Afghans fleeing Taliban are flooding Tajikistan

By Isabel Gorst
Thursday, December 17, 2009

DUSHANBE, TAJIKISTAN -- The night his 11-year-old son escaped from kidnappers, Abdul Aziz bundled a few belongings into a car and drove his family 18 miles north across the Afghan border into Tajikistan. "It is too frightening to live in Afghanistan anymore," he said, standing in the bare, unlit room he now rents outside Dushanbe, the Tajik capital. "We are never going back."

A growing number of refugees are fleeing escalating violence and lawlessness in Afghanistan for safety in Tajikistan, the most visible sign yet that the fallout from the Taliban insurgency is threatening to undermine Central Asia's security, too.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says that more than 3,600 Afghans have fled to Tajikistan since January 2008.

Until recently, Tajikistan, Central Asia's poorest country, attracted little international attention. A violent, six-year civil war after the Soviet Union's demise stymied development. Unlike its post-Soviet peers, Tajikistan has insufficient oil resources to attract major investors. Its economy is kept afloat by aluminum and cotton exports and remittances from migrants working abroad that account for about 40 percent of its gross domestic product.

But as the Taliban has advanced north this year into the previously peaceful Afghan province of Kunduz, Tajikistan has become the front line between the insurgency and Central Asia.

In Dushanbe, a sleepy city built as the last outpost of the Soviet empire in Central Asia, the only obvious reminder of the conflict a few hundred miles away is the sight of European soldiers relaxing in hotel lobbies en route to and from Afghanistan.

But, as even profiting hotel managers admit, cooperation with NATO forces carries risks. After Central Asian countries agreed this year to allow the U.S. military use of roads to transport non-lethal supplies to Afghanistan as an alternative to routes from troubled Pakistan, the Taliban warned of reprisal.

Meanwhile, military experts have said that the security crackdown in Pakistan is forcing members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a terrorist group with links to al-Qaeda, to return to their homelands in Central Asia, heightening the risk of regional instability.

Security forces in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have reported clashes this year with Islamist terrorists, opposition warlords and drug traffickers from Afghanistan.

But human rights organizations and some analysts say dictatorial governments in the region exaggerate the threat of Islamist unrest to justify harsh treatment of opponents.

Close links between terrorists and increasingly violent drug trafficking gangs pose a greater threat to central Asian security than the Taliban, said Rashid Abdullo, an independent analyst in Dushanbe. "The Taliban would want to create a stable state with good neighborly relations," Abdullo said. "They don't need to build an empire."

All Central Asian countries are officially secular, but poverty and the spiritual vacuum left by the collapse of communism have created fertile ground for the growth of religious fundamentalism.

In Tajikistan, a law adopted in the summer allocates a special role for Hanafi, the moderate Sunni school of Islam, in the nation's religious life. "It's a more cultured, intellectual way of dealing with extremism than violence," said Davlatali Nazriev, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry. "We have to change the image of Islam as the religion of terror."

After a campaign to close unauthorized mosques, Tajikistan accepted an offer this year from Qatar to build a new mosque in Dushanbe. With room for 150,000 worshipers, it will be the biggest mosque in central Asia and, Nazriev said, will help bring religious practices into the open.

-- Financial Times

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