A combination of geographic position and wishful thinking has put Tajikistan front and center in the fight for Afghanistan, but those in diplomatic and military circles pinning their hopes on Dushanbe should think again. The idea that Tajikistan might form part of a reliable supply route to the conflict area and a northern bulwark against extremism might look good on paper, but the reality is starkly different. If the international community must rely on Tajikistan to be a useful and productive ally, then Afghanistan is in serious trouble.
Tajikistan is a weak state, teetering on the edge of failure, and things are likely only to get worse there. Chronic food insecurity, disintegrating energy infrastructure, and endemic corruption are driving the country deeper into crisis. This downward slide will only accelerate as migrant laborer remittances, forming as much as 50 percent of GDP, fall dramatically in the world economic crisis.
Without fundamental reforms, the regime of President Imomali Rahmon faces few good options. State collapse cannot be ruled out; even now the country is showing signs of quiet disintegration. Yet the government does next to nothing about key areas like social welfare, health, and education. Ministries and state bodies that are of direct political or financial interest to the top leaders and their allies function well, notably the security bloc, along with the highly profitable state-owned aluminum smelter and several other state firms.
Something else Rahmon cares about is Afghanistan. Foreign interlocutors say he raises it a lot, is well-informed about events in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and is clearly concerned by the current situation. He worries about the Taliban and is keen to see the Western coalition do more to get rid of them.
He has good reason to be concerned. It would be an understatement to call the 1,200-kilometer border between the two countries porous. It is thinly policed, inhabited on the Afghan side by ethnic Tajiks – there are more ethnic Tajiks in Afghanistan than there are in Tajikistan – and many stretches long ago drifted from the control of the central government.
Yet despite this, Afghanistan paradoxically increases Rahmon's imperviousness to Western pressure. He uses his proximity to a dangerous and fragile state that is at war with Islamic extremists to reinforce his implicit argument that only he should be allowed to set the pace of change. He also plays on security fears by highlighting Tajikistan's 1992-1997 civil war to effectively empty the political space of opposition voices, thus depriving his own people and frustrated donor nations of an attractive alternative.
The United States would clearly like to make Tajikistan part of its new supply route into Afghanistan and is talking about shipping goods through the country by train and truck. Rahmon would almost certainly be happy to help – he would love more money, not to mention attention from the West. But there are a number of barriers. He would have to square it with the Russians, who are looking increasingly irritated at outsiders operating in their traditional sphere of influence, as their recent deal with Kyrgyzstan and Bishkek's threatened closure of the U.S. airbase at Manas shows. It could also draw increased attention from radical Islamic movements. How much traffic his shaky infrastructure could accommodate is another matter.
The West needs to consider if its security priorities in the region will usefully be served by an enfeebled, venal state. The fundamental preconditions to the creation of a real bulwark against the spread of instability from Afghanistan – economic and political reforms and a viable system of government – will not happen for decades.
This year and beyond look bleak for Tajikistan. At the very least the government will face serious economic problems, and the desperately poor population will be condemned to yet more deprivation. At worst the government runs the risk of social unrest. There are few indications that the Rahmon administration is up to this challenge.
Some senior diplomats in the region are aware of the dangers. "A few years ago," one ambassador said, "some people in the diplomatic community used to say, 'Give the country and the leader the benefit of the doubt.'" But this changed last winter, when the complete lack of response by the state to widespread hunger and power outages laid bare what a bankrupt regime it is. After that, he said, many Western diplomats came to the conclusion they were being "complicit" in supporting it.
Still, this realization is not shared by everyone. A general absence of interest in Tajikistan in Western capitals is no help, of course, but even where there is interest, any coordinated response to the corruption that is weakening the state would likely to run into problems of priorities. The French government stations forces at the airport in Dushanbe in support of its operations in Afghanistan. Germany is pursuing what it calls a policy of realpolitik throughout Central Asia, maintaining close and essentially uncritical relationships with the governments there.
Donor countries need to recognize that continuing to fund a regime racked by corruption is no way to alleviate a crisis. Aid flows need to be reconfigured to keep them out of corrupt hands as much as possible. Any aid to the state should be delivered in small, verifiable tranches, with strict conditionality every step of the way. Failure to meet benchmarks should be met with immediate sanctions.
It serves no one's interests – except the Taliban's – to have a crumbling state next door to Afghanistan. Tajikistan's other neighbors, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, are also fragile states with few structural resources and are deeply vulnerable to shock waves from major unrest or societal collapse next door.