Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Tajiks to Retain Control of Afghan Frontier

No self-respecting nation can allow someone else to guard its borders, whatever ambitions Moscow might have, analysts say.
By Nargis Hamrabaeva
  • The Tajik authorities do not want to see the Russian flag flying on their southern border with Afghanistan, as it did until 2005. (Photo: Safarbek Soliev/UNDP)
    The Tajik authorities do not want to see the Russian flag flying on their southern border with Afghanistan, as it did until 2005. (Photo: Safarbek Soliev/UNDP)

Reacting to reports that Moscow wants to post troops along the border with Afghanistan, analysts in Tajikistan say the country should not cede this aspect of its sovereignty to anyone, but instead build security partnerships with a wide range of countries. 

While they accept that Moscow has legitimate interests in the region, analysts say that on past evidence, a Russian troop presence would not make a difference to stemming the flow of drugs crossing the border.

Russian forces patrolled the Tajik-Afghan border until 2005, when they were replaced by Tajikistan’s own units. A possible return of Russian border guards has been the subject of heated debate for several months now as the two countries draft a new frontier security agreement, due to be signed when Russian president Dmitry Medvedev visits Dushanbe later in September

Afghanistan is the world’s main source of heroin, and consignments heading for Russia often come via the porous, poorly-guarded border with Tajikistan. A further concern for both Moscow and the Central Asian states is the projected withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan in 2014, and fears that this could lead to rising conflict in the country, possibly spilling over to neighbouring countries.

Talk of a Russian return dates from around July 2010, when Russia’s counter-narcotics chief Viktor Ivanov hinted that Moscow would be prepared to supply troops to help stem the flow of drugs, while in December, Russian diplomat Maxim Peshkov said talks on the issue were ongoing with Tajikistan. Last month, the speaker of the Russian parliament, Boris Gryzlov, said in a newspaper article that if Tajikistan did not want Moscow to look after the border, its citizens should no longer be able to come to Russia without visas.

Tajik officials including Foreign Minister Hamrokhon Zarifi have dismissed suggestions that a Russian redeployment is even on the agenda, saying that the agreement signed in September will remain substantially the same as the current one that is due to expire, which envisages military advisers plus technical assistance from Russia.

The debate has been complicated by suggestions that each country is using the border issue as leverage to pressure the other on a range of political and economic issues. (See Tajiks Seek Best Deal in Defence Talks With Moscow and Tajik Migrants Hostage to Ties With Moscow.)

The 1,300-kilometre frontier presents many security challenges. The western section follows the course of the river Panj, which is easily crossed by boat, while the eastern part runs through mountainous and often inaccessible territory. In an IWPR report (See Thin Green Line Defends Tajik-Afghan Frontier) from the southeastern province of Badakhshan earlier this year, Murodhuseyn Aliyorov, who heads the local branch of Tajikistan’s Drug Control Agency, said the Ishkashim district was still a magnet for Afghan heroin smugglers, because the rugged terrain was so difficult to patrol.

An officer with Tajikistan’s border guards service, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IWPR that the frontier had never been secure, including in the period prior to 2005 when Russian forces were in charge.

Abdullo Kurbonov, a security affairs expert in Dushanbe, said the Russians had only exerted control over the sectors where they were stationed.

“The border guards principally defended themselves, their posts and the [official] crossing-points, shooting at everything that moved during the night,” he said.

During and after the 1992-97 civil war in Tajikistan, it was almost impossible to stop drug smuggling, Kurbonov said, adding, “It was only towards the end of 2001, when all the large criminal groups had been eliminated, that attempts were made to cut at least the major drug trafficking routes. And it has to be said that these efforts failed.”

“Drugs went over the border regardless of what was happening in the country, and the profits trickled down to everyone [including] the Russian border guards on the frontier and the Tajik border troops who formed the second line of defence. Many of them were involved in trafficking themselves,” he said.

The analysts in Tajikistan interviewed for this report were unanimous in rejecting a return of Russian forces.

Leading political analyst Parviz Mullojonov said it was not boots on the ground that Tajikistan was short of.

“Russia is insisting on completely regaining control of the border, which cannot be acceptable to Tajikistan from the point of view of either sovereignty or practical common sense. Why bring in personnel from outside when we have our own? If we are short of them, we can train more,” he said. “What the border needs is not foreign soldiers, but financial investment and modern equipment.”

Another expert, Abdughani Mamadazimov, said retaining control was essential for Tajikistan’s international reputation.

“Many foreign analysts and politicians describe Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan as failed states. The return of Russian frontier guards would really confirm that conclusion,” he said. “A state that’s capable of guarding its own borders will easily be able to dismiss that kind of assertion.”

The border guards officer interviewed by IWPR pointed out that the situation had changed since 2005.

“The United States, NATO and the European Unions promised technical and financial assistance in refitting the border, and they’re doing just that,” he said. “A significant proportion of posts and the administrative buildings of two border units have been refurbished, there’s a border guards college functioning in Dushanbe, and at the Americans’ insistence, Tajikistan has adopted a border defence strategy that does not envisage [an active role] for other states.”

He noted that when China was negotiating the demarcation of its border with eastern Tajikistan, it insisted it would deal only with Dushanbe on the matter. Western military and political officials involved in Afghanistan after 2001 also made it clear they preferred talking to the Tajiks alone rather than Russia as well.

Mullojonov agreed on the importance of nurturing a range of security relationships rather than being wholly dependent on Moscow. But that did not mean turning away from the latter long-standing relationship, he said, pointing out that “Russia can remain the lead partner for technical assistance and expertise. At the same time, others including he EU and US can enhance border protection with the right equipment, military hardware and funding”.

Nargis Hamrabaeva is an IWPR-trained journalist in Tajikistan.