On November 6th, Tajikistan held presidential elections and, unsurprisingly, the incumbent President Emomali Rakhmon won a contest that was largely devoid of competition. The United States Department of State concurred with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) which concluded that a “restrictive candidate-registration requirements resulted in a lack of pluralism and genuine choice.”
Despite its democratic shortcomings, Tajikistan has been a “critical United States partner in Central Asia,” according to U.S. Central Command’s Lt. Col. Scott Maxwell, especially since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan in 2001. Last year, the Commander of U.S. Central Command, General James Mattis, stated that Tajikistan’s “extraordinary cooperation has been a tremendous help in stabilizing the region.”
One noted area of cooperation is Tajikistan’s participation in the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a web of routes through which coalition forces ship non-lethal equipment in and out of Afghanistan. And though more material was slated to pass through Uzbekistan than Tajikistan, a contractor interviewed by analyst Joshua Kucera said that his company has been able to ship far more equipment through Tajikistan than Uzbekistan because of its fewer bureaucratic hurdles. Today, however, the NDN is being utilized far less frequently to ship material out than it had been to transport material into Afghanistan.
A major concern for the U.S. in Tajikistan is instability and narcotics flowing in from Tajikistan’s 749-mile border with Afghanistan. Afghanistan is the world’s largest heroin and opium producer, and according to the State Department’s 2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, 75 to 80 tons of heroin are smuggled through Tajikistan each year. As such, both the State Department and Defense Department (DOD) have invested resources to improve border security and combat drug trafficking in Tajikistan.
The majority of the State Department’s security assistance efforts have come through the security component of a largely economic program, the Freedom Support Act (FSA) (later renamed Assistance for Europe, Eurasia and Central Asia (AEECA)). According to data complied by the Security Assistance Monitor, the U.S. spent USD 55 million between 2001 and 2009 on projects such as “Law Enforcement Assistance,” “Export Control & Border Security,” and “Transnational Crime” through the FSA and AEECA programs. Starting in 2013, the State Department began requesting counternarcotics funding for Tajikistan from its main counternarcotics account, the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement program, rather than the AEECA.
More specifically, since 2003 the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs has been the main donor (pdf) to Tajikistan’s Drug Control Agency (DCA), and the U.S. has provided the DCA with USD 11.3 million in this period. This support is used to “supplement salaries for DCA personnel, provide training and equipment, renovate facilities for use by DCA mobile units, and fund a DCA liaison office in northern Afghanistan that conducts joint operations with Afghans.” As part of the State Department’s new Central Asia Counternarcotics Initiative, the U.S. will also support elite, vetted units of the DCA to conduct intelligence work. The U.S. is also involved in certain border security programs conducted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), however, the exact amount of assistance provided by the U.S. for these programs is unclear.
Like other countries in Central Asia, though, the Defense Department has taken on a leading role in providing security assistance to Tajikistan. According to the Security Assistance Monitor, between 2003 and 2010, the DOD spent USD 88.5 million in Tajikistan from its two counternarcotics programs (Section 1004 and Section 1033), providing support such as intelligence, training, infrastructure, equipment, etc. (pdf). According to the Foreign Assistance Dashboard, DOD also planned to spend an additional USD 31.3 million in 2011 and 2012. A press release by U.S. Central Command in 2010 further noted that DOD built a National Training Center to help improve the Tajikistan military’s counterterrorism and counternarcotics capabilities, while also constructing border outposts throughout the country. The release also stated that a number of special operations training events took place in 2009 and 2010, and that the total security cooperation events in Tajikistan in 2011 was expected to be over 70.
Despite this assistance, the 2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report offered a mix assessment of Tajikistan’s ability to intercept drug trafficking through its territory. The report wrote that drug seizures increased 41% in 2012 over 2011, though most of these seizures were of cannabis as opposed to heroin and opium. The report also congratulated the DCA for making several significant seizures and destroying a number of labs across the border in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, the report also noted a number of problems. The low salaries of drug officials fuel corruption, and the value of illicit drug trade through Tajikistan amounts to 21% of the country’s GDP. Moreover, corruption among high level officials means that drug trials are “sometimes dismissed for connected individuals, or used by corrupt officials to go after internal opponents.” The report also wrote that a key border crossing equipped by the U.S. remains under-utilized.
This assessment would not surprise analysts such as University of Exeter Senior Lectures David Lewis, who has examined international security assistance to Tajikistan. In 2011 Lewis wrote a critical report about the OSCE’s programs in Central Asia (pdf), in which he addresses the main flaw of these initiatives in Tajikistan: these programs do not address the issue that key figures in the regime participate in and benefit from the drug trade. Therefore,
International assistance programmes primarily allow police and security forces to focus on smaller-scale drug traffickers that are not linked to the security forces or government officials. As a result, international assistance programmes essentially assist drug traffickers linked to the state to retain a near monopoly on the trade in narcotics through the region.
Ironically, Lewis noted that this system may lead to the positive outcomes of “reduc[ing] the potential for violence by limiting the potential for conflict between different drug gangs and it reduc[ing] the likelihood of drug trafficking being used to finance armed insurgency against states.” The Economist picked up on this point, quoting western officials who say that they prefer this status quo. However, what the status quo of assistance does not do is “reduce the volume of drugs passing through the region to their final markets in Europe,” as Lewis wrote.