The border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan (stretching over 1300 km) is one of great international concern. It is important in three aspects. First, there are crossings of militants from Afghanistan into Tajikistan; an issue that Central Asian governments like to emphasize but is difficult to pin down. In most cases this involves Tajiks from Afghanistan that have fought in the Tajik civil war (1992-7). Second, the border plays a role in NATO’s Northern Distribution Network (NDN) although most military cargo to (and soon from) Afghanistan passes through Uzbekistan on to Kazakhstan and then Russia. Third, an increasing part of Afghan produced opiates find their way out of Afghanistan through Tajikistan.
During a recent visit to the bridge between Tajik Nizhniy Pyandzh and Afghan Sherkhan Bandar I was struck by the low intensity of travel over the border and the serenity at the border control station and customs office. This bridge was constructed by the US in 2007 and is the main connection between both countries. The few other existing bridges are further East in mountainous Gorno-Badakhshan, built for this isolated region to engage in small-scale trade with Afghan neighbours.
On average about 40-50 people cross the bridge daily, several of them Afghans seeking medical treatment in the closest hospital in the region (Dushanbe that is 200 km further north) plus about 10-20 trucks (mostly Chinese, Kyrgyz and Tajik): Not really the vibrant trade environment that both countries are desperate for. As for the security measures, the US-financed border control equipment, a baggage scanner machine and several computers, these are there, but just gathering dust.
Meanwhile drug-trafficking is rampant. Small-scale drug traffickers have a wealth of opportunities to cross over the Panj River that is in many parts not deep and even possible to walk through. Larger shipments however, are said to be hidden in cement packs so Western-financed drug detection dogs can’t pick up the smell. But it is also clear that high ranking officials among the Tajik authorities are implicated in the large-scale drug trafficking that constitutes one of the main pillars of Tajik national income (next to remittances from labour immigrants in Russia; some cotton production; one metal plant; and development aid). Last year there were zero large drug busts at this border, while the Central Asian route is said to transport 30 percent of all Afghan opiates exports.
Russian border troops left Tajikistan in 2005 when Tajik border security took full control. Since then, there has been an influx of donor aid: Russian advisors; Chinese infrastructure; US training and equipment; and extensive programmes by the EU (BOMCA and CADAP) and the OSCE. Donor coordination is difficult and Tajik authorities limit themselves to provide wish-lists for equipment (cars, border posts etc.) while showing less interest in know-how and genuine reform (integrated border management): The militarised Tajik security services remain the main player controlling other actors such as police and customs.
Policy communities in Brussels, Moscow and Washington are busy developing their own plans to step up involvement on the region, whilst having NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in mind. By-and-large however, the drug trade seems unaffected by the ongoing war in Afghanistan and will continue to be active, even growing, after 2014.
All of this made me wonder where all the international actors were during my visit: No white jeeps with blue logos on the road between Dushanbe and the Afghan border. Only a few Tajik border guards present, but not using the new equipment. And the much needed trade flows were not substantial enough to break Tajikistan’s isolation and develop Afghanistan. But then again, I visited on a Saturday, and maybe officials, traders and drug-traffickers all like to celebrate the weekend.