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

Tajiks Talk Up Afghan Spillover Risks

Government think-tank says 8,000 militants are operating in parts of Afghanistan near to the Tajik frontier.
By Romish Romin
  • Defending Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan presents huge challenges, not least because of the steep terrain. This river marks the frontier. (Photo: Citt/Flickr)
    Defending Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan presents huge challenges, not least because of the steep terrain. This river marks the frontier. (Photo: Citt/Flickr)

Experts in Tajikistan are warning of an imminent threat from Islamic militants based just over the border in Afghanistan.

In recent months, the Taleban have gained ground in Kunduz and Badakhshan, the two Afghan provinces that border on Tajikistan. In April, they came close to taking Faizabad, the administrative centre of Kunduz.

The head of the Centre for Strategic Studies, Khudoberdi Kholiknazar, gave a press conference on July 6 at which he outlined current concerns about the situation. The centre operates under the president’s office, so Kholiknazar was reflecting the official view.

“At the beginning of 2014, there were about 800, but now there are around 8,000,” he said, referring to militants in areas along the border with Tajikistan.

In comments quoted by the Asia Plus news agency, Kholiqnazar said the threat from the Taleban was compounded by the emergence of Islamic State forces in Afghanistan.

With naming the source of his information, Kholiknazar said Islamic State commanders in Iraq had sent some 700 million US dollars to Afghanistan to fund the creation of new cells.

“It’s a blessing the Taleban don’t recognise them. Islamic State and the Taleban are in conflict in all provinces of Afghanistan,” he said. “Let them slaughter each other – both groups are hostile to us.”

Kholiqnazar said the Tajik government was reinforcing patrols along the border, while the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) would provide additional support in case of emergency. In May, 2,500 troops from members of the CSTO, a regional defence grouping led by Russia, held counter-insurgency exercises in Tajikistan.

The build-up of insurgents in regions close to Tajikistan is concerning given that security forces are thinly spread along the 1,400 kilometre frontier, much of it passing through difficult mountainous terrain. Two major bridges at Nizhny Panj and Bandar Sherkhon are vital to trade with Afghanistan and Pakistan, adding to the need for stability.

Afghan and Tajik border guards have traded accusations of failed responses. In one case, the Afghans accused their Tajik counterparts of allowing Islamic State units to use a forested area to mount surprise attacks. The Tajiks replied that the area in question was in fact part of Afghanistan.

“If Kunduz were to fall, the scenario for neighbouring states could be terrifying,” former soldier Parviz Rasulov told IWPR. “Having taken Kunduz and Badakhshan, the Taleban could raise the Islamic State banner instead of their own. Straight away, the Islamic Caliphate would be on Tajikistan’s border.”

As well as the Taleban and Islamic State, experts point to the presence of two Central Asia-linked guerrilla groups, one of them the Islamic State of Uzbekistan (IMU), in existence for a decade and a half and reportedly relocating from northwest Pakistan to Afghanistan. The other is Jamaat Ansarullah, said to be a specifically Tajik offshoot of the IMU.

Jamaat Ansarullah’s head is Amriddin Tabarov, aka Domullo Amriddin, a veteran of Tajikistan’s 1992-97 civil war and now believed to be in Pakistan.

A law-enforcement source told IWPR that Tabarov had more than 1,000 fighters under his command, most of them from the former Soviet states and all of them trained in camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Amrulloh Sobir, a conflict analyst and a former senior officer in military intelligence, says Tabarov has supporters within Tajikistan, meaning that his groups would find it especially easy to slip into the country and operate there.

“Ansarullah, the IMU and al-Qaeda are different sides of the same coin. Their common goal is to establish an Islamic caliphate throughout the world,” Sobir said. “The IMU and Ansarullah have permanent, active headquarters in Tajikistan and other former Soviet republics. Since 2001, these bases have been recruiting young people to undergo military training and then wait for the right moment.”

Sobir believes Jamaat Ansarullah was behind an attack on an army convoy in the Rasht valley, a bomb blast at police headquarters in Khujand, and a prisoner escape from a security service jail, all in 2010.

“In 2010, they showed what they’re capable of doing in Tajikistan,” Sobir said. “That shows that the organisation has emissaries who never sleep, day or night, and who are always active.”

Increasing fears of incursion come as Tajikistan’s government tries to curb what it sees are signs of Islamic radicalism. Its critics say the clampdown is entirely misguided and liable to be counterproductive. By harassing men with beards and women wearing Islamic clothing, the authorities could be compounding resentments about inequality, poverty and injustice. And by driving the Islamic Rebirth Party (IRP) out of existence by depriving it of its two parliamentary seats and hounding members to get them to leave the party, they could leave a whole constituency disenfranchised.

“By adopting a collision course and pursuing wrong-headed initiatives, the government has inadvertently paved the way for a convergence between Ansarullah, vengeful IRP members and a resentful population,” a political analyst who asked not to be named told IWPR. “The symbols and slogans of Ansorulloh are Islamic, which mirrors the IRP to some extent.

“A single match is all it would take to light the flame.”

Sobir agreed that Jamaat Ansarullah had support in Takistan among the dissatisfied, the unemployed, and others.

“No force in contemporary society in Tajikistan has the capacity to unify people in the way that Islam does. Ansarullah is taking advantage of this and using religion as a unifying force to advance its own interests.”

Fears about what is going on neighbouring Afghanistan only add to official worries about the hundreds of people who have gone off to fight in Syria.

Speaking on June 5, Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda said the authorities had identified 412 Tajikistan nationals who were in Syria, although about 70 of them had been killed.

The government has been trying to discourage people from travelling to Syria as well as breaking up recruitment networks. (See Countering Extremism in Tajikistan on this.)

But people are still going. In late April, Colonel Gulmurod Halimov, head of the police’s OMON force went missing, only to appear in video footage apparently made in Syria. He declared allegiance to Islamic State and promised to bring jihad to Tajikistan,

While many people in Tajikistan are repelled at Islamic State’s brutality, a figure like Halimov could win a degree of sympathy and support.

“Although many see him as a traitor and terrorist, his name will soon become widely known among the masses. They’ll name their children after him,” a political analyst who did not want to be named said. “Halimov looks charismatic, he has challenged the authorities, and he’s shown himself to be a fighter for Islamic ideals.”

Romish Romin is the pseudonym of a journalist in Tajikistan.


More IWPR's Global Voices