Why is the US Trying to Provoke a Conflict on the Afghanistan—Tajikistan Border?

Valery Kulikov
BOR0402343Ever since the withdrawal of the last US troops from Afghanistan and the fall of the country to the Taliban (a terrorist organization banned in the Russian Federation), Washington has been unable to come to terms with the loss of its influence in the region. It is therefore doing all it can to turn the Central Asian nations into geopolitical rivals of the major regional powers – Russia, China and Iran – and their allies. It is also making an effort to preserve its control over major cross-border processes in a bid to dominate world politics.

In furtherance of this goal, the US is preventing the Central Asian states from working together with Russia, the Russian Foreign Minister said in a press conference held in Dushanbe on May 13, following a meeting of the CIS Council of Foreign Ministers. He claimed that the US was holding meetings with the Central Asian nations at various levels, and threatening them: “Don’t you dare work with Russia, which anyway is a failed state – you would be better off working with us.” “They also use the same language in relation to China, because they believe that China will never dare to breach the Western sanctions. Self assured, rude and ill mannered in the extreme – that is how I would describe the behavior of our Western colleagues,” Mr. Lavrov said. He added that the West was seeking to strengthen its influence over the region by damaging relations between members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the CIS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union.

The US is not even attempting to hide its ambitions to reassert its dominance over Afghanistan, as Mark Milley, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, made clear in recent comments on the USA’s readiness to carry out strike operations in Afghanistan if it posed a threat. “We do maintain surveillance, and I won’t go into the details of how or what forms or mechanisms, and we do have the capabilities to conduct strike operations if we see a threat emanating from the land of Afghanistan,” he said.  However, it is abundantly clear to all concerned that the current authorities in Afghanistan have no intention of attacking the US. Moreover, given its distance from North America, it is obvious that it could not possibly pose any kind of threat to the US.

Clearly seeking to open up a second front in response to Russia’s special operation in Ukraine, the US has stepped up efforts to escalate tensions on the borders of Afghanistan and Central Asian countries – particularly Uzbekistan and Tajikistan – including by spreading disinformation. The US is undoubtedly well aware that Russia and Uzbekistan are allied by a treaty under which either party is required to provide military support to the other. Moreover, as a member of the CSTO, Russia is an ally of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, and thus in the event of any serious risk from the south, Russia would be bound to come to their assistance.

The US and its allies have therefore, in recent months, been focusing on preparing and distributing false reports on Afghanistan’s activities in Central Asia, including allegations that “in the near future certain terrorist organizations are planning to commence operations on the Afghanistan—Tajikistan border.” They are also spreading rumors – naturally of great concern to the Central Asian countries – that the Taliban have “certain interests in Turkmenistan.”

In recent months the West has been circulating reports that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, former Afghan Prime Minister and founder of the Islamic Party of Afghanistan, has accused Tajikistan of “sheltering the Afghan opposition, and declaring war on Afghanistan,” thus supporting an armed opposition group in Afghanistan. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar considers the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF) to be an “armed opposition group.”

However, according to Saifullo Safarov, formerly the deputy head of the Tajikistan Center for Strategic Studies, neither Ahmad Massoud, nor Amrullah Saleh (who served as Vice President under Ashraf Ghani), nor any of the other members of the NRF have ever stated that they are living in Tajikistan. Moreover, in its official statements Tajikistan has repeatedly emphasized that it has never planned, and does not plan, to harm Afghanistan in any way, and has never interfered with the affairs of either the previous Afghan government or the Taliban regime. The activities of the NRF are thus a purely internal matter of concern to the Afghans alone. For the same reason, Tajikistan has refrained from providing asylum to opponent of the Taliban government, and Saifullo Safarov has dismissed the statement made by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar as an outright lie.

As for Gulbuddin Hekmatyar himself, it is clear that he has criticized Tajikistan in the past, and he has made openly anti-Tajik remarks in a number of interviews conducted by Afghan journalists. This dislike is partly the result of his own personal experience: in the mid-1990s, when the Taliban came to power and he fled the country, he also went to Tajikistan. But the Tajik authorities required him to leave the country, and he went from Dushanbe to Teheran and then on to a number of other countries, and in comments to the media criticized Tajikistan as an “unwelcoming country.”

What is more, it is far from clear that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s comments represent the Taliban’s position, as he is not sufficiently in their confidence to be entrusted with speaking on their behalf on such an important issue. He is not a member of the Taliban government and holds no official position. In fact, even in his own party, the Islamic Party of Afghanistan, he has no formal post. According to many experts on Afghan issues, he is a purely symbolic figure who periodically makes statements which should not be taken as anything more than his personal opinion.

Moreover, according to Rakhmatullo Abdulloev, a Tajik expert on Afghanistan and Iran, in the West Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is seen as an unofficial representative of the Taliban, and so it is possible that when he criticizes Tajikistan’s “unfriendly policies” he is acting as the mouthpiece of certain “foreign forces.” This seems all the more likely since Ashraf Ghani’s government in exile, which is supported by the US and opposed to the Taliban government, makes no secret of the fact that it now has a presence in all of Afghanistan’s neighboring states. And there is nothing remarkable in the fact that many former members of the Afghan armed forces took refuge in Tajikistan and are still living there. As for the leadership of the NRF, particularly Ahmad Massoud, he does travel to Tajikistan, as well as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – in fact he has contacts in many countries and is invited to take part in meetings abroad. But Tajikistan specifically chose not to offer him asylum.

Nevertheless the Tajik connection is now frequently referred to in disinformation reports spread by the West with a view to sowing discord between Afghanistan and the Central Asian countries and further the US plan to involve Russia in operations on a second front.

In order to strengthen its position in Central Asia the US is focusing on Tajikistan, both by making a big thing about the supposed threat posed by Afghanistan and also playing on these fears to strengthen its own military presence in the country. To achieve this the US plans to provide Tajikistan more than $60 million in defense funding over the next two years, the Kyrgyz news site 24.kg reported on May 12. According to the site, the news was announced in a press conference by John Mark Pommersheim, US Ambassador to Tajikistan. He stated that the assistance provided by Washington would include Puma reconnaissance drones worth $20 million, to patrol airspace in the country’s border regions. He added that the US had no intention of establishing a military base in Tajikistan, but nevertheless stated that Washington planned to construct a border checkpoint on Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan, plus accommodation for 900 military servicemen and their families

However the Taliban-headed interim administration has no wish for confrontation. On the contrary, it intends to continue to work together with the Central Asian countries and with Russia. Especially with Uzbekistan, which is providing humanitarian aid for Afghanistan via Termez, an Uzbek town just north of the border. The Taliban administration is also still very interested in the construction of a national transport corridor from Mazar-i-Sharif to Kabul and then on to Peshawar and Pakistan’s Arabian Sea ports. Kabul is also interested in buying oil and gas from Russia and expanding economic cooperation between the two countries, something that the US wishes to prevent.

It is therefore clear that Afghanistan’s Taliban-headed interim administration has no interest in making any statements that might be taken as a serious threat capable of destabilizing the situation in Central Asia.