Leaving Afghanistan leaves Tajikistan wary

What impact will the withdrawal of the Western-dominated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan this year have on neighbouring Tajikistan?

Markus Balázs Göransson
20 February 2014

What impact will the withdrawal of the Western-dominated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan this year have on neighbouring Tajikistan? Twenty five years ago, Tajikistan faced a similar situation when the Soviet Union wound down its brutal nine-year occupation of Afghanistan (1979‑89).

That withdrawal had important implications for Tajikistan. Not only did the withdrawal alter popular perceptions of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Army in Tajikistan but it also led to a downgrade in Tajikistan’s strategic importance within the Soviet Union. Furthermore, it transformed relations between Tajikistan and Afghanistan in a way that still has repercussions in the region today.

Close neighbours

Tajikistan was perhaps the Soviet republic that was most exposed to the effects of the Soviet withdrawal.

Tajikistan was perhaps the Soviet republic that was most exposed to the effects of the Soviet withdrawal. Sharing a 1300 kmborder with Afghanistan, it also had strong religious, linguistic and cultural links to the war-torn country. Sunni Islam was a common bond for many Afghans and Tajiks, and Dari, a close cognate of Tajik, was one of Afghanistan’s two state languages (alongside Pashto). Moreover, according to some estimates, there were approximately as many ethnic Tajiks in Afghanistan as in Tajikistan at the time of the Soviet invasion.  


Citing such figures, many commentators at the time speculated that the violence in Afghanistan might spread north into Tajikistan. Yet there is little evidence to suggest this happened. The Tajik republic remained largely shielded from Afghan influence by the powerful Soviet border force. While informal trade and social interaction did persist in some parts between communities living on opposite sides of the Panj River, the designated border between the countries, this exchange rarely spread beyond the immediate localities.

Even in the long term, the predictions of exported violence failed to materialise. True, Afghanistan was a factor in the Tajik Civil War (1992‑1997), as it provided a place of refuge for Tajiks fleeing the carnage in their country, and even a launching base for groups of armed Tajik exiles. However, the causes of the Tajik conflict were largely endogenous, associated far more with the collapse of the Soviet Union and factional rivalries in Tajikistan than with any contagion of violence from Afghanistan.

A narrow river runs through the picture, dividing the foreground and background. One side is Afghnistan, the other Tajikistan

The Panj river is but a minor obstacle between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, which lies on the far bank. CC Travelling Runes

In some respects, the Afghan conflict may even have had a deterrent effect in Tajikistan. Groups attempting to defuse the deteriorating situation in Tajikistan in 1992, when the republic was slipping into violence, tended to invoke the Afghan Civil War as an example of what might lie in store for their country. One such group was the Union of Veterans of Afghanistan, the official organisation of Tajik veterans of the Soviet-Afghan War. In numerous appeals, it urged the political factions contending for power to set aside their differences. Each time, the veterans referred to their own experiences in Afghanistan and the bloodshed they had witnessed there.

The Tajik republic remained largely shielded from Afghan influence by the powerful Soviet border force.


In other ways, however, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan did provoke a backlash in Tajikistan. This was true especially in certain intellectual circles, where the war can be linked to the rise of nationalist currents. But there is evidence also of a more widespread disaffection with the war. Although the anti-war movement in Tajikistan never reached the same intensity as the ones in, for instance, Russia and the Baltics, it did help to shape social discourse in the republic. In September 1991, Bozor Sobir, a poet and parliamentary deputy, gave a speech in the republican parliament where he denounced Tajiks who had taken part in the war. There are also reports that a number of local religious leaders voiced similar condemnation, accusing the Tajik soldiers of having spilled the blood of their Muslim brethren. Meanwhile, a number of veterans, writing for the liberal press in the capital Dushanbe after the withdrawal, increasingly criticised the decision to send Soviet troops to Afghanistan, and the way the war was conducted, although many also defended their efforts during the war.

Language reform

The Soviet invasion also played a part in the growth of a movement for language reform in Tajikistan. Because of the similarity of Dari and Tajik, a large number of Tajiks had served as military interpreters or worked as civilian translators in Afghanistan. During their time in Afghanistan, they had been exposed to a Persian that carried none of the Russian influences, which had seeped into their own language during more than a century of Russian and Soviet domination. They had also encountered a self-confident intellectual elite, who introduced them to Persian scholarly and literary works that had fallen into oblivion in their homeland. Returning to Tajikistan, some of them joined efforts for the revival of the Tajik language,  whichmany intellectuals in Tajikistan felt had fallen into decay as Russian had increasingly become dominant in the republic. The movement, which drew inspiration from similar movements in other parts of the Soviet Union, culminated in the passing of the 1989 ‘Law on Language’, which made Tajik the official language of Tajikistan.

The showcase

If certain groups in Tajikistan began to re-examine their links to Moscow in this period, Moscow was even more resolute in recalibrating its relationship with Tajikistan. As the Soviet engagement in Afghanistan was gradually ratcheted down in the second half of the 1980s, Tajikistan lost much of its strategic importance to the centre.

During the war, a number of the Central Asian republics (Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, in particular) had served as important launching pads for the military effort. They had hosted military bases and transport routes into Afghanistan. The key military node for the intervention had been located in Termez, a major military centre in southern Uzbekistan, but Tajikistan, too, had played an important role, not least as a gateway to its southern neighbour

The Muslim republics had been used to showcase the Soviet model to Afghanistan.

Moreover, the Muslim republics had been used to showcase the Soviet model to Afghanistan. Countless delegations of Afghan officials had been shipped to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan where they were shown the economic, social and educational achievements that these republics had made under Soviet tutelage. In October 1985 one such delegation, consisting of provincial governors, party functionaries and local officials from across Afghanistan, visited Dushanbe. In the words of the city’s main newspaper, Vecherniy Dushanbe, their visit took them to the Tajik Academy of Sciences, a number of industrial enterprises and the offices of the executive committee (ispolkom), where they witnessed 'the accomplishments of the Tajik people in different spheres of economic, cultural and educational life.'

Conversely, many Tajiks went to Afghanistan to take part in the war. Speaking Dari, and being familiar with Afghan customs, they were prime targets for recruitment into the interpreting services of the Soviet military. Indeed, the oriental studies section of the Tajik State University in Dushanbe was an important recruitment ground for future interpreters, who were usually students and graduates of the university’s Pashto and Persian programmes. In addition, Tajiks were often expected to help sell the Soviet intervention to sceptical Afghans. As one former Tajik activist of the Communist Youth League told this author:

'There were many Afghans who thought this was a war against Islam. I told them: "I myself am a Muslim. You saw me reading the namaaz [an Islamic prayer] with you yesterday. In my homeland, no one bothers me, no one persecutes me. People leave me alone." It was very effective work.'


All of this came to an end when the Soviet engagement ended. Ever since Mikhail Gorbachev had declared his intention to wind down the Soviet presence in Afghanistan in 1986, Tajikistan’s position as a favoured support base for the intervention had been declining. It finally expired on 15 February 1989, when the last Soviet troops crossed the Soviet-Afghan Friendship Bridge in Termez, Uzbekistan.

Tajikistan reverted to being a distant outpost of the Soviet Empire

After this date, Tajikistan reverted to being a distant outpost of the Soviet Empire, located far from the political and economic centres of the union’s western reaches. In fact, Tajikistan and her Central Asian neighbours were increasingly given the rough end of the stick in political discussions. As the perestroika reforms - Gorbachev’s flagship project to overhaul political and economic structures in the Soviet Union - began to run into difficulties in the late 1980s, the Central Asian republics were increasingly accused of conservatism, corruption, and of holding back the pace of reforms. Indeed, they were even subjected to extensive political purges under Gorbachev, who sought to oust a political leadership he viewed as cronyist and wedded to old structures and beliefs.

Two men in military uniform shake hands in a desert.

Secretary of Russian Security Council, Vladimir Rushailo meets commander of the 201st Division, Oleg Smirnov in 2011. (c) RIA Novosti/Dmitry Donskoi

If the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan had been an attempt to stabilise Afghanistan through offensive military action and massive development assistance, after February 1989 Soviet policy in the region turned inward. It became more focused on buttressing the southern border and seeing through the perestroika reforms than on projecting Soviet influence on the far side of the Panj. Border security was strengthened and some of the units withdrawn from Afghanistan were redeployed in Central Asia. One example is the 201st Motorised Rifle Battalion, which was transferred to Tajikistan, where it remains to this day.

Civil War

The end of the Soviet invasion led to a decrease in the official contacts that Tajikistan had built with Afghanistan. As Tajik soldiers and advisers returned home, and Afghans were no longer invited to Tajikistan on the same scale as before, the official relationship between the two state entities declined significantly. Informal links, however, increased in importance, particularly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991. This became especially evident during the Tajik Civil War (1992-1997), when, according to a 1996 report by Human Rights Watch, hundreds of thousands of Tajiks sought refuge in northern Afghanistan, many of them remaining there for several years. That laid the foundation for informal cross-border ties that helped to sustain legitimate commerce as well as more illicit links (including the narco-trade that has skyrocketed over the past two decades and is now one of the mainstays of the Tajik economy).

Cross-border ties

Interestingly, some of the Tajiks who fled to Afghanistan had served or worked there during the Soviet occupation. During their exile, some of them seem to have made use of their personal connections and familiarity with Afghan society to establish themselves in their provisional home. One example is Mehmetali Khait, a former intelligence operative who during the Soviet war participated in talks with Ahmed Shah Massoud, one of the main Mujahideen commanders. He returned to Afghanistan after the start of the Tajik Civil War and was received as a guest by Massoud. Another veteran who later spent several years in Afghanistan as a refugee explained to this author that he had a much better understanding of Afghan customs during this time thanks to his service in the Soviet occupation. Today, he trades goods between Kunduz, Afghanistan, and Dushanbe, and operates a taxi service from the Tajik capital into northern Afghanistan. In doing so, he says, he takes advantage of the connections he forged during his prolonged stay in Afghanistan.

An Afghan soldier stands by a opium stash.

An Afghan soldier stands by an opium stash. The narco-trade is now one of the mainstays of the Tajik economy.

Informal cross-border ties helped to sustain legitimate commerce as well as more illicit links

The informal links are continuing to grow, not least in the commercial and educational spheres, where they are encouraged by non-governmental organisations, such as the Aga Khan Development Network and a number of Tajik and Afghan educational establishments. At the state level, too, steps have been taken to strengthen ties, especially in energy and border cooperation. Yet, in general, official rhetoric in Tajikistan remains tepid about the prospects of further cooperation. Afghanistan is often portrayed as a problematic, even dangerous, neighbour. At a press conference in 2013, the president of Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmon, said the following about the scheduled drawdown of the Western forces in Afghanistan:

'We are preparing ourselves. We are reinforcing the border and cooperating with the Afghan security services. Realistically speaking, everything is, of course, possible. It would be an exaggeration to say that the withdrawal of the forces from Afghanistan will cause a blow-up in Central Asia. But it is necessary to prepare oneself.'

Proceed with caution

Little is left of the proactive engagement that characterised relations in Soviet times. If Tajiks descended in the thousands to try to promote development and stability in Afghanistan before 1989, official Tajik policy on Afghanistan today is tentative and nervous, mostly driven by an official desire to bolster the common border. In this, the legacy of the Soviet withdrawal is stark. Tajikistan is hesitant about building on its close cultural and linguistic ties with Afghanistan and instead retreats behind its border over proclaimed fears that Afghan instability may spread onto its territory.

Yet there is much scope for further cooperation. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan engendered an awareness among Tajiks about the ties they share with Afghans. The exodus during the Tajik Civil War, in turn, led a large number of Tajiks to settle in northern Afghanistan, where many of them integrated with local communities. The geographical, cultural and indeed personal connections make these two countries more closely intertwined than has been allowed for by official policy.

As the forces of the International Security Assistance Force begin to leave Afghanistan, Tajikistan, wary though it is, might find that it will need to play a more proactive role in efforts to bring development, prosperity and security to its southern neighbour. As one veteran of the Soviet-Afghan War told this author: 'What can we do? We can’t go anywhere. We can’t take Tajikistan up and move it somewhere else.'

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