Hostilities Grow Between Taliban And Tajikistan Amid Border Closure, Truck Seizures

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Delshad has been stranded for over a week at Shir Khan Bandar, a river port along Afghanistan's northeastern border with Tajikistan.

He is among dozens of Tajik truck drivers who transported coal to Afghanistan earlier this month. But the Taliban prevented the drivers from crossing back into Tajikistan after closing the border on May 10.

"We are not free to go anywhere,” Delshad told RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, adding that the Taliban had ordered the men not to leave their vehicles. Delshad said that around 100 Tajik trucks were stranded at the remote border crossing.

Another trucker, who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, said that the Taliban allowed some of the drivers to cross the border after seizing their vehicles.

“They told us to leave our vehicles and then allowed us back into our country,” he said.

The border closure and seizure of Tajik trucks is the latest sign of growing hostilities between the Central Asian nation and Afghanistan’s hard-line rulers.

Tajikistan was the only neighboring country to publicly oppose the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan in August, calling the militant group a threat to regional stability. There have also been reports that Dushanbe is hosting or in contact with some of the leaders of the National Resistance Front (NRF), an anti-Taliban resistance group that is largely made up of ethnic Tajiks from Afghanistan.

Tajikistan has denied the claim.

Following the Taliban takeover, Tajikistan has conducted military drills near its 1,300-kilometer border with Afghanistan alongside troops from members of the Russia-led Collective Security Organization (CSTO).

The Taliban has stationed an estimated 4,000 fighters along its border with Central Asia. Taliban officials insisted the move would contribute to regional stability. But Afghanistan’s northern neighbors have expressed skepticism.

The Taliban also deployed battalions of suicide bombers known as Lashkar-e Mansoori in Afghanistan’s northeastern provinces of Badakhshan and Takhar, adding to anxieties in Tajikistan.

The two provinces are home to hundreds of militants from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and other countries who have fought alongside the Taliban for many years.

For years, the Taliban has sheltered and even embedded members of Jammat Ansarullah, a Tajik Islamist militant group opposed to Dushanbe, in its ranks. Weeks after seizing power, the Taliban deployed Ansarullah fighters to the Tajik border.

Some Tajik militants residing in Afghanistan are members of the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) extremist group, a rival of the Taliban that recently claimed to have launched a rocket attack against Tajikistan.

There have been fears in Central Asian capitals that the militants might want to infiltrate their home countries.

In January, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon urged the CSTO to create a security belt around Afghanistan, claiming that there were more than 40 terrorist camps with about 6,000 militants in northeastern Afghanistan. The claim was rejected by the Taliban.

“Under the Taliban’s current rule over Afghanistan, Tajikistan is arguably the most vulnerable of the Central Asian neighbors,” said Hameed Hakimi, an Afghanistan expert at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington.

He said the presence of hundreds of Tajik militants in Afghanistan magnifies the threat to Dushanbe.

“The Taliban’s inability to govern or secure borders with Afghanistan’s neighbors presents a specific challenge to the Tajik government, which has largely enjoyed cooperation with the Afghan border forces during the past 20 years,” Hakimi said.

Dushanbe has not established ties with the Taliban-led government, which is not recognized by any country. Rahmon has repeatedly called on the Taliban to form an inclusive government in Kabul that includes ethnic Tajiks.

The Taliban has tried to portray itself as a group that represents all Afghans. But its government is dominated by clerics from the Pashtun ethnic group.

Senior Taliban leaders have resisted repudiating Dushanbe publicly. But Gulbudin Hekmatyar, a former warlord sympathetic to the Taliban, recently blasted Tajikistan for allegedly sheltering anti-Taliban resistance leaders.

“When you shelter armed opponents of a neighboring country, it can only mean that you have declared a war against them,” he told a gathering this week.

Hekmatyar warned that the Taliban could retaliate by hosting the armed opponents of Dushanbe.

“If this happens, what fate will a weak, small, and fragmented Tajikistan meet?” he asked.

Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said the group would normalize relations and open the border with Tajikistan once the sides had reached a formal understanding over bilateral issues.

“We have made this [demand] clear in our bilateral meetings,” he told RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan.

Hakimi said Russia, a close ally of Dushanbe, is attempting to reconcile the sides. Last week, Rahmon said he discussed “the worrying situation” along Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“The Taliban cannot afford the costs of any cross-border clashes that force Moscow’s intervention in support of Tajikistan,” Hakimi said.

Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.