Tajikistan: The Taliban’s Toughest Critic

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The surprising speed with which the Taliban took control over most of Afghanistan after foreign forces began withdrawing from the country left Afghanistan’s neighbors in a difficult predicament.

All of them had considered the possibility the militant group could seize power, but suddenly they needed to publicly state what their policy toward Taliban-ruled Afghanistan was.

Pakistan -- long a backer of the Taliban -- clearly welcomed the group's success in Afghanistan.

China, Iran, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan all conceded there was nothing they could do about Afghan internal politics and held out hope that some form of cooperation with the Taliban might be possible.

But Tajik authorities have taken a different position and that has raised questions about why Tajik President Emomali Rahmon and his government continue to make clear their strong opposition to a Taliban government in Afghanistan.

First, it is worth remembering that Rahmon was Tajikistan’s leader more than 20 years ago when the Taliban had control of most of Afghanistan.

None of the other current leaders in the countries bordering Afghanistan were in power when the Taliban was ousted by a U.S.-led military invasion in 2001.

Rahmon supported a group led by ethnic Tajiks in Afghanistan who were fighting the Taliban in the late 1990s and he has given moral support to the ethnic Tajiks in Afghanistan now -- including the holdout group in the Panjshir Valley that continues to oppose Taliban rule.

There is a large population of ethnic Tajiks in Afghanistan -- where they make up about 25 percent of the population -- and the Tajiks in Tajikistan feel a strong connection to them.

That is not true of any of the other states neighboring Afghanistan.

In fact, Rahmon’s public concern for the Tajiks in Afghanistan has earned the generally unpopular leader of Tajikistan some rare public support in his country, an important detail as he positions his eldest son, Rustam, to take over as president.

Tajikistan's Civil War

There is another reason it would be difficult for Rahmon’s government to publicly engage with the Taliban.

During Tajikistan’s 1992-1997 civil war, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) was the major group in an alliance of forces fighting against the Tajik government. The war ended with a peace agreement that provided for 30 percent of the positions in government to be filled by representatives of the wartime opposition. The IRPT was legalized and was the second largest party in Tajikistan after Rahmon’s People’s Democratic Party of Tajikistan.

The IRPT was also potentially the biggest threat to Rahmon’s increasing grip on power and in September 2015 -- after years of pressuring the IRPT and its leadership and whittling down its places in state bodies -- the government used a bizarre and vague incident involving a high-ranking officer in the Defense Ministry to make dubious claims that the IRPT had tried to stage a coup. The IRPT was quickly declared an extremist group and its activities banned in Tajikistan.

The IRPT is an Islamic-based political party, but it is far more moderate than the Taliban.

It is difficult to see how the Tajik government could establish ties with the Taliban, let alone consider recognizing a Taliban government, while continuing to hunt and repress members of the IRPT.

And Tajikistan’s chief Islamic cleric, Saidmukarram Abdulkodirzoda, made it clear in a September 11 interview with state news agency Khovar that improving ties with the Taliban is out of the question.

“Islam is compassion and brotherhood," Abdulkodirzoda said. "But today the terrorist movement known as the Taliban call themselves an Islamic state and execute women, children, and brothers."

Abdulkodirzoda had more to say and, since all of Tajikistan’s top clerics are carefully vetted by the government, his views can be taken as the government’s views.

The big question is how Rahmon and his government can feel so confident in confronting the Taliban.

The answer to this is more difficult to discern.

Tajikistan is, in terms of territory, the smallest of Afghanistan’s neighbors and economically it is the poorest.

Though small, Tajikistan’s military has been receiving help from powerful countries for many years.

Russia is the biggest supplier of arms to Tajikistan, but China has been increasing its aid to the country's armed forces for more than a decade. And the United States, NATO, the European Union, and the OSCE -- while not supplying weapons -- have been helping with money and equipment for border posts, surveillance equipment, winter and summer clothing, off-road vehicles, and other such items.

None of that is likely to cow the Taliban or, more importantly for Tajikistan, some of the extremist groups that have been fighting alongside the Taliban for years, many with roots in Tajikistan.

And Rahmon seems quite aware of this.

Not many countries welcomed the Taliban coming to power in Afghanistan. Official press statements often express a fatalism about the turn of events, but there is not much enthusiasm for what has happened since the U.S.-led military withdrawal began on May 1.

Tajikistan’s government is no doubt saying what many governments are thinking.

The Carnegie Endowment's Paul Stronski mentioned this during a recent Majlis podcast and suggested Tajikistan is a messenger for the views of other countries.

Tajik political expert Khairullo Mirsaidov agreed, telling RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, known locally as Ozodi, “Rahmon could not have made such a statement without Russian consent. Now that the United States has left the region, Russia does not want to give full control of Afghanistan to Pakistan.”

He added: “It also gives momentum for Rahmon to take an opportunity for internal use of the topic, bringing him closer to his own people.”

Russia has a military base in Tajikistan and China has a small military post in the eastern part of the country.

Both Moscow and Beijing have expressed confidence that it is possible to deal with the Taliban, but both are concerned by the presence of militants from their own countries who are in groups currently inside Afghanistan that are allied to the Taliban.

And there are many countries with citizens still inside Afghanistan and the governments of those countries need to keep this in consideration when commenting on events in the country.

After Rahmon said during an August 25 meeting with visiting Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi that Tajikistan would not recognize any Afghan government that was seen as exclusive, he specifically mentioned that he expected ethnic Tajiks to be included.

The next day, French President Emmanuel Macron invited Rahmon to visit Paris.

Which proved that there are obviously some dividends to be gained by openly opposing Taliban rule in Afghanistan -- and Rahmon seems to appreciate that.

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.