A Fateful Moment for the CSTO on the Afghan Border

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A Fateful Moment for the CSTO on the Afghan Border

The Taliban’s recent lightning offensive in northern Afghanistan may be a litmus test for the relevance of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization.

A Fateful Moment for the CSTO on the Afghan Border

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin on May 8, 2021.

Credit: Russian Presidential press and Information Service

The Taliban’s blitz in major cities in the Afghan provinces bordering Tajikistan, which resulted in more than 1,500 Afghan soldiers fleeing across the border, alarmed officials in Dushanbe. On July 5, Tajikistan’s Security Council decided to mobilize 20,000 reservists in response and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon reached out to his counterparts in Russia, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan to discuss the security concerns over the phone. 

On July 7, Tajikistan’s representative in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) requested “an adequate response within the framework of the CSTO, including the adoption of measures to strengthen the capacity to protect the southern borders.” Addressing Tajikistan’s concern, the Chief of the Joint Staff of the CSTO Anatoly Sidorov stated that the situation does not require the CSTO’s involvement as the Tajik border forces are in control of it. He concluded so after urgently visiting Tajikistan, where he observed the situation in the border zone and held talks with Tajik officials on July 7-9. 

However, an important detail in the Tajik envoy’s request that went unnoticed was a call for the full implementation of the Resolution “On assistance to the Republic of Tajikistan in strengthening the Tajik-Afghan border” adopted by the CSTO on September 23, 2013. The document envisions a two-staged reinforcement of Tajikistan’s capacity to protect the borders with Afghanistan. At the first stage, the CSTO was supposed to help with the rearmament of Tajikistan’s border forces. The second stage, also known as the “Target Interstate Program to strengthen the Tajik-Afghan border,” was meant to be, as explained by the then-secretary-general of the CSTO, “a more serious endeavor towards the creation of the infrastructure of the borders.” In short, this was meant to be the CSTO’s plan for preventive measures to buttress the southern borders of the organization amid the looming U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

Yet, eight years on, with the U.S. withdrawal nearly complete and Afghan government forces spectacularly failing to hold control of the northern provinces of Afghanistan, the CSTO has not progressed beyond organizing consultations “in order to consider the draft of the Targeted Interstate Program.” Tajikistan does not have much leverage on its CSTO allies other than using every opportunity to remind them of the urgency of the matter. On April 2, 2015, Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Aslov complained that Tajikistan “cannot be satisfied with the current state of affairs regarding this matter. We, therefore, have brought the attention of our partners to need of taking practical measures for the implementation of this resolution adopted by the heads of states.”

The most recent examples of such a reminder are Rahmon’s meeting with the secretary-general of the CSTO and the appearance of Rahmon’s son, also chairman of Tajikistan’s parliament, Rustam Emomali in the CSTO Parliamentary Assembly. A typical explanation for the lack of progress that the CSTO officials provide in response is that “such a program cannot be worked out in a flash.”

The failure of the Russian-led security bloc to provide Tajikistan with what it needs when it needs it adds up to the bad track record of the organization as well as its key member, Russia. The CSTO was unable to conduct the “line of activities” mentioned in the charter of the organization when in 2020 Armenia, one its members, was defeated by Azerbaijan, which was backed by its ally, Turkey. Similarly, the organization has not been able to do much when two of its members — Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan — engaged in violent clashes over a border dispute in May 2021. Furthermore, Russia has a reputation for dangling the prospects of investing in Tajikistan’s armed forces. As was reported by Radio Ozodi, RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Tajikistan has not received a penny of the $1.23 billion that Russia reportedly promised to spend on the modernization of the armed forces of Tajikistan in mid-2014. Similarly, Russia agreed in 2012 to allocate $200 million for the needs of the Tajik army, which was a part of a Russian gambit to prolong the stay of the Russian military base in Tajikistan until 2042. In 2017, Tajikistan received $122 million worth of used military equipment from Russia. The remainder of the amount was seemingly covered in 2019 by written-off cantonments in the Tajik cities of Kulob and Bokhtar that the Russian garrison abandoned, which were originally handed over to Russian forces for free.

For Russia, the prospect of building up the infrastructure of the Afghan-Tajik border seems to be yet another tool to keep Tajikistan in Moscow’s orbit. As blurted out by Russian President Vladimir Putin in a meeting with his Tajik counterpart on May 8, the Target Program is going to have a timeline of several years. It is interesting to note that, in September 2013, speaking after the meeting that resulted in the adoption of the original plan, Putin presented it as a preventive measure against the rise of the Taliban. In his own words, the CSTO “will consider all scenarios of the development of the situation, take preventive measures, and provide additional assistance to Tajikistan in strengthening the Tajik-Afghan state border. We have agreed to work out an Intergovernmental Target Program regarding this section of the border.”

While neglecting the primary needs of its members in regard to the strengthening of military infrastructure and the protection of state frontiers, which are mentioned in Articles 7 and 8 in the CSTO Charter, respectively, Russia has increasingly dragged its CSTO partners into global issues. For instance, the joint statements by the ministers of foreign affairs of the CSTO on strengthening international convention on bacteriological weapons or the extension of the Russia-U.S. treaty on the reduction of strategic armament serve Russia only. Similarly, Russia seems to prefer having an opportunity to warn Europe about a possible overflow of terrorism and religious extremism from Afghanistan to Central Asia, as the CSTO secretary-general recently did at an OSCE security forum, rather than putting a hurdle in the path of these threats by fortifying borders of the most vulnerable member-states. Yet, as the visit of the Taliban delegation to Moscow on July 9 demonstrated, if and when needed, Russia can easily obtain assurances from the Taliban not to cross the CSTO’s borders or let other groups in Afghanistan do so.

In 2009-10, Russia unsuccessfully attempted to establish a CSTO-NATO partnership. Back then, the U.S. discouraged its NATO partners from pursuing the idea, as it did not want to “enhance the legitimacy of what may be a waning organization.” But in 2011, when the Obama administration announced that U.S. troops would start withdrawing from Afghanistan in 2012 and “the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security” by 2014, the CSTO promised to become the security guarantor for the Central Asian nations. Now that the Taliban’s rule along the border is a reality, it is only logical for Tajikistan to scrutinize the achievements of the CSTO in reinforcing Tajikistan’s capabilities in dealing with the “Afghan threat.”