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Commentary :: International
Tajikistan: Strategic U.S. Victory, Tactical Setback
21 May 2004
US Strategists will hail Russia'a withdrawal from Tajikistan as yet another Cold War victory. But while politicians pat each other on the back, all sorts of smugglers -- from drug dealers to militants -- will be hiking the mountain paths along the Afghan-Tajik border, headed toward the world beyond.
Stratfor Intelligence Brief, 05/19/2004

Russia will withdraw its 30,000 troops from Tajikistan after negotiations between Moscow and Dushanbe failed to establish a permanent Russian garrison. Though the Russian withdrawal is a strategic victory for the United States -- one which shows its growing influence in the region -- it also will create a severe tactical liability for the United States and its regional allies.


Russian diplomats May 12 confirmed what has been in the works for over a year: a total withdrawal of Russian troops from Tajikistan, to be completed by 2005. The official decision came after years of wrangling between Dushanbe and Moscow. Russia had wanted a permanent military presence in Tajikistan.

Much of the Tajik government's reluctance to comply with Russian wishes stemmed from its desire to cozy up to the United States. Washington has been gobbling up real estate in Moscow's backyard for years -- the Baltics, the Balkans and the Caucasus -- and Tajikistan is only the latest in a long line of former Soviet states to swing toward the West. Given the security void that will be created by a Russian withdrawal, this strategic victory will lead to a number of tactical setbacks for the United States and its allies.

Russian troops have been patrolling the Tajik-Afghan border since 1993, and its 30,000 soldiers have been indispensable in securing the rugged boundary. Without large numbers of adequately trained replacements, the loss of Russian soldiers will lead to a dramatic increase in cross-border trafficking -- including everything from drugs and prostitutes to weapons and Islamist militants -- as the central Asian floodgates are thrown open.

In addition to the strategic importance of the centrally located and predominantly Muslim nation, the security of Tajikistan is vital to Russian national security interests. A rampant drug trade -- the three leading Afghan opium routes cross through Russia -- and the desire to combat militant Islamists before they are able to enter Russia were at the core of Moscow's foreign policy aims in Tajikistan. The loss of the Russian military presence puts those battles in jeopardy and further degrades the overall security situation for Russia.

Tajikistan's place on the Uzbek and Afghan borders has provided a trafficking superhighway for myriad warlords, militants and traders whose business and power are driven by opium. Sources within Europol have told Stratfor that the region has become the main route for smuggling heroin to Europe, with much of it eventually ending up on U.S. streets. In addition to the drug trade -- and possibly far more dangerous, but also linked to drug profits -- is the increased mobility Islamist militants will enjoy.

Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan have battled Islamist militants. The collapse of security along the Afghan-Tajik border -- which has been heightened by the almost complete absence of security on the Afghan side -- will allow militants to move throughout the region and beyond with little interference. This has the potential to create united groups of transnational militants as groups with similar ideologies are given a broader opportunity to collaborate. In addition, the various ethnic groups that populate the region are not neatly delineated along national borders.

The increased freedom of movement will create the potential for regional militant activity. Not only will Dushanbe face a threat from militants crossing into Tajikistan, but also the potential for ethnic Tajiks in neighboring Afghanistan -- including a large portion of the northern alliance that earned fame for its resistance to the Taliban in Afghanistan -- and in the Samarkand region of Uzbekistan to begin exporting militancy will also rise.

The United States has been making a play for Tajikistan for some time now. It maintains a presence of approximately 3,000 troops at Tajik air bases and has invested millions of dollars in Tajik civil-military projects -- most recently $12 million to construct a bridge linking Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Given the current U.S. military situation, however, Washington might have achieved success too soon for its own good.

The United States has been preoccupied with Iraq, so much so that its operations against Islamist militants in southeastern Afghanistan have suffered numerous setbacks in recent months. Those militants and others could easily relocate to -- and are likely already operating in -- the northern Afghan-Tajik border area. Once Russian troops pull out, the United States does not have the ability to commit a force of comparable size to securing the rugged border region.

The 13,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan are at or near their highest operational level in a region far removed from the Tajik border. Afghan troops are too busy assisting the United States in its operations to be responsible for security in the north. The area is largely controlled by warlords, which essentially precludes U.S. or allied military operations on the Afghan side of the border because they would have to directly confront the local warlords and their militias. Russia -- with 30,000 troops in Tajikistan -- was never able to completely lock down the border, and it is doubtful that Washington or Dushanbe will be nearly as successful as the Russians were.

Not only would U.S. reinforcements be unfamiliar with the terrain, but also the willingness and ability of Dushanbe to secure the border would be called into question. Sources within the Tajik government have informed Stratfor on numerous occasions that many high-ranking officials within the security services have been cooperating with and profiting from drug trafficking for years.

Strategists in the United States will hail the Russian withdrawal from Tajikistan as yet another victory for Washington over its beleaguered Cold War foe. But while politicians pat each other on the back, all sorts of smugglers -- from drug dealers to militants -- will be hiking the mountain paths along the Tajik border, headed toward Dushanbe, Tashkent, Moscow and beyond.

Decision-makers around the world who rely on Stratfor for daily intelligence briefs and in-depth analyses and forecasts on a wide range of international security, political and economic affairs. Time rated Stratfor as the "Best Intelligence Website" in 2003 and Barron's called Stratfor a "quasi-CIA".
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