remains one of Dushanbe’s top development priorities. Though Tajik officials like to frame their insistence on managing the border in terms of patriotism, some residents are eager for any Russian help. One university student complained that Tajik officials find ways to exempt their own sons from duty on the border because of the horrible conditions for conscripts. “If the state is unable to provide its defenders with decent salaries, and if another state – in this case, it is Russia – offers its assistance, it must be accepted with gratitude,” he said.
Konstantin Parshin is a freelance writer based in Tajikistan.