Afghanistan's Badakhshan: New Security Threat for Tajikistan

Afghanistan's Badakhshan: New Security Threat for Tajikistan
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More than a year has passed since the fall of the regime of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. During this year, the Taliban government has not been recognized by any foreign government. Due to policies inconsistent with the sociocultural structures of Afghanistan, this group is also facing the challenge of legitimacy inside the country. Although the Taliban claims to establish entire security in Afghanistan, reports indicate continued clashes between the Taliban and the National Resistance Front (NRF) forces led by Ahmad Massoud, the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, in different parts of the country. As a result, pessimism arises that a new civil war may occur in the country in the near future. With the ongoing insecurity in Afghanistan, the mountainous province of Badakhshan in the country's northeast has become the center of new political and security developments. Badakhshan, once the center of power and politics in Afghanistan (1996-2001), has now become a gathering place for Taliban-backed terrorist groups. This province continues to be the scene of clashes between the Taliban and other armed forces fighting against this group. Along with Tajikistan’s Jamaat Ansarullah and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the newly formed Tehreek-e-Taliban Tajikistan (TTT) has also reportedly established important bases in Badakhshan, and it operates in various parts of the province. This group, backed by the Afghan Taliban, has created new threats to the regional countries, especially to Tajikistan. 

Tehreek-e-Taliban Tajikistan

Since the appearance of the international forces in Afghanistan in 2001 and the establishment of relative security in the country, political, cultural, economic, and trade relations between Tajikistan and Afghanistan have grown significantly. However, after the Taliban seized power in August 2021, relations between Kabul and Dushanbe seriously deteriorated, and the border areas between the two countries became one of the main gathering centers for Tajik military-opposition groups. 

One of the new threats to the security of Tajikistan from the Afghanistan side is the establishment of the TTT in Badakhshan province in July 2022. The TTT consists of the second generation of Jamaat Ansarullah fighters and has up to 300 members, most of whom are citizens of Tajikistan. The TTT is formed by the inspiration of the Afghan Taliban, and its main goal is to establish a sharia-based government in Tajikistan by overthrowing the secular regime in the country. 

The leader of the TTT is Muhammad Sharipov, also known as Mahdi Arsalon, a resident of the Nurobod District of Tajikistan. His father, Mirkhoje Sharipov, was one of the friends of Amriddin Tabarov, the founder of Jamaat Ansarullah, and one of Mahdi Arsalon's sisters is married to one of Tabarov's sons. Mahdi Arsalon lived in Russia until October 2015 and then moved to Afghanistan in 2016. He is also mentioned as the current head of Jamaat Ansarullah, while other sources say that Salman, the field commander of this group, is in charge of the leadership of Jamaat Ansarullah.

It is worth noting that the Jamaat Ansarullah, founded in 2006, is recognized as a banned terrorist organization in Tajikistan and Russia and is subject to the UN sanctions due to its terrorist activities. This group has cooperated closely with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the ETIM, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), Jund al-Khilafah, the Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus, the Al-Qaeda network, and the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  

Mahdi Arsalon and the fighters under his command were fighting in the ranks of the Afghan Taliban against the US and NATO forces, as well as the army of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan until August 2021. After that, the TTT militants settled in the Shahri Buzurg district of Badakhshan Province, which is on the border of the Shamsuddin Shahin region in Tajikistan. These two districts are one of the most impassable areas on the border of Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Calling Mahdi Arsalon "Amir", the Afghan Taliban has obliged him to ensure the security of the five districts named Kuf Ab, Shekay, Nusai, Maimay, and Khwahan in Badakhshan, near the border of Tajikistan. Indeed, in these areas, the TTT militias act as Taliban border guards. 

Shahri Buzurg district is known as the main center of the TTT. In this district, the TTT militants are recruiting new members and preparing them for future attacks on Tajikistan and other Central Asian countries. The TTT fighters, supported by the Afghan Taliban, reportedly built a high observation tower near the border of Tajikistan, which they use to monitor the territory of this country. There are also reports claiming that the Afghan Taliban have given the TTT group 15 new combat vehicles and 60 tanks, and the TTT militants have also bought 15 boats for crossing the Amu Darya, a river that separates the two countries.

A Potential Threat to Tajikistan 

The TTT is undoubtedly a serious challenge to the national security of Tajikistan. The threat of the TTT has been combined with socio-political and socio-economic troubles in the country. The economic situation in Tajikistan is alarming, and people are facing severe socio-economic difficulties. Political issues, such as attempts to hand over power to Emomali Rahmon's son, have also intensified discontent within the country and raised concerns among Tajik political elites. In addition, the country recently faced a wave of mass protests in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO), which resulted in the death and injury of dozens of people during the suppression of the protests. Considering the socio-political situation of Tajikistan, the emergence of the TTT is not good news for Emomali Rahmon's government. In other words, in the critical circumstances that Tajikistan is facing, the emergence of an alternative armed jihadist group is a real challenge for the current government of Tajikistan, and undoubtedly it threatens the national security of this country. 
It is crucial for Tajikistan that it must take serious measures against this group. Since the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has managed to challenge a nuclear power like Pakistan, the TTT could also challenge Dushanbe in security, political and social spheres if it continues its activities. The experience of similar groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan has shown that such groups have the potential to challenge the established regimes in their target countries. 

In addition to the TTT, Tajikistan is also concerned about the Tajik-origin Taliban in Afghanistan, which fought alongside the Pashtun Taliban for the Islamic Emirate, and has currently wielded relatively much power. The current Chief of Staff of the Taliban armed forces, Qari Fasihuddin Badakhshani, a Tajik by origin, is a resident of Badakhshan on the border with Tajikistan. This Taliban commander, who is close to the Taliban's Defense Minister Mullah Yaqoob, played a key role in the Taliban's victories in the northern regions during their fight against the previous government. He is also known as the conqueror of Shamal (north part of Afghanistan) and the conqueror of Panjshir province. Therefore, thanks to his knowledge of the region, he can easily provide logistical and military assistance to the TTT. In the case of such cooperation, the TTT forces will have the upper hand in carrying out terrorist attacks against their targets in Tajikistan. There is also a possibility that the Afghan Taliban would use the TTT as an agent of pressure against the government of Tajikistan, which hosts the leaders of the NRF, the Taliban’s main military opposition. 

In contrast to the growing threats from the TTT, the only good news for the Tajik authorities are the new disagreements between Pashtun Taliban and Tajik Taliban commanders. One of the local Taliban commanders in Badakhshan, Abdul Hamid Mujahid, has reportedly joined the NRF with his 150 supporters and is fighting the Taliban in the "Shiveh" and "Yaftal Bala" districts of Badakhshan. Mujahid, like Qari Fasihuddin, was one of the influential figures of the Taliban during the fall of the "Yaftal Bala" district and the city of "Fayzabad", the capital of Badakhshan province, into the hands of the Taliban. Mujahid's joining the NRF inspires hopes in Dushanbe that someday these people, as proxy groups, will be able to protect the interests of Tajikistan in Afghanistan and prevent the expansion of activities of groups such as the TTT alongside the border. 

The TTT and similar terrorist groups pose a threat beyond Tajikistan. At a meeting with the heads of the security services of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Russian President Vladimir Putin warned about the activities of terrorist groups in Afghanistan. He said that these groups could make criminal plans against these countries. Despite the Taliban's denial of the existence of terrorist groups in Afghanistan, a UN report indicates that in addition to the TTP, Jaish-e-Mohammed, and Lashkar-e-Taiba, several other groups, including ETIM and Jamaat Ansarullah, are active in Afghanistan, and each of these groups has hundreds of fighters in the country. The assassination of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda's former leader, in Kabul on July 31, 2022, proves that the relations between the Taliban and other terrorist groups have not been broken. In this regard, since the TTT is recruiting new members and preparing for future attacks in Central Asia, the group does not pose a threat only to Tajikistan but also to other Central Asian countries. It is obvious that after the Taliban seized power in August 2021, the level of terrorist threats to the countries of Central Asia has increased significantly. The notable presence of terrorist groups in Afghanistan is considered a significant threat to all Central Asian countries. These groups deploy their fighters based on their ethnic origin in border areas of the Central Asian countries and have become a destabilizing factor for the countries in the region. While they have been endangering political stability, social-cultural values, and the discourse of secularism in the region, these groups also threaten the economic infrastructure and geoeconomic security of the related countries.

In conclusion, among the current political-security developments in Afghanistan, the transformation of the Afghan province of Badakhshan into a hub of terrorist groups is a serious issue that the regional countries should be aware of. Due to the mountainous and impassable nature of Badakhshan, this region has a high potential for the gathering of groups that are considered a serious threat to the countries of Central Asia, as well as China and Russia. If the TTT succeeds in Badakhshan, there is no doubt that other Taliban-backed armed groups may also move their headquarters to this province. In this case, in the future, Afghanistan's Badakhshan could become one of the hubs of instability for Tajikistan and other countries in the region. In the long term, the existence of these groups in Afghanistan under the influence of the Taliban may harm future relations between this group and the regional countries.  It will not be acceptable to the Central Asian countries in particular and Russia and China in general that the Taliban hosts the TTT, the ETIM, and other terrorist groups.