BACKGROUND: Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan continue to accuse Tajikistan of allowing scores of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) guerrillas entering its territory from northern Afghanistan and crossing into southwestern Kyrgyzstan and northwestern Uzbekistan in their bid to enter the Ferghana Valley. On August 25, Uzbek President Islam Karimov accused Tajik government ministers, who are members of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) made up of former Islamic groups and now partners in the Tajik coalition government, of clandestinely helping the IMU. In particular, President Karimov accused the Tajik Minister of Emergencies and former UTO leader Mirzo Ziyoev of helping the rebels, a charge Ziyoev denied.
Uzbekistan has fought running battles with an estimated 100 IMU guerrillas north of Tashkent, which the Uzbekistan government now claims to have wiped out. Kyrgyzstan is still battling smaller groups of guerrillas along the sensitive and porous strip of land between Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and the Ferghana Valley. Tajikistan first denied that IMU militants were using its territory as an entry route to Ferghana, but in the second week of September, Tajik troops attacked militants on its territory for the first time. On September 11, Dushanbe claimed that 40 guerrillas were killed, with 20 escaping into Kyrgyzstan, under the command of Abdulla Mullo, a former UTO militant and now with the IMU.
Drug smuggling into Tajikistan as a means to finance both the Taliban and the IMU military operations have escalated. On August 25, two Russian border guards on the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border were killed by drug smugglers believed to be part of a drug gang run by IMU sympathizer Domullo Abdulkhayu. In the first week of September, Russian guards seized over one ton of opium coming from Uzbekistan, the largest haul they have ever made. At the United Nations Summit in New York on September 8, Tajikistan President Rakhmanov stated that Afghanistan was the seat of all terrorism and drug trafficking in Central Asia and the present Taliban advance threatened the region. So far this year, Tajik security forces have interdicted 800 tons of opium from Afghanistan, a total that is five times more than during the same period last year. To deal with the critical situation, the UN Drug Control Program will cooperate with all the Central Asian states to ring Afghanistan with a cordon sanitaire to prevent drug smuggling, a highly controversial move that the Taliban have harshly criticized.
IMPLICATIONS: The Taliban have now captured all the border crossings between Tajikistan and Afghanistan in Kunduz province, and are rapidly moving eastwards to do the same in Takhar and Badakhshan provinces. This will give the Taliban complete control of the Tajik border for the first time. Taliban successes mean that the anti-Taliban opposition forces led by Ahmad Shah Masud are already cut off from all their major supply routes from Tajikistan, while allowing the IMU a much wider swathe of territory and crossing points to ford the Amu Darya river and send guerillas into Central Asia. This is causing major concern to all the Central Asian states as well as to Russia and China. Moreover, unless there is greater international aid to help Tajikistan, the country will have no choice but to become even more dependent on Moscow for military and economic aid.
Tajikistan has temporarily closed its border with northern Afghanistan to prevent Afghan refugees escaping the fighting from entering its territory. A vast humanitarian crisis is building up on the border with some 150,000 Afghans, many of them Afghan Tajiks, Uzbeks, Badakhsanis and Ismaeli Muslims who share ethnic and religious relations with their counterparts in Tajikistan, pushing up against the border. Until now the refugees have sought shelter with relatives south of the border, but if the Taliban are to advance further north into Takhar and Badakhshan, the refugees will have no where to go except into Tajikistan. At the same time Tajikistan faces a massive draught that has also gripped Afghanistan, Iran, Uzbekistan and parts of Pakistan.
International relief agencies such as the UN World Food Program, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Agha Khan organization have already allocated emergency food aid for southern and eastern Tajikistan. Without major international aid, the draught will cripple the ability of Tajikistan to act as a host for Afghan refugees or even to provide its own people with sufficient cheap food and access to water. Tens of thousands of animals have already died in eastern Tajikistan where the livelihood is largely made up of animal husbandry. If Masud is defeated, he will be forced to ask Dushanbe for refuge for himself and his fighters, a thought that horrifies Tajikistan because it will pit them directly against the Taliban. The Taliban already accuse Tajikistan of abetting its enemies. Fighting between Masud and the Taliban is now so close to the border that on September 23, four shells fired by the Taliban fell inside Tajikistan territory.
CONCLUSIONS: By going after IMU guerrillas, President Inamali Rakhmanov is taking a serious risk. Because he does not have the military machine capable of wiping the IMU guerrillas out, Rakhmanov risks angering the UTO who are his coalition partners. He also risks retributive attacks by the IMU inside Tajikistan. Nevertheless, he has clearly made a decision to go along with his Uzbek and Kyrgyz allies in trying to stop IMU incursions that are undermining his authority and regional credibility.
A combination of external war, insurgency, draught and drug trafficking is helping unravel Tajikistans fragile cease-fire and coalition government formed in 1997. Internal threats and lack of government control over huge areas of the country undermine the authority of President Rakhmanov, while the Central Asian states have yet to agree upon a common policy on how to handle the advancing Taliban. The lack of such policy puts inordinate strains primarily on Tajikistan. Unless there is greater Western material help and political support for Tajikistan, the fragile political equilibrium in the country could break down.
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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