Curious Case of the Duelling Afghan Diplomats

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Here’s a curiosity. Tajikistan, it seems, is hosting diplomats from two different Afghan governments.

The Afghan ambassador at the embassy in Dushanbe is Mohammad Zahir Aghbar, who represents the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan government of former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani that fled in August 2021.

The head of the Afghan consulate in Khorog is Naqibullah Dehqanzada, who represents the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, created by the Taliban government that now holds sway.

Tajikistan’s government has not commented on the situation, but the fact that there seems to be a Taliban diplomat on Tajik territory indicates that the Tajik authorities are altering their policies toward the current rulers in Afghanistan.

Notably, the Tajik government is the only government of the countries neighbouring Afghanistan that shunned entering into a dialogue with the Taliban after the militant group returned to power following the exit of the US and its allies.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon has criticised the Taliban for failing to include minority groups in governing Afghanistan, such as the ethnic Tajiks who are believed to account for 27% of the country’s population.

Rahmon has also served warnings on the potential threat from other militant groups in Afghanistan, such as Taliban ally Jamaat Ansarullah, a militant group formed in Tajikistan that was originally the Tajik wing of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

Jamaat Ansarullah carried out an attack in Tajikistan’s northern city of Khujand in November 2010, killing two people and wounding 25 others.  Many members of the militant group fled to Afghanistan after the suicide bombing to escape Tajik security forces. These homegrown Tajik militants allied themselves with the Taliban in areas of northeastern Afghanistan near the Tajik border.

In the weeks after Ghani’s government fell, tensions quickly grew between the Taliban and the Tajik government. In late September 2021, the Taliban deployed members of Jamaat Ansarullah, armed with American weapons, as border guards in an area along Afghanistan’s frontier with Tajikistan.

Tajikistan countered by increasing troop strength along the border and conducting a series of military drills near the frontier.

After the Taliban takeover, Ambassador Aghbar continued to occupy the Afghan embassy in Dushanbe and occasionally made statements criticising the Taliban or touting the alleged progress of the National Resistance Front (NRF) in Afghanistan, a group the Rahmon administration is suspected of supporting.

On September 13 this year, the Dushanbe embassy held a memorial service for slain Afghan commander Ahmad Shah Masoud, who was killed two days before 9/11 by suicide bombers posing as journalists.

Masoud became a legend in Afghanistan while fighting Soviet forces in the 1980s, but he fought against the Taliban in the 1990s and on the eve of September 11, 2001, Masoud’s fighters were the last holdouts against the Taliban’s attempt at a total conquest of Afghanistan. His son, Ahmad Masoud, is nowadays an NRF leader and has been a frequent guest of Dushanbe.

On November 7, Aghbar spoke with journalists in Dushanbe and held a copy of a letter disseminated by the Taliban on social media announcing the appointment of a “first secretary” to the Afghan embassy in Dushanbe.

Aghbar tore up the letter saying that the Taliban “do not have any legitimacy.”

Asked about the Afghan consulate hundreds of kilometres to the east in Tajikistan’s rugged and remote Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO), Aghbar said the consulate was closed due to a “lack of economic means.”

The question about the consulate related to reports in March that a Taliban delegation was in Khorog to inspect damage to the building from a recent avalanche.

The Tajik government did not comment on the visit, but Tajik state news agency Avesta cited the Taliban Foreign Ministry as saying the delegation “led by the head of the financial and administrative department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Haji Mohammad Musa Amiri” was in the GBAO capital.

Two days after Aghbar ripped up the Taliban statement on appointing a representative to the embassy in Dushanbe, the Taliban posted a video of Dehqanzada introducing himself as the head of the Afghan consulate in Khorog.

Dehqanzada said he was working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and was at his post, providing consular services, though it is not clear if there are any Afghan citizens in GBAO.

The GBAO administration, however, reported at the start of September that several markets on the Tajik-Afghan border that had been closed since the Taliban returned to power had been reopened.

The Tajik service of Radio Liberty reported that Dehqanzada previously worked in Tajikistan as an Afghan diplomat under the Ghani government.

Tajikistan has continued exporting electricity to Afghanistan and allowing international humanitarian aid to be transported via its territory into Afghanistan. The most likely reason for its new approach to the Taliban, however, is likely the activities of a common foe, the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP).

ISKP continues to attack Taliban forces in northern Afghanistan. The group claimed credit for the bombing of mosques in the northern Afghan cities of Mazar-i-Sharif and Kunduz on March 21, 2022, that left nearly 40 dead and around 100 wounded.

ISKP also claimed it was behind a May 7, 2023 attack on Tajikistan in which militants fired several rockets from Afghan territory into Tajikistan, apparently targeting Tajik border guards. No one was injured. The Tajik government remained silent about the incident even though Afghan media reported that border guards returned fire and destroyed a Toyota truck belonging to the ISKP militants.

One week later, the Tajik government reportedly sent former security official Samariddin Chuyanzoda to Kabul to meet with Taliban representatives. It was said to be the first known contact between a Tajik official and the Taliban. Tajik authorities have never commented publicly on the reported visit.

ISKP’s efforts to attract new recruits include propaganda on social networks that has increasingly targeted Tajik citizens.

The propaganda also calls on Tajiks inside Tajikistan to stage attacks at home.

The Tajik government seems to be engaging more amicably with the Taliban due to the threat from ISKP.

Allowing the Taliban to occupy the consulate in Khorog is a significant step towards better relations, though remote Khorog, and more generally GBAO, amount to a relatively safe place from the Tajik government’s perspective when it comes to allowing a Taliban representation inside Tajikistan.

GBAO is sparsely populated, and the majority of the people are Ismaili Shiites who are aware of how the Taliban has repressed the Shiite Hazara community in Afghanistan. There is little chance that the Taliban could have much influence with the local residents.

The fact that the Tajik authorities have not denied the presence of Taliban representatives on Tajik soil is a sign that after more than 25 years of being fiercely against the militant group, the Tajik government has a new policy toward the Taliban. That does not mean, however, that Dushanbe will cease its support for the NRF. 

Source : BNE