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Tajikistan: Dushanbe Considering Guarding Its Own Border With Afghanistan

Tajikistan is considering assuming responsibility for security along its border with Afghanistan. Russian border guards have been keeping watch there for more than 10 years -- during Tajikistan's civil war and as the Taliban ruled the far bank of the Pyanj River -- all the while trying to keep out militants and narcotics traffickers. Tajik officials have sound reasons for stationing their own border guards on the frontier with Afghanistan, but there are also reasons why now may not be the right time.

Prague, 23 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Tajikistan is talking about taking over control of its border with Afghanistan from Russian border guards who have kept watch there since Tajikistan achieved its independence.

For the past 10 years, the cash-strapped Tajik government has been content to allow the Russian guards to maintain responsibility for border security. But some in the Tajik government are now questioning how necessary, or effective, that security is.

Tajik General Nuralishoh Nazarov tells RFE/RL that his country is ready to take up duties along its borders with Afghanistan: "There are two powers along the [Tajik-Afghan] border. There are the Russian border guards and the Tajik border guards. I am 100 percent sure that [the Tajiks] are ready to guard the front line of this border [alone]."

Nazarov believes Tajik border guards could soon take over at least two of the border posts currently manned by the Russian force.

Officially, Russian border guards have been in control of the Tajik-Afghan border since 1993, although, in fact, they never left after the Soviet Union collapsed in late 1991. Civil war broke out in Tajikistan in the spring of 1992, and Russia's 201st Division and its border guards, still based in Tajikistan, took control of the country's key facilities, such as power stations, and strategic regions, such as its borders with non-CIS states China and Afghanistan.

There never was any threat along the Tajik-Chinese border, and Russian border guards turned over duties to Tajik forces there last year. The Afghan-Tajik border, however, has rarely known peace.

During the Tajik civil war, Russian border guards tried to keep members of the mainly Islamic United Tajik Opposition from crossing back into Tajikistan from their bases in northern Afghanistan. After the Tajik peace accord was signed in June 1997, Russian border guards turned their attentions to Afghanistan's Taliban movement, which had begun launching attacks on opponents near the Tajik border.

Now, with the Taliban ousted from Kabul, there are those who feel the time is right for Tajikistan to assume control over its border with Afghanistan, just as Tajikistan's Central Asian neighbors have taken control of their own borders with Afghanistan.

Tajik political analyst Nurali Davlatov says, "The danger of invasion by the Taliban no longer exists, and [the Tajik border guards] are now looking at the situation with their country's border guards. They are looking at the Afghan borders with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. [These] independent governments have come to the opinion that they should be guarding their own borders."

Turkmenistan, with its UN-recognized status as a neutral country, has maintained good relations with all Afghan factions, even the Taliban when they were a force to be reckoned with.

Uzbekistan's border with Afghanistan is less than 150 kilometers long, and most of that is on relatively flat ground, with a river, the Amu-Darya, dividing the two countries.

Tajikistan's border with Afghanistan, however, is mountainous and in the east runs through areas with sparse habitation. The Tajik-Afghan border remains so porous that it is a favorite route for narcotics traffickers smuggling heroin and opium out of Afghanistan. Russian border guards routinely clash with these well-armed traffickers.

Another Tajik political analyst, Rashid Ghani, said he does not believe Tajikistan is prepared at this time to take over duties performed by Russian border guards.

"The length of the Tajik-Afghan border is very great and [the terrain] rugged. We need time before Tajikistan is in the position in terms of equipment and finances to take control of the border because protection of the border requires a great deal from [Tajikistan]. Tajikistan will reach this point gradually. To take this over now would be complicated. Guarding the border requires power and experience. In just a couple of days, we cannot do it," Ghani said.

Dissatisfaction with the performance of the Russian border guards may be why some Tajik military and border security officials are talking about doing the job themselves. Tajik border guards are already positioned along what is referred to as the "second line," behind the Russian border guards. The strategy is that any intruders who make it past the Russian guards will run into the Tajik guards behind them.

This has been happening more frequently lately, while reports of kidnappings of Tajik citizens living in border regions is also increasing. These citizens are kidnapped by narcotics smugglers from Afghanistan and used as ransom to force their relatives to perform duties as drug couriers.

One of the most logical arguments in favor of Tajik border guards assuming responsibility is that Tajiks are actually defending the border already. Of the roughly 14,000 Russian border guards in Tajikistan, 11,000 are Tajik citizens who are serving in the Russian force on a contract basis. The pay, clothing, and housing are better in the Russian border guards, and Tajik contract soldiers are eligible for Russian citizenship at the end of their tours of duty.

In addition, the Tajik government is responsible for some of the expenses incurred by the Russian border guards.

(Saidkosim Djalolov and Soldjida Djakhfarova of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)