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Precarious progress for US ally Tajikistan

Not far from here, at the heavily fortified Leningradsky Post, two dozen Tajik guards patrol the border around the clock. Perched in a high watchtower, they peer across the sluggish Pyandzh River, keeping an eye out for trouble floating over from the Afghan side – just like the Soviet and Russian troops before them.

"In our experience, bad things come from Afghanistan," says a Tajik officer who refused to give his name.

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Those "bad things" – weapons, drugs, and Islamic militancy – contributed to Tajikistan's near destruction in the 1990s, in a brutal civil war that took up to 100,000 lives and nearly brought the Afghan-trained and -armed Islamic opposition to power. The tiny, mountainous country of 7 million at Asia's heart is still trying to live down its reputation as a "nearly failed state," and many experts remain concerned that one of America's few secular Muslim allies in the war on terror could be tipped back into chaos if it does not make swift progress on a daunting list of problems. These include war- shattered infrastructure, the worst poverty in the former Soviet Union (USSR), and a wave of corruption boosted by the growing flow of narcotics that passes through Tajikistan from Afghanistan to the West.

President Imomali Rakhmonov, who is credited with winning the civil war and restoring order, was reelected last November to a new seven-year term. But international organizations describe his rule as increasingly autocratic, and some worry that the harsh repression of dissidents, especially suspected Islamic militants, could generate fresh opposition. Human Rights Watch describes conditions in Tajikistan as "worsening," while Freedom House rates the country as "not free."

"There's been considerable stabilization here in the past few years, but real fragilities remain," says Igor Bock, deputy chief of the United Nations Development Program's permanent mission to Tajikistan. "The government has maybe two or three years to prove it can make positive changes."

About two-thirds of Tajiks live on $2 per day or less. Most rural people lack access to clean water, and much of the country suffers from daily power cuts – even in the capital, Dushanbe.

Tajikistan's economy grew by 7 percent last year, but experts warn that only a few people are benefiting so far. Almost 1 million Tajiks are working abroad; their remittances account for up to half of Tajikistan's official GDP.

The government is counting heavily on developing the country's vast hydroelectric potential, and some big Russian corporations appear interested in investing. Meanwhile, the growing electricity crisis is causing deep discontent. "Even during the civil war, we had better electricity supplies," says Parviz Mullojanov, director of the Public Committee for Democratic Process, a Tajik nongovernmental organization. "People do not believe official explanations, which are very technical, and many think corrupt bureaucrats are stealing the electricity and selling it to other countries for profit."

Following the USSR's collapse in 1992, Tajikistan plunged into civil war between rival clans. Islamist rebels, trained and armed by Tajik warlords in Afghanistan, were defeated only with massive Russian assistance to government forces. A UN-sponsored deal ended the war a decade ago, but stability only began to return to wide swaths of the countryside after the Taliban were driven out of neighboring Afghanistan five years ago.

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The worst scenario, many experts here say, is that the US-led stabilization mission in neighboring Afghanistan might fail. Tajikistan sided with the West in the post-9/11 Afghan war, and was a major staging ground for international aid to the Tajik-dominated Afghan Northern Alliance, which played a key role in overthrowing the extreme Islamist Taliban. Today, NATO troops man the posts on the other side of the Pyandzh River and – except for what experts say is an alarming growth in drug smuggling – the border is quiet.

"If Afghanistan were to descend into lawlessness again, it would create a very threatening situation for all of Central Asia, but especially here and [in next-door] Uzbekistan," says Mr. Mullojanov. "We have our own Islamist opposition, and once again we might see them setting up strongholds in northern Afghanistan and infiltrating here, as happened before."

Once fortified by Soviet-installed electric fences and minefields, Tajikistan's 745-mile border with Afghanistan is relatively porous. The chronic power shortages render the electrified fences defunct in some places, and the minefields are being dug up with help from international organizations.

"If someone wanted to cross the border, it was always possible," says Benazar Nizoyev, a farmer who works within sight of Leningradsky Post. He tells of how he fled to Afghanistan at the height of Tajikistan's civil war, floating across the Pyandzh at night on a raft made of old tires. In nearby Kumsangir district, local official Surat Safarov says that everyone is betting heavily on Western success in Afghanistan. "If things go well, that will mean trade and connections to Iran, Pakistan, and the West for us. If there is no stability in Afghanistan, things will be very, very bad for us," he says.