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With Russia embroiled in Ukraine, Tajikistan taps Iran to counter terror radiating from Afghanistan

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With Russia embroiled in Ukraine, Tajikistan taps Iran to counter terror radiating from Afghanistan.

The threat of terror from the Taliban led Afghanistan and the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is driving new geo-political and geo-strategic alignments in Central Asia. Nothing exemplifies it more than the recent Iran-Tajikistan reproachment. More than two decades ago, these two countries had aligned closely, together with Russia and India, to fight against a common enemy – Taliban 1.0 in neighboring Afghanistan. Iranians till today believe that the Taliban were created specifically to fight them. In Afghanistan’s other neighboring country - Tajikistan with shares a 1400 kms border with the former, the Afghan jihad was most viciously felt by Dushanbe compare all other neighbours of Afghanistan in Central Asia. Religious radicalism, jihadism, narco-trafficking, secessionism, and a brutal and protracted civil war – Tajikistan faced all of this as a direct fallout of the Afghan jihad.

However, as Afghanistan escaped from the clutches of this religious fundamentalist group, natural fault-lines between Iran and Tajikistan appeared. Most of all, they stemmed from the different ideologies the two countries adhered to. While closely related to each other both ethnically and linguistically, Iranians are majority Shiites while the Tajiks are Sunnis. But even more, Tajik leaders, all Soviet era ones, aim to keep Tajikistan strictly secular. Having tasted blood born of new found religiosity as a result of Soviet breakdown and Tajik independence, their leaders brooked no tolerance for the Islamic republic’s Islamic revolution and attempts to spread theocracy.

All of this, however, seems to be a thing of the past, as last month Tajik President Emomali Rahmon paid an official visit to Tehran and met with Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi. They signed more than a dozen agreements, including in the political, economic, trade, science and technology, mining, energy, tourism and cultural spheres. Raisi noted that the two Persian-speaking nations can turn their bilateral ties into perfect regional and international relations. The reproachment was set in motion last year through the platform of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), of which Tajikistan is a founding member, and Iran joined last year. Raisi travelled to Dushanbe, which was the chair, in September last year for the SCO summit, following which he also helps bilateral meeting with Rahmon.

More than their linguistic and cultural affinity, however, it is the problem that is Afghanistan again that seems to be bringing these two countries close once again.

Tajikistan is the only country in the entire region that has resolutely refused to acknowledge the new dispensation in Kabul. (Even India has opened channels of communication with the Taliban, sending a delegation to Kabul recently.) It has been bracing for violence spilling over from Afghan territory ever since the US signed its peace deal with the Taliban, fortifying its border together with Moscow’s help and under the Moscow led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). Meanwhile the Taliban too began recruiting Tajik jihadis to man the border, and violent clashes have been taking place since. As before, so too Tajikistan is actively supporting the National Resistance Front of Panjshir, the current avatar of the earlier Northern Alliance.

While Iran had also reached out to them, even hosting them in Tehran, growing attacks on Shiites, and Hazaras inside Afghanistan, has once again alienated Tehran from them. That is why Afghanistan was on top of the agenda during Rahmon’s visit. “We hold a common view about regional issues and agree that outsiders should not be present in the region. The presence of outsiders (in the region) would by no means create security,” the Iranian president said. “The security of Afghanistan is highly significant for the Islamic Republic of Iran and Tajikistan,” he noted, adding that Tehran and Dushanbe are both concerned about the presence of terrorists in Afghanistan and once again called for an “inclusive government” in Kabul.

This new found bonhomie amongst the two Persianate states has, however, already begun delivering on the ground: on 17 May Iran inaugurated its very first drone factory in Tajikistan. It will manufacture and export the Ababil-2, a multipurpose drone with reconnaissance, combat, and suicide capabilities. While for Iran, such a factory offers a scope for exporting drones to Tajikistan, and through it to other neighboring countries, as well as to shore up reconnaissance activities in Afghanistan, offering a bulwark against Israeli presence in the region, as also against the Taliban and ISIS-KP related activities. By nurturing close ties with Tajikistan, Iran may also be looking to break the mould of Shia solidarity and shifting towards Persianate one, something that will resonate with its outreach to the Panjshiri resistance.

For Tajikistan, the calculations are pretty much the same, but it is also emblematic of its efforts to diversify its foreign policy and strategic partnerships. Hitherto, it has been entirely dependent on Moscow for all its security needs. China is making tremendous inroads in the region and has acquired a military base there. Yet, it may not be able to provide the Tajiks security of the kind Moscow did. But with Russia’s military operations in Ukraine, its defence personnel are stretched and Tajikistan may be looking to foster partnerships which will not roil Russia. Of all the five Central Asian countries, Tajikistan is the only non-Turkic one, and not quite enamored with either Turkiye or its leadership’s neo-Ottoman ambitions. Turning to Iran is a way of holding ground.

Finally, it may be quite possible that the ground is being prepared for an offensive against the Taliban. According to Tajik and other Central Asian sources, Moscow has been both engaging with the Taliban as well as bolstering security in case of war. Moscow’s raison d’etre for engaging with the Taliban was its perception that only the former could effectively counter and neutralize the danger that the ISIS-KP constitutes. A year later that has not been realized. The ISIS-KP continues to wreak havoc inside Afghanistan, as well as target its neighbors. It is quite possible therefore that a summer offensive may be in the offing.

Also Read: Is the conflict in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Region a prelude to a wider regional conflict?

(Aditi Bhaduri is a columnist specialising in Eurasian geopolitics. Views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)