BACKGROUND: In July 2022, social media and Telegram channels were abuzz with discussions about the formation of a new militant group in northern Afghanistan, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Tajikistan (TTT). Also known as the Tajik Taliban, the group is reportedly led by Muhammad Sharipov aka Mahdi Arsalan, a citizen of Tajikistan. Whether the TTT is in fact “new” is debatable as its roots can be traced back to the al-Qaida-affiliated Jamaat Ansarullah (JA), which has been waging an armed insurgency in Tajikistan since 2006 to replace the Tajik secular state with an Islamic one. Indeed, the TTT comprises many second-generation fighters of the JA. Arsalan, for example, is the son and brother of JA veterans.
Since 2015-16, Arsalan and around 200 Tajik Islamists fought alongside the Afghan Taliban against the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and the U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan. In July 2021, as the Taliban advanced towards Kabul, it handed over the security of the districts of Kuf Ab, Khwahan, Maimay, Nusay, and Shekay in Afghanistan’s northern province of Badakhshan to Arsalan and his fighters. In the weeks and months that followed the Taliban’s capture of power in Kabul, thousands of Afghans opposed to its rule, including members of the Ashraf Ghani government, the ANDSF and ordinary ethnic Tajiks and other ethnic minorities, fled to the Panjshir Valley and onward to Tajikistan to escape Taliban brutality and join the anti-Taliban resistance. The Taliban regime tightened security along the border by deploying the Arsalan-led Tajik Islamist fighters to guard Afghanistan’s borders with Tajikistan and provided them with sophisticated American weapons, communication equipment, vehicles and combat gear. The TTT played an important role in the Taliban’s elimination of ANDSF soldiers fleeing to Tajikistan.
The TTT is therefore not a “new armed actor” in the Afghan-Tajik border areas. Its so-called “emergence” in July last year marked the renaming/rebranding of fighters who were already active in the region. However, its role in the region has evolved over the years.
IMPLICATIONS: If in their earlier avatar, the goal of the Tajik Islamists was to oust the secular government of Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon, their focus has expanded over the past decade. As noted above, they fought the ANDSF-U.S.-led coalition forces. After the U.S. exit from Afghanistan, they are now in charge of the security of five Badakhshan districts.
In their current role as a Taliban-appointed force in charge of several border districts in Badakhshan, they are targeting the Afghan Tajik-dominated anti-Taliban National Resistance Force (NRF) and Tajikistan’s government, which is said to be sheltering the NRF, as well as the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP). Incidentally, the Taliban regime has denied the existence of the TTT, which means that the TTT remains a non-state actor but one that enjoys the protection of and proximity to the Taliban regime. While its existence in the shadows allows the Taliban regime to deny responsibility for its actions, the TTT has a free hand to act as it pleases.
The TTT could emerge as a potent weapon in the Taliban regime’s hands to pressure Tajikistan’s government.
The Taliban and the Tajik government have a history of enmity. During the first Taliban regime (1996-2001), resistance to Taliban rule, which was led by the legendary Afghan Tajik commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, was based in Tajikistan and it was from here that Northern Alliance fighters, backed by massive U.S. air power, entered Kabul in 2001 to oust the Taliban regime. Since the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021, Tajikistan has once again underscored its hostility to the new regime. Unlike Afghanistan’s other neighbors, which adopted cautious stances vis-à-vis the new rulers in Kabul, Dushanbe has been vocal in its criticism, describing the Taliban regime as a threat to regional stability and slamming it for being non-inclusive. Furthermore, in a move that was probably aimed at reminding the Taliban of the Tajik government’s long-standing support to the Afghan Tajiks, it conferred posthumously Tajikistan’s highest civilian awards on Ahmad Shah Masood and former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, both ethnic Tajiks. The announcement came barely a fortnight after the Taliban stormed to power.
Amid this long-standing hostility between the Tajik government and the Taliban, and the TTT’s roots in the JA, the Taliban regime’s appointment of the TTT to secure districts bordering Tajikistan was a deeply provocative move, which prompted the Rahmon government to step up the deployment of its armed forces and conduct military drills near the Tajik-Afghan border. Ties came under further strain in May 2022 when missiles launched from Afghanistan fell on Tajikistan’s side of the border.
The ISKP claimed responsibility for the missile attacks, which may have been aimed at embarrassing the Taliban regime by laying bare to the world its tenuous control over northern Afghanistan. It may have also been aimed at straining the Taliban regime’s already fragile ties with Tajikistan. While the strikes in May 2022 caused no damage to property or human lives, future similar attacks by the ISKP may result in casualties that are likely to prompt a more robust response from the Rahmon government.
The rise of the TTT in the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border areas will add to President Rahmon’s woes. The Tajik region of Gorno-Badakhshan, which borders Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province, has been roiled in violent protests. There is a strong separatist sentiment running among the people of this linguistically distinct region. While the local population is largely Ismaili unlike the Sunni TTT or ISKP, these groups could fish in the troubled waters of this restive region.
In the context of the JA’s affiliation with al-Qaida and the TTT’s with the Taliban, and given the hostile relations between the al-Qaida/Taliban on the one hand and the ISKP on the other, the TTT’s deployment in northern Afghanistan is likely to trigger more clashes between the TTT and the ISKP in the coming months. The ISKP is said to be recruiting among Tajiks on both sides of the Afghan-Tajik border and this puts it in direct competition and conflict with the TTT.
CONCLUSIONS: Global attention over the past year has been focused on Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and its string of violent attacks in Pakistan. Meanwhile, the TTT profile and presence in northern Afghanistan has been rising quietly. The TTT is well-armed and dangerous. It is a non-state actor which operates with the full support and protection of the Taliban regime. As it steps up operations against its enemies and pursues them into their safe havens in Tajikistan and elsewhere, the situation along the Afghan-Tajik border could ignite tensions. Tajikistan’s already fraught relationship with the Taliban regime could worsen in the coming months.