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Central Asia: Tajiks Begin Taking Over Guard Duties From Russians On Southern Border

  • Bruce Pannier --> Russian border guards in Tajikistan have started handing over duty on the Tajik-Afghan frontier to Tajik border guards. Though it is so far happening only along the mountainous eastern stretch of the border, the move marks the first time Tajik guards will be responsible for watching Tajikistan’s southern frontier since the country’s independence in 1991. But some question Tajikistan’s ability to take over from the Russian guards. That is because the frontier is one of the most difficult borders to guard in the CIS and past experience shows that a number of criminal groups operate along it.

Prague, 15 November 2004 (RFE/RL) – Russian border guards started handing over the watch along the Tajik-Afghan border to their Tajik counterparts late last week.

On the eve of the handover, Nuralisho Nazarov, the commander of the Tajik border guards, listed areas to be transferred to his force. As he did, he vowed that defense of the border would remain as strong as it has been under the some 20,000-25,000 Russian border troops who have guarded it since 1991.

“We’re going to take over [the post at] Ishkashim," Nazarov said. "We’ll then assume responsibility at Khorog, then at Qalai-Khumb. For the moment, that is all. We are taking up our posts and will continue to serve there. There will be no weakening, we are ready.”

By the end of November, Tajik border guards should be manning posts along a 560-kilometer stretch of the mountainous eastern border with Afghanistan. However, Russian guards will stay at their posts in the western sections at least until sometime in 2005.
The transfer of duty in Tajikistan -- which is the poorest of the former Soviet republics and was hit by civil war almost immediately after its independence -- raises concerns among some observers in the region.

The transfer of duty in Tajikistan -- which is the poorest of the former Soviet republics and was hit by civil war almost immediately after its independence -- raises concerns among some observers in the region.

At the end of October, Kyrgyzstan’s border guard chief Kalmurat Sadiev said the withdrawal of the Russian border guards along the Tajik-Afghan border could weaken security.

Sadiiev said it was “hard to say as yet” if the Tajik forces could guarantee the same level of security that Russian border guards provided.

Alex Vatanka, the editor of the London-based "Jane’s Sentinel CIS Security Binder," said the Tajik armed forces are not ready to guard the frontier yet.

Vatanka described some of the threats Tajik border guards will face as they keep the watch on the border with Afghanistan: “If you look at the threats in terms of drug trafficking, the movement of militants from Afghanistan into Tajikistan, and also from Central Asia into Afghanistan for the purposes of training or aiding their fellow Islamists south of the border and perhaps returning back, you need some abilities that right now we cannot detect in the Tajik armed forces.”

Kosimsho Iskandarov is the director of the Dushanbe-based Institute for Conflict Studies. He agreed that Tajik border guards will face a host of problems guarding the Afghan border.

“There is the question of drug trafficking. There are many armed groups that are spread out and operate there [along the Tajik-Afghan border]. In several areas of Afghanistan there are pockets of Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces who are fighting international forces in that country. There is also the question of vulnerability of peace in Central Asia. I mean, only for Tajikistan and not even especially for Tajikistan. For example, Uzbekistan. There are groups linked to Al-Qaeda and other groups. Therefore I think the Tajik-Afghan border is vulnerable and the Tajik armed forces need to think about this seriously.”

Analyst Vatanka points out that the Tajik border guards do not even have one helicopter, though the eastern stretch of the border they guard is dotted with 3,000- and 4,000-meter high mountains and has only a few primitive roads.

He also said that -- besides shortages of communications equipment and modern weapons -- the Tajik guards need of more and better training before the take on the responsibility of defending the frontier.

But Tajik parliamentarian Anvar Taghoymuradov, a member of the parliamentary committee for defense and security, said the Tajik guards are ready for their job now.

“Our border forces, compared with earlier, are better trained and have better equipment and weapons," Taghoymuradov said. "They can fulfill their duties I believe. I am sure.”

Questions of loyalty among the Tajik border guards is another concern.

Vatanka of "Jane’s" said many of the Tajik border guards were once fighting for the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) during the 1992-97 civil war. He said after the 1997 peace agreement that ended the war, they were absorbed into the national armed forces. The majority of UTO fighters were from the Islamic opposition, and some may still have links to Islamists in Central Asia and Afghanistan.

“You have a situation in Tajikistan where units are very often reportedly loyal to one single commander," Vatanka said. "The central government is out of the picture. Is the central government, for instance, going to trust say a particular unit that’s now been deployed in the area that’s going to be handed to the Tajiks? The Committee for State Border Protection reported that a lot of troops among its ranks are former United Tajik Opposition forces. Does the central government, does [President Imomali] Rakhmonov trust there troops in this particular unit who might be more loyal to their individual commanders?”

Perhaps because of such concerns, Moscow appears to have no intention of concluding its border security role in Tajikistan precipitously.

Russian advisers will remain with the Tajik border guards for some time. And agreements signed in October guarantee Russian troops will be stationed in Tajikistan, though away from the border, for many years.

(RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)