Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Regional Relations

The Other Side of the Amu Darya: Tajik and Afghans, neighbours apart

Thomas Ruttig 13 min

Despite pushes from the West and economic needs, Afghan-Central Asian economic cooperation has not taken off, yet. The people of Tajikistan, for example, are not very interested in or even prejudiced towards their southern neighbours, as they concentrate on their troubles with their former Uzbek brothers. The Tajik government and the other more or less authoritarian governments of the region use this gap of mutual understanding for their own interests: strengthening their grip on power by milking international anti-terrorism budgets from western states and by cracking down on the opposition. AAN’s Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig was on the other side of the Amu Darya river, in Dushanbe, and looks at the cross-border relationship from a Tajik angle.

Not Afghanistan. This Haji Yaqub mosque in the Tajik capital Dushanbe is crowded on Fridays (less so on other week days), a sign for the return of religion into everyday life in the Central Asian republic. But religiosity is not as deep as south to the Amu Darya. Photo: Thomas Ruttig

It started with the proverbial taxi driver: “Afghanistan? No, I have never been there. They have the sharia law over there, and we are democratic Muslims.” A Tajik of Pamiri origin(1) told the author that at the cross-border market regularly held on an island in the border river Panj (one of six markets set up along the border), one could easily see the difference between Tajiks and Afghans: “While our people would present their goods nicely on tables and stands, the Afghans just spread them out on the ground in the dirt.” Among the Tajik Pamiri, he added, many people found the Afghan presence scary because they still vividly remember Afghan post-border raids against the local Ismaili community in the 19th and early 20th century; stories about them are handed down through the generations. Then, the border river Panj was so shallow that “you could walk through it”. (The Afghan raids led the Pamiri Ismailis to put themselves voluntarily under the protection of the Czarist government. In 1924, the Ismailis on the Afghan side followed suit, rebelled against the Afghan authorities and approached the Soviet side to join the USSR for the same reasons. It was rejected, as was a petition to let them cross to the Soviet side, because the Soviets did not wanted to spoil their relations with King Amanullah.)(2)

A third inhabitant of Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, who is working for a research organisation, added that Afghans, too, cultivated their prejudices, based mostly on the more than 70 years of Soviet rule when religion was either suppressed or sharply controlled: “They don’t see us as real Muslims.” Only one other taxi driver, with his scull cap, long dark beard and non-European clothes clearly distinguishing him as one of the many Tajiks that have re-discovered religion, said he frequently visited Afghanistan and even had “some friends” over there.

Muzaffar Olimov and Saodat Olimova, researchers from Tajikistan, wrote in a paper published earlier this year that in the Tajiks’ public perception, their country’s involvement with their neighbour to the south implied “closer relations with and support for the Dari/Tajik-speaking population of Afghanistan [only]”, indicating that for most Tajiks, ethnic links are more important than religious ones. This is even reflected in research. Tajik scholars have written books about Ahmad Shah Massud and Balkh governor Atta Muhammad Nur, for example, and the ethnic problems in Afghanistan feature high on their agenda. Massud, in particular, is seen as a Tajik hero. “The time of [poets] Rudaki and Ferdousi is long ago, and he gave us the sense that our people still can generate famous people.” But there is not much about the southern part of Afghanistan.(3)

The border between both countries was hermetically closed for almost 60 years, since the Soviets had sealed it in the 1930s; until then, some cross-border movement had still been possible. Afterwards, people on both sides launched on diametrically opposed development paths. After the border opened again in December 1991, with the Tajiks stumbling into an independence they had not expected and did not really want (Central Asian heads of state are said to have heard about the end of the Soviet Union on the radio), both government-to-government and people-to-people relations never developed as could be expected between two neighbouring countries whose populations share the same language; Afghan Dari and Tajiki are two mutually understandable versions of the Persian language, and even most Afghan non-Tajiks would be able to converse in it. (Earlier AAN research had found similar results, read for example here.)

Recent initiatives, like the New Silk Road and the Istanbul process – attempts to foster more intense regional cooperation – have been initiated from outside, are government-level only and remain largely stuck in bureaucratic nitty-gritty (see earlier AAN analysis here, here and here). Most Central Asian governments are not really interested in, or lack the means for, getting commercial relations with Afghanistan running. “What should we import from Afghanistan?” asked the young Pamiri. “We have fruit and nuts in abundance ourselves.”

There are, however, plans for Afghan natural gas to be exported to Tajikistan, but those seem to depend on the construction of the long-delayed TAPI pipeline connecting Turkmenistan through Afghanistan with Pakistan and possibly India (see here and here).

Electricity, a sensitive cross-border issue

On Central Asia’s export side, electricity transfers to Afghanistan are in some cases already on-going. Tajikistan has been delivering it since 2007 but has never reached the promised capacity of 300 megawatts per year, a promise renewed when Presidents Karzai and Rahmon met in Beijing in mid-2012. But many other plans are stuck in what Afghanistan Today calls an “Asian energy puzzle”, summarising it as follows: “Afghanistan needs the electricity, Iran and Turkmenistan charge too much for it, Tajikistan has a lot of it, sometimes, and Uzbekistan is jealous.” The article also says that electricity imported from Iran, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan is three times as expensive as power supplies from Tajikistan.

Tajikistan’s plan to boost their own production, including for export, has not materialised: the construction of the gigantic Roghun dam on the Vakhsh river, a tributary of the Amu Darya, is still not finished. Construction started as early as in 1976 but stopped when the Soviet Union collapsed. Tajikistan started another attempt in 2010 to raise the 1.4 billion dollars necessary to finish the project but has only been able to collect one fifth of the sum so far. Uzbekistan is dead set against the dam because it might cut the water flow that is vital for its own cotton industry, the sixth largest in the world that has already dropped from number two (see here and here) because of out-dated irrigation methods and lack of workforce. The latter has lead to the regime’s use of forced labour, mobilising students and state employees under “abusive conditions on threat of punishment”. Without the Roghun dam, however, Olimov and Olimova insist, Tajik electricity exports are not cost-effective.

On 1 August of this year, reports indicated that another Afghan-Tajik-Turkmen electricity transmission project was running into a financial shortage, but they were quickly denied.

Tajik-Uzbek relations have meanwhile hit an all-time low, easily discernable in the popular mood in Dushanbe. Everything from the former brotherly republic is looked at with disgust. “But that is an Uzbek!” the young keeper of a CD shop on Khiobon-e Rudaki, one of the Tajik capital’s main arteries, told me with disbelieve on his face when I asked for an album of a certain singer. “This is frightening”, said a Tajik student when I told her the episode, “given how closely we were connected to each other even 20 years ago.” A video featuring an “Uzbek boy singing a Tajik song” by famous singer Dalir Nazar(ov) has drawn “hundreds of thousands of clicks” (4) but also wild protests that he was in fact Tajik not Uzbek.

Uzbek policies have not furthered mutual relations. The government in Tashkent has forced its considerable Tajik minority (around 25 per cent of the whole population) to change nationality, mined sections of the border and curtailed gas deliveries to Tajikistan (who was unable to pay at times). Its border guards harass Tajiks that are legally crossing, using the only remaining train connection to Russia where up to 1.5 million Tajiks are working (including 45 per cent of the country’s voters). The train passes through Uzbek territory because of the old Soviet grid. Most Tajiks who can afford it now avoid this means of transportation, opting for flights instead. The Uzbek government has even partially blown up a second vital railroad line that links the Uzbek-Afghan border town of Termez with the Ferghana valley, leading through the Kulyab region of Tajikistan, the home region of President Rahmon, costing it 25 million dollars in annual transit fees. (The government is now building a new one bypassing Tajikistan.) In Tajikistan, feelings are strong that “Tajik” cities like Buchara and Samarkand,(5) which ended up in Uzbekistan as a result of the borders drawn by Stalin, must be given back to Tajikistan. In the context of those problems between the two republics, Afghanistan is of only marginal significance for both governments and populations.

Religion gaining back influence

The lack of mutual Tajik-Afghan interest also has clearly to do with the deeply different character of the states and governments as well as the quite different extent and depth of religiosity in both countries’ populations. Although both of them are almost entirely Muslim, Tajiks often only practice some of the provisions that make up the basis of Islam. While there is an unknown but surely not insignificant number of Afghans who do the same without making their attitude too widely known, calling oneself secular in Afghanistan would likely lead to persecution, if not by the government, then by members of the Islamic clergy, as in the case of “blasphemers” and converts to Christianity (read here and here). The Ulema have often taken things into their own hands as was, among many others, the case when members of the clergy in Baghlan imposed Taleban-style, anti-constitutional sanctions on women in July 2013 without triggering any government reaction. Many Afghan Ulema would not be able nor willing to tell secularism apart from atheism, which is not a valid concept for them.

On the state level, Tajikistan has defined itself as a secular state as a result of the devastating civil war between a not very post-communist government and an Islamist-led opposition. The war lasted from 1992 to 1997 and, according to different estimates (here and here), between 20,000 and 100,000 people were killed, and 800,000 to one million were forced to flee their homes in those years. The ruling party, the People’s Democratic Party of Tajikistan, had morphed out of the local branch of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. But it was more a conflict between regional elites than about the question of “religion versus secularism”, as the composition of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) showed where Islamists were allied with Western-style democrats and local autonomists.(6) In the end, to achieve peace, both sides agreed to make – or leave – Tajikistan secular. This included that the constitution allows for parties based on religion, making the country the only one in ex-Soviet Central Asia with a legal Islamist party. (More about that in the forthcoming part 2 of this dispatch.)

Afghanistan, in contrast, has chosen the title of an Islamic Republic, although against some resistance. During the Constitutional Loya Jirga (CLJ), during the turn of the year 2003 to 2004, a petition to call the country simply “Republic of Afghanistan” was signed by almost one third of the 502 delegates. Combining opinions from pro-Western technocrats, some leftists (some refused to sign for fear of persecution), refugee representatives from Iran and others, they argued that there was no need to call a Muslim country an “Islamic Republic”. Despite the fact that the petition had acquired more than the necessary minimum number of signatures, CLJ chairman Prof Sebghatullah Mojaddedi, the former interim president of the first mujahedin government in 1992, refused even to accept the document and called its signatories “infidels” (read here). A similar episode happened during the 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga, when jihadi leaders Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf and Muhammad Asef Mohseni took the podium and made most delegates rise from their chairs to agree to add the adjective “Islamic” to the name of the new Afghan Transitional Authority agreed upon in Bonn in 2001. Only Kandahar governor Gul Agha Sherzai called this redundant.

In Tajikistan, at least in its capital, public displays of what would be considered “un-Islamic” elsewhere – from women not covering their hair to people sitting in an open-air café with glasses of beer – does not provoke any open anger. Although there are reports that vigilant youth groups sometimes make sure that nothing haram is happening in certain neighbourhoods, the government so far has made sure that such groups do not take the law into their own hands for too long a time. And although the markets along the roads outside the capital look very much like those in Afghanistan, they are different in one very important aspect: most of the sellers are women. They wear beautifully coloured dresses called shokhi-kamus, which are made from silk – and, in most cases, no veils, although this also seems to be on the rise. In Dushanbe, there are women now wearing Turkish, Iranian or Gulf Arab style headgear.

Many Tajiks, however, would probably share the opinion of a professor and former advisor to President Emom Ali Rahmon who told a group of young Central Asian and Afghan summer school participants that he “feared God” but nevertheless took a drink from time to time.

In Tajikistan, as elsewhere in the Soviet Union, communist rule has weakened religiosity among the population, at times brutally forcing practitioners of any religion underground (in the case of Islam, underground Ulema networks emerged), strictly controlling clergymen and closing and profaning places of worship. But religion was never crushed completely, as was the aim at least during a period of Stalin’s rule when atheism was aggressively promoted. Even functionaries of the Communist Party in Central Asia were known to have observed Islamic rites for births, circumcisions, weddings and burials. According to Olimov and Olimova’s research, in 2010, 76.2 per cent of Tajik respondents fasted during Ramadan, 73.7 per cent attended a mosque “relatively frequently” and only 50 per cent prayed five times a day; 94.8 per cent of the population defined themselves as Muslims (quoted here). The only time I saw Dushanbe’s Rudaki Boulevard clogged by traffic (despite a large international conference), was when Friday prayer was over and masses of Tajik men streamed out of one of the city’s main mosques, Masjed-e Haji Yaqub, opposite a row of Turkish and Egyptian style fast food parlours.

Most of these mosque-goers still wore European-style garb, while only the elderly adorned themselves with colourful scull caps and chapan-style robes. A group of teenagers sporting T-shirts saying “Islamic style” on the chest, however, were unaware of what that means. Salafis, unmistakable with their long, untamed beards and ankle-free legwear, are rarely seen, although the government – after the “movement” was officially banned in 2009 – has eased the pressure on them in order not to jeopardise relations with the Gulf countries. A presidential advisor recently said this publicly, to the astonishment of many that AAN talked to in Tajikistan. Religion is gaining back the space and influence it lost during the time of the USSR and not only in this poorest of the Central Asian republics, but it is still far from achieving the all-encompassing role it has in Afghanistan.

Evoking the threat of Islamist “narco-terrorism”

Sayed Ibrahim Nazar from the Political Council of the Islamic Revival Party of Takijistan told AAN that the civil war period was the closest that both people, Tajiks and Afghans, ever were. Many of the war refugees went to Afghanistan. According to Human Rights Watch, there were “some 26,000 [refugees] … who had fled to northern Afghanistan … in four refugee camps in the provinces of Balkh, Konduz and Takhar” in December 1995. Also, most leaders of the United Tajik Opposition, as well as 6,000 of its fighters, took refuge in Afghanistan. Nazar added that he “commended” the support of the Afghan population and political leaders like Ahmad Shah Massud and Prof Burhanuddin Rabbani for the refugees from his country. But he also admitted that, with the demise of both Afghan Jamiat-e Islami leaders as well as his party’s leader Sayed Abdullo Nuri (he died in 2006), the close relationship between those two political forces had ended, apart from some diplomatic contacts.

The lack of an active Afghan-Tajik exchange also makes it easy for the Tajik government, and for other governments in the Central Asian former Soviet republics, to present Afghanistan and its tumultuous internal situation as a threat to national security that might spill over into their countries (see an earlier AAN analysis here and, about a specific case, here). This provides them with a pretext for maintaining a firm control over any opposition – particularly opposition that presents itself as Islamic – or uncontrolled religious activity. This alarmist assessment is shared by many analysts in the region – at least when speaking publicly or at conferences (already a sign that not all is well with the freedom of speech in some of the Central Asian countries; see for example this recent IWPR report). Off the record, though, almost everyone this author talked to in Tajikistan admitted that they consider the threat as highly exaggerated, a Taleban attack on Central Asia as unlikely and that governments mainly use this alleged threat to milk the cow of Western funding for counter-terrorism.

They widely agree however that, as Olimov and Olimova write, more generally “instability in Afghanistan will also hold back development throughout the region, blocking trade, energy and infrastructural projects that might serve as locomotives of the development of the region as a whole”. This is urgently necessary as current regimes often are giants on feet of clay, with excessive and often Soviet-style security apparatuses but less to show on the social side.

Evoking the threat of Islamist “narco-terrorism” spilling over from Afghanistan nevertheless has made some western governments buy the narrative of those regimes, at least on the surface, although it is clear that – not dissimilar to Afghanistan – there is an “erroneous conflation of Islamic insurgency with drug-fueled shadow economies that primarily serve the interests of the ruling elites”, as a 2012 report by the George Washington University points out. Stephane Dudoignon, one of the leading Tajikistan specialists, wrote already in 2002 that the “massive assistance to the Tajik government from the international community after the launching of the anti-terrorist coalition in the aftermath of 11 September 2001 and Tajikistan’s demonstrations of loyalty to the coalition” have “largely reinforced the hegemony” of the increasingly authoritarian Tajik regime.

But the securitised assistance continues. There is the showcase of the EU-financed “Border Management in Central Asia“ (BOMCA) program where Afghan border guards also train, while US Special Forces troops more discretely train some Tajik elite units (read more here). Behind these programs, there is strong interest in making sure that the so-called Northern Distribution Network, identical with the routes for transporting military equipment during the Afghan transition (more in our dossier here), is guaranteed and that supply and transit bases can be kept, for example, the US base in Manas near the Kyrghyz capitol of Bishkek, the German army’s base in the Uzbek border town of Termez and the lesser known French base in Tajikistan (here and here). There are also reports about the US using one or two military bases in that country (here and here). As Joshua Kucera, in a report for the Open Society Institute, wrote in 2012, “The United States has tended to look the other way…in several cases, [when ]funding has been misappropriated by host governments”.

Although, due to better infrastructure, most of the NATO material will pass through Uzbekistan and then Russia from Afghanistan, Tajikistan is kept in reserve in the case the capricious Uzbek regime starts creating difficulties. As one Western observer in Dushanbe, who does not want to be quoted, told AAN: as a result, human rights and similar issues have climbed down the scale of importance in the West’s dialogue with Central Asian leaders (read more here).

(1) There are Tajiks and Pamir “Tajiks”, both in Tajikistan and in Afghanistan. While the latter belong to the Ismaili sect of Shia Islam, most of the former are Hanafi Sunnis. What distinguishes them from each other even more than religion is that they are actually different ethnic groups with different languages. While the Tajiks speak Tajiki or Dari, the mother tongues of the Pamiri, as they should be better called because they are not Tajiks (ethnically), include Roshani, Ishkashemi, Sanglichi and other languages that belong to the eastern wing of the Iranian languages, like Pashto. (“How are you?” in Roshani is “Tahawol tsa rang?” See “Tse ranga ye?” in Pashto.) The different Pamiri groups live in parts of the Pamir mountains, the “roof of the world”.

(2) Source: Rahim Masov, Tadzhiki – istorija nacional’nyi tragedii [The Tajik – history of a national tragedy], Dushanbe: Irfan 2008, pp 464-66.

(3) I gave my presentation about post-2014 Afghanistan and Afghan-Central Asian relations in Tajikistan the title “Afghanistan does not end at the Salang”.

(4) When I checked on the web, it turned out that there is nothing about an “Uzbek” but rather an Afghan boy, and that the maximum number of clicks is some 13,000 (there are three links, one here; the song is nice).

(5) Actually, they belonged to the Emirate of Buchara, which included both Uzbeks and Tajiks and had a bilingual urban population then called “Sarts”. There was nothing called Tajikistan before Stalin created the (initially Autonomous) Tajik Socialist Soviet Republic in 1924 (that was part of the Uzbek SSR up to 1929).

(6) UTO consisted of the Islamic Revival Party as by far its strongest force, the liberal-secular Democratic Party (now fragmented into several factions), Rastokhez (Renaissance, a popular front-style movement as it emerged in many Soviet republics under Gorbachov), and Lal-e Badakhshan (“Ruby of Badakhshan”), the autonomist movement of the Gorno Badakhshan region, the eastern but very thinly populated half of Tajikistan; neither of the latter two are in existence anymore.


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