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The Significance of the Tajik-Afghan Border

7 MINS READMay 22, 2013 | 14:00 GMT
The Significance of the Tajik-Afghan Border
(STR/AFP/Getty Images)
People walk along a bridge at the Afghan-Tajik border.

Recent developments show that the Tajik-Afghan border will be increasingly important for political and security reasons as U.S. and NATO forces disengage from combat operations in Afghanistan. Russia's National Anti-Terrorism Committee said May 20 that the country's Federal Security Service foiled a militant attack in Moscow that was planned by Russian citizens trained in the Afghan-Pakistani border region. Four days earlier, Russian Ambassador to Afghanistan Andrey Avetisyan said in an interview that Russia is considering redeploying guards to the Afghan-Tajik border, citing the growing threat of terrorism and narcotics flows. Securing the border will be crucial in preventing Afghan instability from spreading into Central Asia and Russia, and Moscow's role in patrolling this border will be particularly important.

At a length of roughly 1,300 kilometers (810 miles), the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan has long been difficult to control. Both countries are extremely mountainous, and the rugged, porous border is hard to patrol extensively, particularly given the limited security resources available to Kabul and Dushanbe. The border also does not neatly correspond to demographic distribution, since northern Afghanistan has a sizable number of Tajiks. Indeed, Afghanistan's Tajik population (8.2 million, or 27 percent of the country's total population, making Tajiks the country's largest minority) is greater than the population of Tajikistan (6.2 million).

Moreover, Tajikistan and Afghanistan have experienced significant violence and political volatility in the past two decades. Shortly after its independence from the Soviet Union, Tajikistan fell into a civil war lasting from 1992 to 1997 that claimed an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 lives and displaced more than 1 million people. These events followed the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, which led to a rise in radical Islamist and militant movements in Afghanistan and Tajikistan such as the Afghan Taliban and the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan. Afghanistan also went through a civil war after the Soviet withdrawal, contributing to the Taliban's rise.

Afghanistan and Tajikistan

Afghanistan and Tajikistan

Substantial cross-border activity between Afghanistan and Tajikistan occurred during this period. Some rebels on the Afghan side supported opposition forces in the Tajik civil war, including Islamists and various clans from eastern Tajikistan, with weapons and other materiel. In Afghanistan, Tajiks formed a substantial part of the coalition of minorities known as the Northern Alliance, which opposed Taliban rule in the country. An ethnic Tajik named Ahmad Shah Massoud served as one of the group's main leaders. Russia, which had patrolled the Tajik side of the border since czarist and Soviet days, had difficulties stopping the frequent militant migrations across the border during the tumultuous 1990s.

Violence and militant flows in the border area decreased after the U.S. and NATO invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. The United States gave assistance to Tajikistan and other Central Asian countries in tackling their domestic militancy problems in exchange for logistical support, such as basing rights and the Northern Distribution Network, for the war effort in Afghanistan. Within Afghanistan, the Western presence drew rebel and militant forces away from the border to other parts of Afghanistan — mainly the Taliban strongholds of Kandahar and Helmand provinces, as well as the Afghan-Pakistani border area where al Qaeda and other militants sought refuge. The United States and its allies also had support from many Northern Alliance warlords.

Narcotics and Russia's Concerns

However, even as fighting in Tajikistan stopped and transnational militant flows decreased, the border remained an active area, particularly for the movement of narcotics. Afghanistan is a major producer of opium, marijuana and other drugs, and Central Asia is the largest transit route for these drugs going into Russia and on to Europe. Drug abuse is a major national security issue in Russia, and the drawdown of the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force has all but eliminated serious efforts to eradicate narcotics production. Even more worrisome is the Afghan economy's anticipated reliance on opium following the decrease in international funding after the military drawdown is completed in 2014. 

The Tajik border is on a favored route for narcotics trafficking, given that it is more mountainous and difficult to patrol than Afghanistan's borders with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The heavy flow of narcotics, while dangerous, is also lucrative in an otherwise economically depressed region. This is one of the main reasons why the Tajik government, which has become more stable and consolidated under President Emomali Rakhmon, had the Tajik military take control of border patrols and security from the Russians in 2005.

Since then, Moscow has repeatedly requested to return to the border. Even though Russia has a significant military presence in Tajikistan, with three military bases in the country hosting some 7,000 Russian troops, the Afghan-Tajik border is extremely important from a logistical standpoint, given that it is on the front lines of narcotics and militant movement into Central Asia. This is especially a concern for Russia, since the International Security Assistance Force plans to continue drawing down its forces through the end of 2014, leaving a small residual presence. Although Russian advisers to Tajik border guards are currently on the border, Moscow wants to be in position to respond to security risks and a possible surge in narcotics trafficking when the withdrawal occurs. Afghanistan's opium production is expected to increase from 75 percent of global production to 90 percent, and the Afghan government will increasingly rely on, and participate in, the flow of drugs to compensate for the decrease in foreign funding and to take advantage of the diminished U.S. and NATO monitoring of the issue. 

The Tajik border is on a favored route for narcotics trafficking, given that it is more mountainous and difficult to patrol than Afghanistan's borders with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Security and Political Considerations

There are several reasons why the U.S. and NATO withdrawal will not necessarily lead to an immediate explosion of violence or militancy across the border as many expect. First, the United States will not leave a complete security vacuum; Afghan President Hamid Karzai has suggested the United States could keep up to nine military bases in the country after 2014. Second, another power struggle within Afghanistan is expected. While this will increase violence in the country, it will likely concentrate activity in the Taliban strongholds in the south and along the Afghan-Pakistani border, which is even more porous and difficult to patrol than the Afghan-Tajik border. 

Third, over the years the governments and security forces in Central Asia have built up stronger (though still flawed) capabilities to tackle militancy and extremism within their borders, meaning that controlling a measured increase in militancy is not beyond the abilities of countries like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Finally, the Afghan National Security Force will continue to receive funding, along with support from a residual assistance force, from the United States after 2014.

This is not to say that all will be calm in Central Asia following the U.S. and NATO withdrawal and that the Tajik-Afghan border will be quiet. Geography and history have shown why border security will be difficult to achieve. Of more immediate interest to Russia and Tajikistan are political issues. Tajikistan's resistance to Russia's requests to return to the border is one of many sources of diplomatic friction between Moscow and Dushanbe, as are delays in Tajikistan's ratification of Russia's military base lease extension.

However, Russia's financial and security assistance to Tajikistan remains crucial for Rakhmon, who faces an important presidential election later this year — one in which the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan is contesting. Despite their squabbles, Russia and Tajikistan tend to eventually settle their disputes over strategic issues, particularly those regarding security. Therefore, the two sides are likely to come to some sort of compromise on the border issue in anticipation of a more challenging security environment in the coming years. 

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