TAJIKISTAN AND THE ANTITERRORIST CAMPAIGN IN AFGHANISTAN
Rashid Abdullo, Ph.D. (Hist.), independent political analyst (Dushanbe, Tajikistan)
Immediately after the tragic events of 11 September, 2001 President Bush announced a total war on international terrorism. He described al-Qa‘eda and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, one of Tajikistan’s neighbors, as the main targets of his retribution and demanded a blanket support for his actions. His words resounded as a challenge in Tajikistan. Society and the republican leaders had to formulate their answers promptly and in a context of scarcity of political alternatives. The American president firmly limited the choice by the formula “he who is not with us is against us.” There were several other no less important factors, such as Russia’s response to Tajikistan’s possible plans and actions.
The correct choice called for answers to other far from simple questions such as: What will be, in the final analysis, real aims of the U.S. military-political campaign? How will it change the balance of forces and interests of great powers in Central Asia? What will be the effects of the republic’s concrete steps? What criteria should be selected when it comes to decision-making? etc. The choice looked obvious but this was a superficial impression: the U.S.-induced retribution action in Afghanistan could produce more conflicts and could affect the future of each of the Central Asian countries and the region as a whole.
The hard experience of the civil war of 1992-1997 allowed the republic’s majority to soberly assess the events of 11 September and the military-political activity of the United States and certain other large states that followed it and was first unfolding around Afghanistan and then inside the country. Our people accepted the official American version of the events with a great deal of skepticism. They were equally skeptical about the United States’ description of its actions as antiterrorist struggle. There were few doubts in the republic that what was going on was prompted by the pragmatic national interests of the states involved rather than by any other considerations.
What was important for our people was how the relations between the U.S. and Russia, two most influential powers on the regional scale, were developing. There was a more or less general agreement that despite the statements of the two leaders about allied relationships between their countries the truth was different. Against the background of antiterrorist struggle that took a form of a war against the Taliban the United States wanted either to drive Russia out of Central Asia completely or, at least, to undermine and weaken its positions there. The local assessment of this was pragmatic and free of emotions: the main thing was to understand whether Tajikistan would profit from these developments.
It was clear for our people that an obvious internationalization of the civil war in Afghanistan and the related processes were nothing more than another round of rivalry between the West and Russia. There was a popular opinion that the rivalry was a manifestation of the eternal conflict between the Russian Orthodox and the Western (non-Orthodox) Christian civilizations on a “neutral territory.”
We all know that the Soviet Union’s disintegration reduced an interest in Afghanistan’s domestic problems both in Russia and the United States to a certain very low level. Post-Soviet Russia turned away from the then President of Afghanistan Dr. Najibullah and the country as a whole for ideological reasons, and concentrated on its domestic problems so as to prevent restoration of the Soviet system.
In the post-Soviet period the U.S. shifted its interest to Europe, though never let the Afghan problem out of sight. Many of its steps such as its unwillingness to make official its contacts with the Taliban and the desire to influence it through Pakistan and the Gulf countries helped perpetuate the state of the civil war in Afghanistan.
The advent of Republican President George Bush Jr to the White House considerably changed the attitude toward the Afghan problem. The new administration has demonstrated its greater attention to Afghanistan and the region as a whole. It seems that American activeness was prompted by the following factors: a certain political configuration in Europe had been completed, the U.S. felt a need to repeat this success at Russia’s southern borders, and the oil- and gas-related interest of the forces that brought Bush to power, as well as of his family and the team was as usual (of which the Western press had written a lot after the November 2000 victory).
This change affected, in the first place, the conception of Washington’s involvement in settling the Afghan conflict. Between spring 2001 and 11 September of the same year official and unofficial contacts of American officials and representatives of the conflicting sides were rapidly developing. This suggests that the U.S. was trying to monopolize the settlement proceeding from the new balance of forces that favored it rather than to remain within the 6 + 2 formula.
The American administration intensified its contacts, at various levels, with representatives of the conflicting sides and officials of the neighboring countries—this was an obvious attempt to find several variants of the settlement. It seems that one of them did not exclude American mediation designed to impose on the sides the American variant of the conflict settlement. It should be added that both the Taliban and its opponents were seeking better relations with the United States.
In July 2001 Dr. Abdullo Abdullo, foreign minister in the Rabbani cabinet, was received in the United States. During his ten-day visit he met people from the government and U.S. Congress, Christina B. Rocca, Assistant Secretary of Department of State for South Asian Affairs, and Dr. Zalmay Khalilzad, a National Security Council official among them. Early in August 2001 Christina Rocca visited Pakistan where she met representatives of the Taliban, including its ambassador Mullah Abdul Salam Zaif. He assured her that no actions hostile to the United States would be undertaken from the territory of his country.
At the same time the United States was working on variants within which the Taliban or, at least, its leaders were regarded as an extremist group created to support terrorism. This presupposed, in particular, increased fears of Taliban-sponsored terrorist acts, an indirect support for the Northern Alliance, creation of a wide anti-Taliban coalition, neutralization of Pakistan’s pro-Taliban bias and elaboration of anti-Taliban military plans in which the American armed forces would take part. In any case immediately after 11 September the U.S. president had a nearly completed plan of military actions in Afghanistan.
One can say that the United States never ruled out a possibility of a military settlement of the Afghan problem. In definite conditions political settlement had looked preferable while in August 2001 the desire to use force prevailed. This was probably suggested by a set of domestic problems the president and administration were facing and by the desire to consolidate the U.S. strategic positions as promptly as possible to the south of Russia’s and close to China’s borders. The new American administration’s fundamentalism is incompatible with the Taliban’s fundamentalism. The events of 11 September supplied the missing element that made it possible, first, to legalize this desire and, second, to obtain a nearly global mandate over the use of force. Together with this the administration overcame certain domestic difficulties caused by the doubtful results of presidential elections of 2000, the lost Republican control over Senate, slower economic growth, etc. The method of settlement was unimportant—what was important was to settle the conflict in the way the United States wanted.
An awareness that the post-11 September events in the region would develop along these lines and a very obvious nature of the dramatic clash of the American and Russian interests in Central Asia forced Tajikistan to treat with caution Washington’s calls to close ranks around America to fight international terrorism. There were several factors behind this caution.
Starting with the latter half of the 19th century Tajikistan’s socioeconomic and political development has been determined (and is still determined) by its relations with Russia. Today, we are military-political and strategic partners, which is explained by the fact that our country is threatened from all sides. With inadequate economic and military resources Tajikistan is objectively interested, for the time being, in a close military-political union with Russia and needs Russian troops on its territory: there are the 201st motor rifle division (MRD) and the Border Guard Group of the Federal Border Guard Service deployed in Tajikistan. On the other hand, at the peak of season over half a million Tajiks work in Russia. The money they send back home is an important part of the country’s currency earnings comparable with the money earned by selling cotton and aluminum.
From this it follows that Tajikistan cannot afford ignoring Russia’s interests in the region. These interests (no matter how Moscow describes them for political reasons) have nothing in common with the U.S. inevitably consolidated positions as a result of Washington’s mounting military and political presence in the wake of 11 September. Russia’s interests have likewise nothing in common with the plans to set up a sort of a “sanitary cordon” along Russia’s southern borders similar to that already in place in the west. These plans can be realized if, first, the United States and its western allies remain in Central Asia for a long time; second, if the West helps the post-Soviet republics develop their economies, and contributes to Afghanistan’s state and economic resurrection.
It seems doubtful that Russia being a large country with its own strategic interests in Central Asia will accept this prospect even if it wants to integrate into the West. In this case one cannot exclude a possibility of its opposition to the fast growing western influence. Tajik politicians and the public should bear this possibility in mind.
At the same time, people should be fully aware that the country has become increasingly dependent on its economic ties with the West where it sells its products. Members of Western business circles are the largest investors in Tajikistan while the economic reforms are supported by the West-dominated influential international monetary organizations IMF, WB, ADB, EBRD. Their economic contribution and that of western investors is growing consistently.
It should be said that together with habitual criticism of the situation surrounding the human rights in the republic, the possibilities of the development of the independent media, etc. Washington, for the first time in many years, displayed a pragmatic approach. On 18 July, 2001, at the hearings in sub-committees of the House Committee for International Relations Michael E. Parmly, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, emphasized: “In Tajikistan independent media are an aberration from the situation in the neighboring countries—the media thankfully survive because of government non-intervention.” Earlier, when talking about elections in the region he had said: “Tajikistan’s elections, though flawed, were a major improvement over the previous round five years before; most significantly, they brought into office members of the Islamic Renaissance Party, the only openly Islamic party to participate in a Central Asian government coalition.”
Obviously, Tajikistan will hardly want to lower the level of its relations with the United States and its western allies, therefore it could not ignore the call of the American president to support his country. The inevitable and direct result of such support is not only stronger American economic and political positions. There is a new element—stronger U.S. military positions in the region. This might diminish Russia’s influence. Tajikistan is a small country that has just entered the road of independent development—it would not like to find itself in the focus of two powers’ conflicting interests.
The republic had to take into account one more fact when identifying its attitude to what the United States was doing in the region: the domestic political situation. Peace was established merely four years before: it was restored in June 1997 after five years of civil war. This peace reacted to all factors, including those outside the country. We could not ignore this and a possible response from various population groups, political parties and organizations that represent their interests and views on the appearance of new dramatis personae on the regional scene.
When the leaders of Tajikistan decided to support the U.S., there were several opinions about America’s possible actions and the international coalition in Central Asia. There was an agreement that the very fact of attack on the United States that cost numerous civilian lives should be condemned—its true perpetrators should be found and punished. Beyond this opinions differed.
First, there was a Eurocentric position supported mainly by those whose political orientation was formed or changed in the last decade under a strong influence of the so-called democratically minded Russian media. Their views about the events of 11 September and related issues nearly completely coincided with what European and American media were saying. These people at best were cautious about everything connected with Islam, including what they regarded as growing Islamization of Tajikistan. It should be said that these opinions were popular not only among citizens of Tajikistan of European extraction. They were also shared by local ethnic groups.
Second, one should say that there were people oriented toward the republic’s Soviet past. They were negative about a possibility of American and Western political presence in the republic, to say nothing about their military presence. After 11 September they have been suspecting the U.S. of incorporating the region into the sphere of its imperial interests rather than believed in its fighting international terrorism in earnest.
Third, there were those who supported Russia and its positions for business, professional or political reasons (or for all of them together). They believed that it was not in the interests of Tajikistan to diminish Russia’s influence in the republic, which might happen if America and the West extended their presence in Tajikistan and the region as a whole.
There were supporters of the Islamic position, the most influential among them being the Council of the Ulemas, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan and Hizb ut-Tahrir that was operating secretly. They rejected the very idea of the use of force by the West in any country with a predominantly Muslim population. The Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan presented the most consistent exposition of this approach in its official statement published in its newspaper Najot (No. 38, 2001).
The party leaders expressed their solidarity with and support for the efforts of the international community and the U.S. government to identify and punish the true culprits. At the same time, they voiced their concern about a possibility that the use of force might increase the scope of violence and the number of victims. They emphasized that Islam is a religion that has nothing to do with terrorism and admitted that individual Muslims might be involved against their will. The party leaders warned that military actions against certain countries under the pretext of “fighting international terrorism” might develop into a clash of civilizations, therefore international community should do all it could to prevent such developments. The statement also expressed a hope that the government of Tajikistan would proceed from the interests of the country and the region when defining its position.
This attitude to the antiterrorist campaign that has many aspects can be called centrist. The politically less independent Council of the Ulemas of Tajikistan was more moderate while Hizb ut-Tahrir, one of landmarks of the republic’s political landscape, was harsher in its attitude.
The ethnically orientated members of the public also expressed their attitude to the international coalition’s possible military actions. The United States and the West’s obvious desire to replace legitimate Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani who was a Tajik with a Pashtoon and a prospect of reanimated political weight of the former king Mohammad Zahir Shah caused a lot of anxiety among them.
It should be noted in this connection that in the wake of 11 September and especially when the military plans had become known, Tajiks expressed their great doubts about the Taliban involvement in the murder of ethnic Tajik Ahmad Shah Masoud. What was more there appeared a conviction that it had been not by accident that the uncontested leader of the anti-Taliban forces perished on the eve of radical changes in his country. It was widely known that he had rejected foreign military and political domination—while he was alive the present model of the post-Taliban order could have been hardly realized.
The ethnic opposition did not distinguish between the mainly Pashtoon Taliban, King Muhammad Zahir Shah, who was also a Pashtoon, and any other Pashtoon leader—hence the opposition’s anxiety. According to Tajik experts on Afghanistan, it was when the last royal dynasty came to power in the 1930s that the ethnic composition of the non-Pashtoon regions of Afghanistan was deliberately altered while the country’s Pashtoon leaders, their ideological and political disagreements apart, were always united on ethnic issue.
In October 2001 the Association of Afghan Experts of Tajikistan put their concerns on paper. Those who signed the statement called on the international community to support the Northern Alliance and the legitimate government of President Rabbani and to abandon the stake (that the experts considered erroneous) on the former king. The statement said that the government of Afghanistan should rest on the widest possible basis and incorporate representatives of all ethnic and social groups.
It was in these difficult conditions that the leaders of Tajikistan had to decide how to respond to the U.S. actions. Finally, they positively responded to the call of President Bush to side with his country and support the military action in Afghanistan. Its practical realization inevitably presupposed American and Western military presence in Central Asia.
When joining the international coalition Tajikistan proceeded from its conviction that the republic’s national interests should come first. Its independence was considered to be top priority. The 20th century taught us a cruel lesson: Tajiks as an ethnos have little chance of survival if deprived of a state structure. In any case throughout the last century the area where Tajiks could live and realize themselves outside their own land was inexorably contracting.
By the time of decision-making the future of the small state directly depended on their relations with the United States, the only superpower, therefore support for the U.S. actions was the only rational solution. It ensured Washington’s positive attitude to Tajikistan, at least for the time being.
There were other circumstances in favor of the decision: Russia opted for an active cooperation with the U.S. in its anti-Taliban struggle. Moscow removed all objections to American and Western military presence in the region. This freed Tajikistan of the fear of its strategic partner’s negative response to the Tajik support of the U.S. campaign and to the inevitable military and political cooperation with the West and equally inevitable weakening of Russia’s positions.
The decision to join the international coalition was eased by the negative attitude to the Taliban regime that existed among the Tajik upper crust. Official Tajikistan believed that the Taliban had taken too rigid religious position; there were suspicions that it had supported radical Islamic political movements in Central Asia and had been insisting on Pashtoon domination in Afghanistan.
The positive decision was also prompted by expectations of considerable military-political and economic dividends if the Northern Alliance scored military victories. It was expected that the tension along the border would subside as the Taliban moved deeper to the south away from the Tajik border; that Tajiks would extend the area of their influence; that there would appear a corridor leading to the outside world alternative to the functioning land transportation route. There was also a promise of closer trade and economic relations with Iran, Pakistan, India, and other countries via Afghanistan and of further development of economic and political ties with the West.
By supporting the United States the Tajik leaders expected to receive help for restoring national economy, to make the republic part of the plans and programs of the international community designed to help Afghanistan overcome the consequences of the long war.
Time has shown that the pragmatic decision brought the country and its leaders obvious political dividends: political contacts with the United States and its Western partners strengthened against the background of military actions in Afghanistan. Within a very short span of time the U.S. high officials and influential politicians visited the republic: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Elizabeth Jones, a Senate delegation led by two influential senators—Republican John McCain and Democrat Joseph Lieberman, a Congress delegation headed by Jim Kolbe, General Tommy Franks, Commander of the Central Command. Foreign Minister of Germany Joschka Fischer and French representatives Defense Minister Alain Richard and General Jean-Pierre Kelche, chief of the General Staff, also came to Dushanbe for political and military talks.
Military cooperation with the West was also developing fast; for the first time the West is represented in the republic by American and French military. From time to time military units of other countries join them. The Russian units remain in the republic as usual.
Being aware of Tajikistan’s increased importance in the Western political and military plans in Central Asia Great Britain, France, and Japan opened their diplomatic missions in Dushanbe. In fact, in the context of military-political events in the region the political component of Western presence in the country is rapidly catching up with the economic component.
There was another positive political aspect: new realities in the republic did not cause difficulties in relations with Russia—under different conditions they would have been inevitable at least judging by what the Russian press wrote. Certain experts who reflected displeasure and anxiety of many Russian citizens caused by the changes in the region said that to oppose the rapid consolidation of America’s positions in the region and the corresponding weakening of Russia’s positions the difficulties, including political, the Central Asian republics had to overcome in the process of strengthening their independence could, and should under certain conditions, be exploited.
Tajikistan also scored another political victory: there was less criticism coming from the West of the republic’s insignificant democratic gains, the situation surrounding the human rights and political freedoms, encroachments on the media, etc. What is more, highly placed Western officials more than once spoke with approval about what the Tajik leaders had done to help the American actions and assured that time had come to change approaches to economic aid to the republic.
Tajikistan can also count as its victory the fact that its experience of resolving the domestic armed conflict, overcoming national schism and moving away from the armed confrontation to a political dialog and then to cooperation in restoring the country is being used more and more frequently. A series of international conferences, seminars and “round tables” sponsored by the U.N., OSCE and NATO are a manifestation of this. They discuss various aspects of relevant experience and a possibility of using it in the region. The international conference Lessons of the Inter-Tajik Peace Process for Afghanistan held in Dushanbe on 17-19 June, 2002 was one of the latest events. It was organized by the Peace University at the U.N. and the Central Asian Regional Forum for Conflict Prevention. The conference was attended by many of those who had restored peace in Tajikistan, including the former special representatives of the U.N. Secretary General and the United Nations Mission of Observers (UNMOT), heads of UNMOT Gerdt Dietrich Merrem (1996-1998), Ian Kubis (1998-1999) who is now OSCE Secretary General, and Ivo Petrov (1999-2000) who headed the United Nations Tajikistan Office of Peace-building (UNTOP) between June 2000 and August 2002.
The Tajik public that on the whole supports what the United States is doing in Afghanistan and the region cannot but be concerned about American priorities related to the post-Taliban political landscape. It is an open secret that Washington has never been enthusiastic about the Northern Alliance for at least two reasons. First, the Alliance mainly relied on Russia, Iran, and the post-Soviet Central Asian states in its anti-Taliban struggle. Second, Ahmad Shah Masoud, its de facto leader, was too popular and too independent to have any rivals in post-Taliban Afghanistan. The United States preferred to see a Pashtoon at the helm. This explains why the White House tried to re-integrate the former king into the country’s political life. When it became obvious that the variant had no future, the United States shifted its stake on Hamid Karzai inclined to concentrate on developing relations with the West—the fact that the former cannot but appreciate. Naturally enough, for the time being the West wants its political dialog with Karzai to continue, which explains varied support the Western countries are extending to him. It seems doubtful that in the nearest future (in an absence of extraordinary situation) they, and consequently the world community, will acquire a more real candidate for the highest post in Afghanistan.
One can be assured that Western policy coincides with Karzai’s intention to remain in power. Real political and military support may attract real funding. At the same time, to develop from a nominal into a real leader Karzai will have to work on creating his own political basis and increase his influence in Afghanistan. Today, his reliance on the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance makes him dependent on it. It is among the Pashtoon tribes that he can create a loyal political base.
This prompts questions in Tajikistan—not so much on the official as on the public level. What final form will the country acquire under Karzai? May it follow along the already treaded path when and if the Northern Alliance weakens or quits the political scene and if the Pashtoons drive toward political monopoly and a revived policy of Pashtunization? Will real rather than formal mechanisms of exercising economic, political, cultural and other rights of ethnic Tajiks and other ethnic groups be incorporated into the state machine? How will these rights be guaranteed?
The questions are prompted by the fact that since the 1920s and 1930s (that is, in the Soviet past) the majority of the new Central Asian countries have been creating mono-ethnic states. This trend in the form of Pashtunization was also typical of Afghanistan before and after the April revolution. In the period of the newly acquired independence some of the Central Asian republics have been showing more zeal in strengthening their mono-ethnicity. Will the process of Pashtunization be revived in the new Afghan state? This cannot be ruled out completely. It should be said that in the post-11 September period the world community acquired an enormous role in the Afghan settlement. This is what causes anxiety among the Tajik public. This is why they ask themselves: How does the world community intend to resolve the above problems? The answer is badly needed—without it stable peace in Afghanistan can hardly be achieved. Political stability in Central Asia and possible negative repercussions for all concerned, including the international community, in the region and outside it depend on the Afghan developments.
By way of summing up I should say that the Tajik public was (and is) fully aware of the real content of the post-11 September processes. It has no choice but to demonstrate its political pragmatism in decision-making: the country needs conditions conducive to its independent development. In this context the response to the September events of the Tajik leaders and the public is an evidence of their political maturity and rational reasoning. Let us hope that this experience will help them soberly approach all complications and make pragmatic decisions in their country’s interests.