Wednesday, 23 May 2001

WESTERN POWERS BOLSTER TAJIKISTAN AS IT FACES RENEWED THREATS TO STABILITY AND SECURITY.

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By Ahmed Rashid (5/23/2001 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: Tajikistan faces major threats which include a likely renewed summer offensive by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) which has bases in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, but also has military camps and recruiting centers in the Tavildera valley in central Tajikistan; the threat from the Taliban and continued fighting on the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border between the Taliban and the opposition United Front led by Ahmad Shah Masud; drug trafficking from Afghanistan and a worsening economic crisis due to the earlier neglect of the international donor community to fulfill its pledges after the 1997 ceasefire and establishment of a coalition government which ended the five year civil war, to help reconstruct Tajikistan. The US and other leading powers have finally recognized what President Imomali Rakhmanov has long said, that sustaining the coalition government in Dushanbe is vital for peace and security in Central Asia and that it could provide a model for an eventual peaceful settlement of the civil war in Afghanistan.

General Franks visited Dushanbe on May 16, where he conveyed a message from the Bush administration that the US considers Tajikistan ‘a strategically significant country’ for peace and security in Central Asia.

BACKGROUND: Tajikistan faces major threats which include a likely renewed summer offensive by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) which has bases in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, but also has military camps and recruiting centers in the Tavildera valley in central Tajikistan; the threat from the Taliban and continued fighting on the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border between the Taliban and the opposition United Front led by Ahmad Shah Masud; drug trafficking from Afghanistan and a worsening economic crisis due to the earlier neglect of the international donor community to fulfill its pledges after the 1997 ceasefire and establishment of a coalition government which ended the five year civil war, to help reconstruct Tajikistan. The US and other leading powers have finally recognized what President Imomali Rakhmanov has long said, that sustaining the coalition government in Dushanbe is vital for peace and security in Central Asia and that it could provide a model for an eventual peaceful settlement of the civil war in Afghanistan.

General Franks visited Dushanbe on May 16, where he conveyed a message from the Bush administration that the US considers Tajikistan ‘a strategically significant country’ for peace and security in Central Asia. The US is expected to offer Tajikistan non-lethal military aid as it has done for Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in recent months. Moreover, Tajikistan used the occasion to apply to join NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) and was accepted. However, the most significant step was the donors meeting in Tokyo on May 16 attended by President Rakhmanov, where 10 countries and 15 international institutions led by the World Bank and the IMF pledged a total of US$430 million in development and reconstruction aid as well as balance of payments support for Tajikistan's budget deficit. Spread over 2000 and 2001, the financial support is nearly twice what was pledged at the last donors meeting in 1998 in Paris when Tajikistan received only US 280 million dollars. ‘This is a major commitment by the international community which will be very well received in Tajikistan’, Ivo Petrov, head of the UN Peace-building Mission to Tajikistan told The Analyst in Tokyo. Petrov, who attended the donors meeting added that he could not exclude the possibility of a major repeat incursion this year by the IMU, ‘although the Central Asian states are making big efforts to counter the well-equipped and well-trained IMU.’

IMPLICATIONS: Japan and Switzerland, two countries that have adopted neutral profiles in Central Asia were at the forefront of the aid package. Japanese diplomats said there was a recognition in Tokyo and other world capitals that in order to hold the line against terrorism and extremism emanating from Afghanistan, it was essential that Tajikistan receives international support. Japan pledged US$20 million for balance of payments support, improving agricultural production, infrastructure development and job training programs. The Bush administration sent a high powered delegation to Tokyo which appeared to signal that even though the new administration has not yet articulated its policy towards Central Asia and Afghanistan, the US considers security and stability in the region and especially Tajikistan as a high priority. ‘It's the first indication we have had that the US is taking the crisis situation in Central Asia very seriously,’ said a senior Japanese diplomat.

Tajikistan has suffered from three years of chronic draught which has devastated agriculture production and there have been no funds for reconstruction or for rehabilitating the thousands of demobilized fighters belonging to the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) which is now a partner in the coalition government. The World Bank estimates that about 80% of people in Tajikistan are in dire poverty, living on less than US$8 a month. Tajikistan also faces other acute problems.

Significantly, on the day of the Tokyo meeting, Russian border guards seized 120 kilograms of heroin being transported from Afghanistan via Tajikistan to a final destination in Europe, and there was a heavy tank battle between the Taliban and UF forces just one mile from the Tajik border. Both the Taliban and the UF launched their summer offensives at the beginning of May, and there is heavy fighting on at least four fronts in Afghanistan, including in the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border region where Masud holds the line against the Taliban in his stronghold in the province of Badakhshan. However, the most direct threat which could affect the whole of Central Asia is posed by the IMU which is likely to launch another offensive against Uzbekistan via Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in the next few weeks. The IMU has already sent fresh fighters to the Tavildera valley and reportedly to the Batken region of Kyrgystan which borders the Ferghana valley.

CONCLUSION: The coalition government in Dushanbe has now lasted five years in spite of continuing tensions between the neo-communists led by Rakhmanov and the UTO, as well as assassinations, bomb blasts, growing poverty and the threats posed by the IMU and the Taliban. It could be a model for enhancing democracy in Central Asia as well as providing an example to Afghanistan's warring factions on how to settle their differences. Petrov said that ‘in Tajikistan there is a peace mechanism led by the UN which is working constantly to sustain the coalition government and enhance cooperation between all sides’ while such a model was not yet available in Afghanistan or in Uzbekistan which faces the IMU threat. Tajikistan is the only country in the region where former communists have managed to forge an alliance with Islamic fundamentalists and other opposition forces. 

AUTHOR BIO: Ahmed Rashid is the Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review and the Daily Telegraph. He is the author of The Resurgence of Central Asia: Islam or Nationlism?, as well as the recently published Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (Yale, 2000).

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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.

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