Tajikistan and the U.S. have successfully worked together to address development issues and promote regional security for more than two decades
Tajikistan pursues a multi-vector foreign policy. It seeks strong cooperation not only within the Central Asia region, regardless of alliances or political ideology, but also does so internationally. The government of Tajikistan cooperates equally with regional and global powers without providing disproportionately favorable terms to one country to the detriment of another.
In accordance with this foreign affairs strategy, Tajikistan and the U.S. work closely together, with relations largely defined by close cooperation in a number of areas including: military security, counter-terrorism, anti-narcotics activities and promoting education and health. The proximity of Afghanistan, Tajikistan’s immediate neighbor, and the U.S. policy to stabilize this part of the world, has led to much common ground being established between the two countries. Although American companies and investors have not been as commercially active in the country as those of other global powers, there is great potential for collaboration as large-scale energy, infrastructure and transport projects are implemented.
Tajik-U.S. relations have seen significant progress since the country emerged as a sovereign state. With a current population of 8 million located at crossroads of China, Afghanistan and Central Asia, the Republic of Tajikistan declared its independence from the Soviet Union on September 9, 1991. It was almost immediately embroiled in a civil war that lasted until 1997, which included a difficult struggle against radical Islamist elements.
Despite the difficulties faced by the country at this time, diplomatic engagement between the U.S. and Tajikistan moved at a relatively fast pace. Relations were formally established on February 14, 1992, less than half a year after independence, and the U.S. embassy was opened in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, the following month.
As Sirodjiddin Aslov, Minister of Foreign Affairs recalls, “From the first days of independence of Tajikistan, the U.S. has established friendly relations and has provided valuable technical and humanitarian assistance in overcoming difficulties experienced by our country at the initial stage of state sovereignty, in particular in the years of civil war (1992-1997).”
In fact to date, the U.S. has provided Tajikistan with a total of approximately $1 billion in development aid. During the 1990s this was largely focused on humanitarian support. Since the end of the civil war period, which has been marked by rapid economic growth, this assistance has been focused strongly on promoting peace and security, good governance, economic growth and developing human capacity. This amounted to $36 million in 2014, with a strong emphasis on countering terrorism, narcotics trafficking and bolstering military and border control capacity.
Indeed, Tajik-U.S. relations today are strongly defined by cooperation on regional security, especially concerning the country’s southern neighbor, Afghanistan, which shares a 800-mile border with Tajikistan. Partnership in this area has increased steadily following the September 11 terrorist attacks.
“This tragic event brought us closer, and we started to see opportunities for cooperation,” explains Farhod Salim, Tajikistan’s Ambassador in Washington D.C. “The U.S. is doing a lot of work in different areas in the country, such as aiding us in the fight against terrorism, assisting and training border patrol as well as local law enforcement and fighting against drug and human trafficking.” Due to the overlap between fighting terrorism, transnational crime and ensuring border security, much of this collaboration is focused on supporting and working together with the domestic security services of Tajikistan. This includes the national police force, border guards and drug enforcement agencies. It is part of a wider bilateral agreement on security issues that has been in place for more than a decade.
“This (security) cooperation is being implemented within the framework of a decree that was signed between the Government of Tajikistan and the Government of the U.S. on January 27, 2003, relating to drug trafficking and law enforcement agencies,” explains Ramazon Rakhimzoda, Minister of Internal Affairs, head of the government body responsible for overall domestic security. “The U.S. State Department and the U.S. embassy in Dushanbe constantly provide technical support which grants solid assistance in the fight against crime as well as terrorism, religious extremism, the drug trade and human trafficking. The staff of our law-enforcement bodies use equipment provided by the U.S., almost on a daily basis.”
Approximately 30 agreements related to military cooperation, counter terrorism, fighting narcotics trafficking and economic development have been signed between Tajikistan and the U.S. since independence. In accordance with cooperation in military matters, Tajikistan has played an important logistical role in supporting the International Security Assistance Force’s (ISAF) operations in Afghanistan, including those of U.S. forces. This includes the transit of non-military cargo as well as providing NATO with drinking water and other supplies.
During an official state visit in 2011, former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton described the support Tajikistan had given to ISAF forces, stating, “I thanked the president for the critical role Tajikistan has played in the international community’s efforts to bring security and peace to Afghanistan. Tajikistan has been a strong partner, not only to us but to the 48 nations in the international forces. We have worked to defeat al-Qaida, to increase pressure on the Taliban, and to support an Afghan peace process aimed at ending the conflict and bringing wider stability to this region.”
As a secular, stable state that successfully fought terrorism and established national unity during the 1990s, Tajikistan has firsthand experience in the issues currently facing Afghanistan. As its immediate neighbor, Tajikistan also has a strong stake in working with the U.S. to ensure the development of a prosperous, peaceful society in Afghanistan.
According to Mr. Aslov, “Tajikistan cooperates with the United States in order to provide assistance in solving the problems of Afghanistan. In particular, facilitating the transit of non-military ISAF cargo in Afghanistan is not only favorable from an economic point of view for our state, but also contributes to the restoration of stability in Afghanistan and the creation of a market in the direction of North-South.”
Economic development is seen as paramount to developing a sustainable future for Afghanistan. This is something on which Tajikistan and the U.S. have worked together, including the development of transport links to facilitate trade. These include several bridges spanning the Panj River, which separates Tajikistan and Afghanistan. “The largest of these bridges was built by the U.S., who committed around $40 million to the project. This has boosted our bilateral trade with Afghanistan as well as with Pakistan,” says Ambassador Salim.
One recent development that has improved international trade opportunities with Tajikistan was accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2013. This came on the back of a series of reforms to improve the business climate since the early 2000s. Last year, the World Bank recognized Tajikistan as the most improved country in terms of ease of doing business for 2014.
“Since 2002, many reforms aimed at creating a favorable investment environment in top priority areas of the economy have been instituted,” elaborates Ambassador Salim. “The “open doors” foreign policy of Tajikistan expresses a willingness to develop and improve commercial and political relations with the countries of both the East and the West. Much legislation has been introduced by the parliament of Tajikistan that allows for direct foreign trade and investment. Everybody has equal rights to do business in Tajikistan – there are no obstacles for foreigners.”
At the time of writing, U.S. companies are yet to join other regional powers including China, Russia and the European Union, in utilizing the commercial potential of Tajikistan on a large scale. Currently there are less than 10 joint ventures between Tajik and American businesses and only eight companies established through direct U.S. investment. This contrasts with more than $3.2 billion in Chinese investment made in one project in 2014 alone, related to energy transit. Tremendous untapped potential exists in the country, particularly in this sector, as well as hydropower plant construction, infrastructure development, transportation and other areas.
Collaboration in education is one area where the U.S. and Tajikistan work together extensively. By cooperating through United States Agency for International Development (USAID) supported projects, teacher training, curriculum development and language skills have received a boost in Tajikistan’s education system. Participating in high school exchanges in the U.S. is a popular activity for Tajik students, especially for improving English language skills.
The U.S. is one of the preferred study destinations for Tajiks seeking a Western university degree, however less than 300 are currently studying there. Most opt to study in Russia due to traditional ties, near-native Russian language skills and favorable visa agreements. As a result, last year more than 1,000 Tajik students were admitted into universities in Russia with approximately 5,000 Tajik citizens currently studying there in total.
Tajikistan’s non-preferential, multi-vector foreign policy includes close collaboration with multi-lateral organizations as well as broad-based international cooperation. In this way, Tajikistan works with both regional and global powers to advance its foreign policy goals.
“The multi-vector approach to the international system has been considered as the core of this policy and it, undoubtedly, meets the national interests of Tajikistan,” explains the minister of foreign affairs. “Effective implementation of strategic goals, ensuring economic and social prosperity of the country, strengthening peace and stability, as well as gaining a worthy position in the international arena depends on such an approach.”
This policy was voiced very early in the history of independent Tajikistan by President Emomali Rahmon, who stated during the country’s 17th Session of Supreme Council in 1993 that, “The Republic of Tajikistan is committed to pursue a balanced and pragmatic foreign policy, and it has to be free of any unilateral approaches.”
The country works extensively with countries near and far, as well as the major powers in the region, including the European Union, Russia, India, Iran, the Gulf Cooperation Council member states and China.
As the largest investor in Tajikistan, bilateral relations with China are largely characterized by economics and trade. The countries share a 260-mile border, which has seen a substantial increase in the rate of infrastructure development as the two countries have developed better overland connections. The high elevation Kulma-Karasu checkpoint in the Pamirs accounts for the majority of trade. Improvements to roads here, as well as commercial interest have led to an increase in annual bilateral trade, currently estimated at $2 billion and expected to reach $3 billion in the next two years.
China has invested over $6 billion in Tajikistan over the last three years alone, and this tempo of approximately $2 billion per year is expected to continue. Aside from to developing Tajikistan’s domestic economy, China is seeking to create an energy and transportation corridor through Tajikistan to markets in Central Asia, Afghanistan and the Middle East.
Largely due to a shared history and cultural ties, primarily developed during Soviet times, Russia and Tajikistan maintain strong diplomatic relations and work together for security, economic affairs and defense cooperation. A high flow of official visits has been witnessed in recent years as a result.
“For Russia, Tajikistan is an important factor in restraining the flow of terrorism and drug trafficking. Besides that, Tajikistan is one of the largest suppliers of labor in Russia; several studies suggest that at any given time, there are more than 1.5 million Tajik citizens living in Russia”, says Igor Lyakin-Frolov, Ambassador of the Russian Federation to Tajikistan.
Defense cooperation is also extensive. In addition to providing training and equipment to the Tajik military, Russia’s largest military base outside of its own territory – located in the south of Tajikistan – hosts approximately 7,000 soldiers. It plays an important role in supporting security operations along the nearby Tajik-Afghan border.
This strategic presence has been extended, as Ambassador Lyakin-Frolov explains. “An agreement on the Conditions of Stay of the Russian Military Base on the Territory of Tajikistan was signed during an official visit of Russian President, Vladimir Putin, in October 2012,” he says.
“That agreement ensured the long-term military deployment (until 2042) in a region key to international security. It is of a great importance for providing security and stability in Tajikistan.”
On the business front, there are more than 25 joint ventures established between Russian and Tajik companies. These include telecommunications companies such as Beeline and Megaphone, as well as the Russian energy giant Gazprom. Apart from the large number of guest workers Tajikistan provides to the Russian economy, the country exports a large amount of agricultural produce including cotton, fruit and vegetables to Russia.
Unlike Russia, the European Union is a relative newcomer to Tajikistan. Its diplomatic representation in Dushanbe was opened in 2004 following the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA), agreed to in the same year and implemented in 2010. The EU works largely on a development base in Tajikistan to improve political, legislative, technical, social and cultural cooperation, as well as sustainable economic development. A large focus of this is on energy and water use. Annual bilateral trade amounts to approximately $400 million.
Within the framework of its multi-vector foreign policy, Tajikistan also actively engages with a number of multilateral, international and regional organizations. These include, but are not limited to, the United Nations, the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) Program, the Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD), the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
In terms of military and security cooperation, it is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and notably the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which also has a strong economic dimension. Tajikistan has also cooperated extensively with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) regarding Afghanistan.
Tajikistan has played a significant role in the expansion of the SCO, a particularly important organization for improving security and economic collaboration between Central Asia and its neighboring states. It is not a military organization such as NATO, but primarily works to counter terrorism, extremism and separatism, as well as fight trans-national crime and foster economic development.
Originally known as the Shanghai Five, it was formed in 1996 and initially consisted of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Following the SCO annual summit in 2000, held in Dushanbe, it expanded its membership to include Uzbekistan and was subsequently renamed. Afghanistan, India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan have observer status, with Belarus, Sri Lanka and Turkey as dialogue partners. The U.S., Turkmenistan, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Eurasian Economic Community and the UN are specially invited to attend its annual events.
Last year in September, Dushanbe hosted the 13th Annual Summit of the Heads of State of the SCO. This well-attended event saw extensive participation from member states and observers, with almost every head of state from the surrounding region in attendance. Considering the global security issues affecting the world over the last year, this was hardly surprising. The event included references to the ongoing global threats including trans-national terrorism, the widening of conflicts in Syria and Ukraine (both taking place in neighboring regions), as well as the Ebola epidemic in Africa.
As President Rahmon said during his address on September 12, “Exactly one year has passed since our last summit. During this short period a lot has changed in the world. Some of these changes affect the prevailing world order as a whole. This gives rise to new problems, the solution to which requires collective efforts and searches, including those within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.”
Attending the event were the heads of state of the SCO member states including: Chinese Presdient Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Uzbek President Islam Karimov, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev, and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon. Additionally, several leaders of neighboring states were also in attendance. Notable guests included the former Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, Iranian President Hassan Rohani, President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj of Mongolia, and the President of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov.
The resulting Dushanbe Declaration, signed by the SCO heads of state, pledged: a joint commitment to respect human rights and national sovereignty; to extend cooperation in political and humanitarian efforts; to cooperate in countering terrorism, narcotics trafficking and trans-national crime, and in providing secure, fair and open access to the internet; to use only peaceful means and dialogue to end the Syrian and Ukrainian conflicts; to make use of constructive means to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue; and to support peace-building in Afghanistan.
The Tajik-Afghan link
Much of Tajikistan’s strategic significance, along with Afghanistan, lies in its location at the so-called “Heart of Asia”. Numerous strategically important geographical zones converge here including China, Central Asia, South Asia and the Middle East. This has led to much commonality between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
“Now, if we want to speak particularly of the relationship between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, we can with confidence say that we share much of the same language, culture, history and religion. Without doubt, this long-term relationship has impacted the current state of affairs between Afghanistan and Tajikistan,” remarks Afghanistan’s Ambassador to Tajikistan, Dr. Abdulghafour Arezou.
The two countries are currently working together strongly on stability and security, particularly with the framework of the aptly named, Heart of Asia Istanbul Process. This regional diplomatic initiative seeks to build cooperation between Afghanistan and 14 neighboring countries to encourage cooperation on peace-building, law enforcement and security issues that affect the wider region.
Since 2001, Afghanistan and Tajikistan have established strong trade relations and are involved in carrying out a number of bilateral and regional economic development projects. These include transnational gas pipelines, electricity lines, roads, rail and other transportation links.
As U.S. and international forces continue being withdrawn from Afghanistan, it will be region-wide cooperation, connectivity between the states and economic development that define the future of the country. Tajikistan is already playing a significant role in working towards this by fostering regional harmony and cooperating and working hand in hand with the government of Afghanistan to generate prosperity for both countries.