The militant incursion from Afghanistan that Tajikistan regularly worries about appears to finally have happened. Or has it?
The State Committee for National Security released a statement on March 7 stating that a border post in the southern Khatlon region was attacked over the weekend by a nine-man armed group led by an Afghan citizen called Mirafal valadi (son of) Arbob Sherafzal. Officials said the clash at the Panj crossing occurred as the gunmen were seeking to covertly filter into Tajikistan.
One of the alleged militants, named as Mullo Fashiddin valadi Kurbon, and one border guard were killed in the shootout, the statement said.
The security services say they have identified all the attackers and are taking all measures possible to capture or neutralize them.
RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, cited the head of Afghanistan’s Imam Sahib district, where the militants are alleged to have come from, as saying the incursion was work of Taliban militants. Mirafal is a well-known local drug trafficker who has pledged allegiance to the Taliban, the official said.
The security situation in Imam Sahib indubitably appears critical. The Afghan official cited by Ozodi said 30 percent of the district is in Taliban hands and that the entire border is under their control.
That combination of details appears to suggest that the militants’ attempts to cross the Tajik border are primarily motivated by financial interests, however, and not aimed at sowing unrest inside Tajikistan as such.
A spokesman for the Tajik border service declined to comment on the attackers’ affiliations. He also would not confirm reports that they were drug traffickers.
This being Tajikistan, however, exotic theories are already circulating among local political observers about alleged Russian involvement in the episode. There is no evidence to support such speculation, but the thinking is that Moscow is seeking to apply pressure on Dushanbe to force them into conceding border defense responsibilities to Russian troops. Rumors that Russia wishes to revert to the pre-2005 arrangement, whereby it was responsible for border security, surface on a regular basis.
Were Russia to publicly admit to such ambitions, it would likely claim that it wished to enhance the region’s defenses against putative militant offensives. Cynics would suggest, however, that all parties involved are eager to gain control over the vast narcotics-trafficking pipeline.
Another recent perceived form of pressure over the Tajik government by Moscow came with the withdrawal of the 149th regiment of the 201st Russian army base from the town of Kulyab late last year. A further redeployment of Russian troops out of another southern town, Qurghonteppa, is expected this year.
Both these tactical relocations appear to have caused some consternation in Tajikistan, particularly as Kulyab is only around 35 kilometers from the Afghan border as the crow flies. The city is separated from Panj by a two-hour drive.
Kremlin-friendly media has in recent times taking to running pieces markedly critical of President Emomali Rahmon’s government.
An article published the Regnum website, provocatively headlined “Tajikistan’s Dictatorship Destroys Everything Russian But Russian Bayonets and Bread,” comments at length about what it argues is a rising cult of personality devoted to Rahmon and the surge in Tajik nationalism. The same website also ran a piece suggesting that Tajikistan was deviously attempting to play Russia and China off against one another. And an article run by Russian state news agency RIA-Novosti carries extensive comments by a Russian expert on the region speculating that Rahmon’s efforts to amend the Constitution are motivated by his sense of insecurity.
Some have also taken umbrage at what they see as attempts by Russian media to smear Tajikistan by linking it to the recent grisly murder of a child in Moscow by an Uzbek women. Some Russian reports have suggested that the woman, who has confessed to the crime, came under the sway of a Tajik associate who “inspired terrorist ideas within her.”
Add to all this the unconfirmed reports in December that Russian President Vladimir Putin supposedly met secretly with Taliban chief Akhtar Mansour while visiting Russian troops in Tajikistan in September and the scene is well set for febrile theorizing.
The distrust has deep roots.
An intriguing account that appeared in Asia-Plus newspaper in 2010 cites veterans of Tajikistan’s civil war as claiming that while fighting was going on, Russian troops did nothing to prevent opposition militants moving forward and backward across the Afghan border.
One United Tajik Opposition field commander, Mirzohudja Nizomov, who became a senior border official after the 1997 peace agreement, told Asia-Plus of instances in which the Russians appeared to be actively assisting them.
“When the government began mounting major military offensives against us in Gharm, in the spring of 1993, UTO commanders often crossed the Tajik-Afghan border to draw on troops and weapons in Afghanistan, and not once did Russian border guards create any serious obstacles,” Nizomov recalled.
Nizomov said that on another occasion, in 1995, UTO fighters were encircled by Russian forces with helicopter support in the high-altitude Darvoz district, which shares a long border with Afghanistan.
“I thought at the time this was curtains for us. But after some time, the Russians opened a corridor and we passed into Tajikistan without a single shot fired, without losing even one of the fighters or weapons we brought over from Afghanistan,” he told Asia-Plus.
Bringing matters forward to today, business on the border appears brisk, although official accounts are highly selective with details.
Border guard service spokesman Muhammad Ulugkhodzhayev said on March 7 that another four cross-border incursions were registered over the previous week:
- On February 29, border guards at an unspecified post noted an individual arriving from Afghanistan to drop off a consignment on the Tajik side of the border. The consignment was later found to consist of 25.6 kilograms of hashish.
- In another incident two nights later, gunfire was exchanged after a group of people attempting to cross the border illegally refused to surrender to border guards. Following that armed confrontation, Tajik border officials claim to have found 4 kilograms of hashish and the body of an Afghan drug traffickers.
- On March 5, troops from the Shuroobod unit, in Khatlon province, intercepted yet another 34 kilograms consignment of various drugs.
- And on March 7, an Afghan citizen was killed in a shootout as he tried to smuggle 4 kilograms of hashish across the border in the vicinity of Khorog, the capital of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous District.