The Taliban’s takeover of Kabul (15 August 2021) cemented its status as the de facto regime in Afghanistan. For immediate neighbours, the manner in which city after city fell to armed militants was already a sight to behold. But while they may have prevailed militarily, as of yet, the Taliban leadership is still eagerly seeking international legitimacy. Thereafter, in September, Pakistan hosted a conclave on Afghanistan, attended by intelligence chiefs of its other immediate neighbours (Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan), and also Russia, China and Kazakhstan. However, this huddle came only after back-to-back visits to India by the heads of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and then Russia’s Security Council. The preference accorded to New Delhi over Islamabad was telling.
Figuratively speaking, Tajikistan has long been at war with the Taliban. It was quick to establish relations with the Hamid Karzai government post the US and allied invasion of Afghanistan, and also enjoys a special security relationship with its former Soviet patron, Russia, through the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). Unlike other immediate neighbours of Afghanistan that engaged in regular interactions with the Taliban to facilitate the US-led peace process during the past few years, Tajikistan was always an oddity, remaining uninterested. For these reasons also, it does not enjoy visibility into the complex understandings reached between the Taliban and multiple countries.
The regime of Tajik President Emomali Rahmon has consistently opposed the Taliban’s form of government and decried what he perceives is the exclusion of ethnic Tajiks from the corridors of power in Afghanistan. In fact, leading to the eventful fall of Kabul, Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin indirectly snubbed Pakistan when he accused a “third country” of supporting the Taliban against the National Resistance Front in Panjshir Valley. In his meeting with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Rahmon explicitly stressed the “necessity” of including all ethnicities in Afghan policymaking.
Rahmon’s resentment of the Taliban’s victory was a signal that Pakistan had failed to shore up adequate support in Dushanbe’s policy circles. A few months earlier, in June, Rahmon had visited Pakistan during which he was promised the sale of weapons, something which India’s security establishment was keeping a close watch on. Subsequently, Rahmon carried out a remarkable volte-face when Tajikistan entered into a security arrangement that facilitates operatives of India’s external intelligence agency, the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), to form an alliance among anti-Taliban groups. Reportedly, this involves an operational synergy between two distinct special units of R&AW, Counter Intelligence Team-X and Counter Intelligence Team-J. Both teams were set up much earlier to focus on Pakistan and separatist Sikhs, respectively. Naturally, such a predicament generates significant risks for Pakistan’s national security interests.
Around this time, Iran hosted a Meeting of Foreign Ministers of the Neighboring Countries of Afghanistan + Russia (October) that excluded India. There was an interaction between Pakistani Foreign Minister Qureshi and his Tajik counterpart on the sidelines, but no breakthrough was achieved.
In November, India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval arranged the Third Regional Security Dialogue on Afghanistan involving the participation of national security chiefs from Russia, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and all immediate neighbours of Afghanistan (excluding Pakistan, which declined the invite). Reportedly, there was a “significant convergence” in security assessments of India and Tajikistan. Doval was particularly involved in extensive discussions with his Tajik counterpart, Nasrullo Rahmatjon Mahmudzoda, concerning larger cooperation in defence, border management and border infrastructure development. Reportedly, the Doval-Mahmudzoda meeting culminated with a “partnership agreement” through which India would be able to maintain a strengthened intelligence outpost on Tajik soil. More recently, India has also managed to boost similar security cooperation with Iran.
Context to the Cooperation
The India-Iran-Tajikistan troika on Afghanistan is centred on common interests to find alternative trade and connectivity routes (reduced dependence on Pakistan) and the balance of power in Afghanistan through support for ethnic Tajiks. Russia would gladly welcome Iran and India’s offer to share the burden of maintaining an effective Tajik military force that does not expend too much of Moscow or CSTO’s resources.
India and Iran’s efforts to woo Tajikistan were not prompted by the fall of Kabul but are part of a sustained politico-diplomatic-security drive to strengthen mutual relations. Earlier this year, in February, the National Security Councils of India and Tajikistan held detailed strategic consultations. After that, in March, India’s Foreign Minister, Dr Subramanian Jaishankar, visited Tajikistan for discussions with Rahmon about the consequences of a post-Taliban Afghanistan. He also provided financial assistance worth $2 million for the Tajik government to conduct the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Heads of State Summit a few months later (September).
A month later, Iranian Armed Forces Chief of Staff, Major General Mohammad Bagheri, hosted Tajik Defence Ministr Colonel General Sherali Mirzo for extensive consultations. Both sides signed an agreement to create a joint military defence committee. The rationale for such an agreement was never reported, but it is strongly believed it had very much to do with the border security alongside Afghanistan. Similarly, in June, Iranian and Tajik Interior Ministers signed a new security cooperation agreement to strengthen cooperation in organised crime and counter-narcotics (avenues that directly revolve around Afghanistan).
India’s Foreign Minister Dr Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh actively participated in their respective SCO summits in Tajikistan. The Pakistani representation in the Defence Ministers’ summit was rather timid, owing to the presence of Defence Minister Pervez Khattak, whose “relevance” in his own ministerial affairs is well known. Keeping aside meeting protocols, it would have served Pakistan well to appoint a delegate who could exploit the opportunity for thorough consultations with their Tajik counterpart. As usual, Pakistan missed the opportunity.
In his meeting with visiting Dr Jaishankar, almost a fortnight before the fall of Kabul, Iran’s newly-elected President Ebrahim Raisi backed India’s role in the establishment of “peace” and “security” in Afghanistan; he also highlighted the need for a “joint plan” to enhance bilateral relations. A month later, Dr Jaishankar would later hold similar consultations with high-level Tajik leadership during an emergency SCO meet on Afghanistan in Dushanbe.
Pakistan’s “neutrality” amidst the Afghan crisis could be debatable. It is apparent, however, that its regional influence, viz Afghanistan, has waned during the past year. While many in domestic policy and media circles “rejoice” at the Taliban’s takeover, the fact of the matter is that New Delhi has successfully dominated the discourse around Afghan peace and stability.
Per routine, Islamabad might claim it has been “abandoned” or faced “ingratitude” for its mediation efforts with Zalmay Khalilzad et al. Pakistan preferred to involve the US, China and Russia more in these peace talks as compared to other immediate neighbours of Afghanistan. Today, two of them (Iran and Tajikistan) have decided to chart their own course with India.
The “fault” in this scenario, if there is any, can be attributed to the lack of strategic foresight within the Pakistani diplomatic and security circles. The topmost priority should have been accorded to sustaining trust with other immediate neighbours of Afghanistan, besides China. New Delhi had been consistently doing just that, while Pakistani leaders kept engaging mostly extra-regional countries.
The growing security ties between Iran and India also indicate that Major General Bagheri et al.’s visit to Pakistan was unable to remove mutual apprehensions and distrust.
Pakistan’s state machinery can continue amplifying developments pertaining to improved ties with Uzbekistan, but it cannot ignore the Tajik cards in the hands of the India-Iran-Tajikistan troika. History is a witness to Pakistan’s indifference toward the ethnic balance of power in Afghanistan.
From announcements of selling weapons to Tajikistan just over half a year ago to passively observing the Central Asian Republic provide a robust intelligence base for India, Pakistan’s list of regional diplomatic blunders continues to grow.