Russians Continue to Guard the Tajik Border with Afghanistan

• Category: Tajikistan
(Strategy Page) – After months of hard negotiating Russia and Tajikistan have reached an agreement on what Russia will pay for its bases in Tajikistan and extended the lease to 20 or 29 years.
Photo of Tajik special policemen arresting drug trafficants.

Tajikistan is a part of the Heroin Highway that brings these drugs into Russia from Afghanistan. Corruption in Tajikistan and brutal violence used by the Afghan smugglers has meant that most of the heroin gets through to Russia. The presence of the 201st Motor Rifle Division has had little effect on the drug smuggling. Russia has several million drug addicts and has been willing to cooperate with NATO to attack the drug production in Afghanistan. As part of that cooperation, Russia has offered more and more assistance in moving NATO supplies and troops to Afghanistan via Russian railroads and air space. The Russians have refrained from charging extortionate fees because they want NATO forces to continue fighting the Afghan drug gangs. This effort is currently in doubt, as most NATO forces are expected to be out of Afghanistan by 2015.

The bases are used for 9,000 Russian troops of the 201st Motor Rifle Division. That unit is at half strength and has sent most of its heavy weapons back to Russia. Current gear includes 96 tanks, 300 Infantry Fighting Vehicles, 54 self-propelled artillery vehicles, 1,100 other vehicles, eight helicopters, and 5 ground attack aircraft. The 201st was there during the Soviet period and the post-Soviet Union Tajik government asked Russia to leave the 201st in place to help with internal security. This was a problem because Tajikistan shares a long border with Afghanistan, a country Russian troops had only left 3 years before Tajikistan became independent in 1991.

Unlike other Central Asian states, Tajikistan’s transition to independence was costly and painful. A number of factors have responsible for this disaster such as ideological rivalry between reformist liberalism and communism, clan enmity or personal ambitions. But the major cause was the Islamic fundamentalism exported from Afghanistan with the implicit endorsement of western powers. The main reason of the Russian presence in Tajikistan is obviously to prevent this Islamic penetration from Afghanistan, but the war on narcotics is used as a pretext, even though drugs is a real issue in the region.

Drug trafficking is the major illegal source of income in Tajikistan as it is an important transit country for Afghan narcotics bound for Russian and, to a lesser extent, Western European markets. Tajikistan holds third place in the world for heroin and raw opium confiscations (1216.3 kg of heroin and 267.8 kg of raw opium in the first half of 2006). Drug money corrupts the country. In 1999 was founded the Drug Control Agency of Tajikistan to help combat the drug trafficking through the country from Afghanistan. It is estimated that upwards of 20% of Afghanistan’s opiates travel through Tajikistan.

According to estimates by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), over 90% of the world’s opiates are produced in Afghanistan and up to 30% transit Central Asia annually, mostly via Tajikistan, to lucrative markets in Russia and Europe. In 2009, that would have included roughly 90 metric tons of heroin. Paradoxically, UNODC figures also show that the heroin seized in Tajikistan fell by 58% between 2005 and 2010, as production in Afghanistan rose, with the area under cultivation increasing by 18%.

Until 2005, Russia had 11,000 border guards manning the frontier with Afghanistan. But the Tajiks didn’t like foreigners guarding their borders, especially with the amount of money Afghan drug smugglers were offering to border guards to look the other way. While Russia could crack down on this if many of the guards were Russian, such was not the case when Tajiks were on border duty. This is still a sore point between the two nations.

The new deal with Tajikistan makes it worthwhile for Russia to upgrade the four army camps and one air base they occupy. To get the long lease, Russia agreed to sell Tajikistan weapons and military equipment at a sharp discount and train Tajik officers in Russian schools, for free, for the duration of the deal. Tajikistan also promises to help keep the heroin out of Russia. Tajiks are considered likely to make an effort, because the cheaper opium is also flooding into Tajikistan and creating so many addicts that even the ruling families are noticing. The Russian presence not only gives the government some extra muscle in any future civil wars or outbreaks of Islamic radicalism but also provides some protection against larger neighbour Uzbekistan.