Tajikistan between CSTO and U.S. military support to defend its borders and domestic stability

A Tajik service member stands in formation before a close-quarters battle practice during a field training exercise as part of a multinational exercise Regional Cooperation (Credits: Staff Sgt. Michael Battles, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 24 Issue 4
Author: Giuliano Bifolchi

While the CSTO military exercises are taking place in Tajikistan, Dushanbe received U.S. representatives who confirmed Washington’s interest and strategy in strengthening the security and defence of the Tajik-Afghan borders.

On October 10th, 2022, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) Secretariat reported the beginning of the military exercises Rubezh-2022 (Frontier-2022) in the territory of Tajikistan. According to CSTO, the military activities planned from October 10th to October 21st, 2022, will focus on preventing and fighting the threat of illegal armed groups interested in penetrating the Tajik territory.

The central part of the exercises will take place from October 17th to October 21st, 2022, at the Kharbmaydon training ground, 140 km south of the capital of Tajikistan, Dushanbe. About 1,000 people and more than 300 pieces of military equipment, including aeroplanes, helicopters, and UAVs, will participate in the exercises. The participants in the exercises are the countries of Central Asia and the operational groups of the CSTO joint headquarters.

Kyrgyzstan is not taking part in the CSTO military exercises in Tajikistan. According to the Defence Ministry of Kyrgyzstan, the defence department did not plan to participate in this event. By the way, Bishkek might have decided not to join other CSTO members in Frontier-2022 due to recent military escalations and clashes at the Tajik-Kyrgyz border, causing military and civilian victims.

Armenia declined its participation in the Frontier-2022 exercises. Previously, Yerevan did not also participate in the CSTO military exercise, which took place in Kazakhstan from September 26th, 2022, to October 8th, 2022. Yerevan explained its decision due to the recent critical situation ad the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. Therefore, the Armenian Government decided not to disperse its military forces before possibly escalating the conflict.

U.S. help to Tajik border security

On October 7th, 2022, a few days before the beginning of Frontier-2022 exercises, Dushanbe hosted the official ceremony of transferring equipment to the Border Service of the State Committee for National Security of the Republic of Tajikistan as part of the implementation of the National Action Plan of the Republic of Tajikistan on UN Security Council Resolution 1540. The event was attended by Christine Bent and Kevin Roshdieh from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Smuggling Detection and Deterrence, Colonel General Rajabali Rahmonali, First Deputy Chairman – Commander of the State Committee for National Security of the Republic of Tajikistan, and Ilhom Mirsaidzoda, Director of the Agency for Chemical, biological, radiation and nuclear safety, as a national coordinator.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Smuggling Detection and Deterrence confirmed its willingness to cooperate with the Tajik Border Patrol along the border with Afghanistan. In addition, the U.S. Department provided the Tajik security forces with military equipment (night vision devices, sets of special clothing, equipment for conducting operations in mountainous areas, special protective forms for demining, special military vehicles, motor vehicles, minibuses, in which sensitive equipment is installed to support anti-smuggling operations, equipment for detection and suppression of illicit trafficking in nuclear and radioactive materials).

In addition, in mid-August 2022, in Tajikistan, the United States held joint military exercises called Regional Cooperation 22, whose purpose was to enhance multinational stability operations and counterterrorism and promote cooperation and joint combined capabilities among U.S. Central and South Asia states and other participating nations. In this context, Tajikistan and the United States also conducted a five-day bilateral field training component of the exercise at the Fakhrabad Training Center.

Tajikistan’s research for military and international support

Since the U.S. troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s rise to power in Kabul, Dushanbe has attempted to strengthen defence and military cooperation and partnership with regional and international actors.

Since the Russian Federation has the 201st military base near the Tajik capital, Dushanbe and Moscow agreed several times on strengthening and enhancing military cooperation to control the Tajik-Afghan border and prevent any possible terrorist threat from Afghanistan.

In the meantime, Dushanbe reached a defence and military cooperation agreement with Beijing. In October 2021, local and international sources reported the deal between China and Tajikistan on constructing a military base in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO), an area in May 2022 registered clashes between the local population and the central authority.

In July 2022, the Prosecutor General of the Republic of Tajikistan stated that the number of terrorists and extremists increased in the country in the first six months of the year. During the same months, Telegram channels reported the creation of Tehrik-e Taliban Tajikistan (Movement of the Taliban in Tajikistan), which threatened Tajik security and territorial sovereignty.

Since the Islamic State Khurasan Province (ISKP) started jihadist propaganda to recruit Central Asian citizens, especially from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, Dushanbe has felt the necessity to improve its defence capabilities and contrast future threats coming from Afghanistan and regional terrorist organisations.

Russia and CSTO represent vital security guarantors for Tajikistan, although Dushanbe has tried to diversify defence partners looking at the United States and China. Frontier-2022 exercises confirmed Central Asian and Russian necessity to organise local military forces and train them to guarantee border security and face possible threats and incursions from Afghanistan. In the meantime, Frontier-2022 highlighted a possible internal division among CSTO member states due to Armenia and Kyrgyzstan’s decision not to participate in the military exercises.

International media and several experts have often declared that Washington practically abandoned Central Asia by focusing its attention on the Asia-Pacific region. By contrast, U.S. embassies’ activities in Central Asian republics and U.S. military, economic and political support to local Governments such as that in Tajikistan might confirm that the region still matters for the White House because it is a “battleground” where Washington might contrast Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and Moscow’s strategy in its blizhnee zarubezhe (near abroad).

Therefore, in the near future, Tajikistan might balance its foreign policy, especially in defence and economic fields, trying to improve Russian and CSTO commitment while opening the country to Chinese investments and U.S. soft power.