Geopolitical Importance Rising, As Afghan War Winds Down


BMI View: Tajikistan's geopolitical importance is set to rise, as the West prepares to withdraw the majority of its military forces from Afghanistan in 2014. After that date, Tajikistan will become a frontline state in the battle against Islamist militancy in Central Asia. Overall, we expect Russia to remain the dominant external power in Tajikistan, but Dushanbe will increasingly seek to balance its relations with Moscow by developing stronger ties with other countries, such as the US and especially China.

BMI View: Tajikistan's geopolitical importance is set to rise, as the West prepares to withdraw the majority of its military forces from Afghanistan in 2014. After that date, Tajikistan will become a frontline state in the battle against Islamist militancy in Central Asia. Overall, we expect Russia to remain the dominant external power in Tajikistan, but Dushanbe will increasingly seek to balance its relations with Moscow by developing stronger ties with other countries, such as the US and especially China.

Tajikistan's geopolitical importance is set to rise, as NATO countries, led by the US, prepare to withdraw the majority of their 130,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Although we see a high possibility that the US will retain a substantial military presence in Afghanistan for many more years, Afghan security forces will become responsible for their country's security. Given that NATO countries have had significant problems in training and maintaining the quality of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP), there are concerns that once NATO leaves, the ANA's war with the Taliban will intensify, or that the Afghan Taliban will take over large parts of the country. Either outcome would provide a boost for Islamist militancy in the region. Given that Tajikistan shares a 1,400km border with Afghanistan, that around 27% of Afghanistan's population are ethnic Tajiks, and that Tajikistan faces militant Islamist threats of its own, the country's future will become increasingly important for the fate of Central Asia. Below, we list the most salient aspects of Tajikistan's position in Central Asia.

Tajikistan is watching Afghanistan warily: Tajikistan has a secular-nationalist government, which has been led by President Emomali Rakhmon since 1992. Between 1992 and 1997, the country was ravaged by civil war, during which tens of thousands of people were killed. A power-sharing deal between nationalist, democratic, and Islamist forces ended the war, but left Tajikistan weak and unstable. In addition, the porosity of borders in this part of Central Asia has meant that Islamist militants can move reasonably easily between Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and parts of Uzbekistan. In recent years, Tajik government forces have clashed with Islamist militants, and the Rakhmon administration fears that a full Taliban victory in Afghanistan would strengthen militancy in Tajikistan itself, potentially plunging that country into civil war once again.

Another reason that Tajikistan cannot help but be affected by events in Afghanistan is the fact that around 27% of Afghanistan's population are ethnic Tajiks. The Afghan Taliban is a mainly Pashtun movement (Pashtuns make up around 42% of Afghanistan's population). When the Taliban emerged in the 1990s and began taking over Afghanistan, the country's Tajiks played a leading role in the opposition Northern Alliance, which received backing from Russia, India, and Iran. The Tajiks remain highly influential in the Afghan National Army's command structure. If the Taliban sweeps across Afghanistan after 2014, then the West and Russia are likely to reinforce the ANA in the north of Afghanistan, most probably with logistical support from Tajikistan.

Russia will remain Tajikistan's most important ally: Tajikistan hosts Russia's biggest external military deployment, of around 7,000 troops in three main locations - Dushanbe, Qurghonteppa, and Kulyab. These forces are there to protect Tajikistan from external threats, because its own armed forces are too weak. Tajikistan is also a member of the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and Russo-Chinese led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Although it is not stated openly, one of the main purposes of both organisations is to limit Western (i.e. US) influence in Central Asia. Neither Moscow nor Beijing wants to see Washington expand its presence in their perceived 'back yard'. The Kremlin is keen to preserve Moscow's influence in Central Asia, and Tajikistan is highly dependent on Russia for its own security. This creates a confluence of interests between the two.

Aside from maintaining its strength in old-fashioned geopolitical rivalry, Russia has two further interests in Tajikstan:

Firstly, it sees the need to contain Islamist militancy, which has already spread to the North Caucasus, where the Russian military has been fighting insurgencies for almost 20 years, on and off. Although Moscow has brought the once-breakaway republic of Chechnya under its control, the nearby republics of Ingushetia, Dagestan, and Kabardino-Balkaria continue to see militant attacks, with no end in sight. An upsurge in militancy in Central Asia could augment the insurgency in the North Caucasus, as fighters in the former pass on weapons and experience to rebels in the latter (and vice-versa).

Secondly, Tajikistan and Central Asia constitute key corridors for the transportation of drugs from Afghanistan to Russia. Given that Russia is struggling to contain drug problems among its citizenry, which are weakening the labour force and driving up medical costs, Moscow feels the need to fight the drug trade at the points of production and transportation rather than at the points of distribution and consumption.

Against this backdrop, Russia is negotiating with Tajikistan terms for the extension of its military presence, which expires on January 1, 2014. Russia wants its bases' leases renewed for 49 years (in line with similar agreements with Armenia and Ukraine), and to be exempt from rent payments. Tajikistan wants to limit the extension to 10 years, and charge a rumoured US$250mn in annual rent. Both sides have been talking tough, with Russia threatening to withdraw unilaterally from Tajikistan, and the latter exploring the hosting of US bases. Russia has a strong lever to play, since it hosts 1.5mn Tajik guest workers whose remittances make up around 40% of Tajikistan's GDP. Nonetheless, we believe that the two sides will reach a compromise. Russia does not want to abandon its facilities in Tajikistan, and Dushanbe probably regards the US as too fickle a long-term security partner, one that might also intervene in its internal affairs.

The United States will seek a closer relationship with Tajikistan: At present, the US is withdrawing most of its 90,000 troops from Afghanistan by 2014, but is negotiating with Kabul the terms of a long-term military presence that could amount to many thousands of troops. These forces would officially be intended to fight Islamist militancy in Afghanistan, but Russia and China fear that the US is seeking to contain their influence in Central Asia. Therefore, Moscow and Beijing are suspicious of any American moves to enhance its presence in the region. The US first deployed military forces in Central Asia in the immediate aftermath of the '9/11' terror attacks, for the purposes of invading Afghanistan and overthrowing the Taliban. Since that time, the US has been forced to leave its base in Uzbekistan after it criticised the government's massacre of hundreds of protestors in the city of Andijan in 2005. The US retained its base in Kyrgyzstan, but is aware of the precariousness of this arrangement, given that Kyrgyzstan has had three changes of government over the past decade and periodically comes under Russian pressure to evict the Americans or seeks to raise base rents. The US is therefore exploring alternative basing in Central Asia, and Tajikistan is one possible candidate. For its part, Tajikistan has an interest in seeming interested in hosting an American base, so that Russia might be swayed to offer Dushanbe more concessions.

China's interests in Tajikistan - and Central Asia - are growing: China has been seeking to increase its influence in Central Asia since the 1990s, as evidenced by the fact that it was a founding member of the Shanghai Five - the precursor of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation - in 1996. Beijing shares two main interests with Moscow: minimising US influence in the region, and curbing the spread of Islamist militancy. As regards the first objective, China resents the heavy US military presence in Japan and South Korea, and its close military relationships with the Philippines, Taiwan, and Thailand, all of which Beijing feels is aimed at containing the People's Republic itself. These concerns have been heightened by the US's publicly announced 'pivot' towards the Asia-Pacific region in 2011. A permanent US military presence in Central Asia, coupled with America's deepening ties with India, would thus reinforce China's sense of being geopolitically encircled.

China also views Islamist militancy as a threat. China's westernmost province of Xinjiang has a substantial Muslim population (the Uighurs), and shares a tiny border with Afghanistan and a longer border with Tajikistan. Beijing fears that Islamist militancy will spread among the Uighurs, leading to more ethnic unrest or even terrorist attacks. Xinjiang saw violent clashes between Uighurs and ethnic Han Chinese in 2009, and the Chinese government is also concerned that unrest could spread to its other Muslim minorities, such as the Hui, who live in northern China. The most prominent Islamist organisation in China is the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which favours the independence of Xinjiang and has carried out terrorist acts against Chinese interests.

Aside from security concerns, China is keen to tap Central Asia's natural resources, and has already invested US$2.9bn in developing Afghanistan's Aynak copper mine. Beijing regards Tajikistan as a gateway between Afghanistan and Xinjiang, and aims to build rail links between the three countries. China has also started discussions with Afghanistan on the possibility of building a new gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Xinjiang via northern Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The pipeline would be significant because it avoids Taliban-controlled areas, and could be seen as Beijing accepting the de facto partition of Afghanistan. The route would differ substantially from the US-backed TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) pipeline, which would flow through Taliban-controlled regions and benefit the latter two countries as well. Meanwhile, China has agreed to assist Tajikistan in developing its infrastructure, agriculture, natural resources and banking sector, and in June 2012 extended US$1bn in grants and credits to Dushanbe. Although China has yet to establish military bases in Central Asia, Beijing is evidently hoping that 'soft' power can raise its regional influence.

Iran is also a stakeholder in Tajikistan: Tajikistan differs from other Central Asian republics in that the Tajiks are ethnically and linguistically Persian as opposed to Turkic. Although the Tajiks are Sunni as opposed to Iran's Shi'a and the Tajik government is dominated by secular nationalists as opposed to Islamist revolutionaries, Tehran has been seeking to build closer ties with Dushanbe and Kabul, and the three governments have held 'Persian summits' in recent years. Iran's main interest in Afghanistan is preserving its historical influence in the country, especially with Shi'a groups such as the Hazaras. Tehran strongly opposes the Sunni Taliban and even considered invading Afghanistan in August 1998 to defend Shi'a interests there. That said, in recent years Iran has allegedly provided limited support to Afghanistan's insurgents for the purposes of pressuring the US. Ultimately, a strong Iranian influence in northern Afghanistan would align Tehran with Beijing's grand designs for the region.

Tajikistan is crucial for regional water supplies: Central Asia is an arid region, yet as its population experiences rapid growth, so too will its demand for water. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are at an advantage, because they are upstream states on the region's two main rivers, the Syr Darya and Amu Darya. This puts their interests at odds with Uzbekistan, which lies downstream. Tajikistan's plans to build the Rogun dam for the purposes of hydroelectric power generation have raised consternation in Uzbekistan, which fears that its water supplies will be constrained. Tashkent has responded with occasional cut-offs in gas supply to its neighbour, which has only convinced Dushanbe of the need to diversify away from Uzbek gas. Going forward, we anticipate that water security issues will rise up the geopolitical agenda in Central Asia, with Tajikistan at centre-stage.

Conclusion: Tajikistan Will Remain A Flashpoint For The Forseeable Future

Tajikistan will remain a flashpoint over the coming years. President Emomali Rakhmon will run for re-election to another seven-year term in November 2013, and while his dominant position and the flawed nature of Tajikistan's democracy suggest that he will win, he may struggle to contain the country's challenges. It is also unclear who will eventually succeed Rakhmon. Although his age (59) does not imply immediate risks of health problems, there is speculation that he is grooming his son Rustam (25) to eventually succeed him. However, it is unclear whether such a transition can take place smoothly.

If Tajikistan were to collapse into renewed civil war, then this would have negative implications for the wider region. Furthermore, no major power would be able to intervene in full force. The US would be exhausted after its long war in Afghanistan, while Russia is already struggling to contain violence in the North Caucasus. For its part, China would hardly wish to get drawn into a potential military quagmire, despite its interests in the region. Thus, the most that external powers could do in the event of a new Tajik civil war would be to provide weapons and training to forces most closely aligned with their interests.