Tajikistan: The Changing Insurgent Threats
Asia Report N°205
24 May 2011
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Tajikistan, by most measures Central Asia’s poorest and most vulnerable state, is now facing yet another major problem: the growing security threat from both local and external insurgencies. After his security forces failed to bring warlords and a small group of young insurgents to heel in the eastern region of Rasht in 2010-2011, President Emomali Rakhmon did a deal to bring a temporary peace to the area. But he may soon face a tougher challenge from the resurgent Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a group with a vision of an Islamist caliphate that is fighting in Afghanistan alongside the Taliban.
That conflict is moving closer to the 1,400km Afghan-Tajik border. Many anti-government guerrillas operating in northern Afghanistan are of Central Asian origin and are largely affiliated with the IMU, which seems to be focusing on its fight against the government in Kabul but may at some stage turn its attention northwards. Tajikistan has almost no capacity to tackle a dedicated insurgent force; its efforts to quell problems in Rasht have left its only well-trained counter-insurgency unit with just over 30 fighters.
A decade of increased international attention and aid has failed to make Tajikistan more secure or prosperous. A kleptocracy centred on the presidential family has taken much of the money from assistance and aluminium. Popular discontent over poverty and failing services has been kept in check by repression and an exodus of the dissatisfied as migrant workers. All institutions have been hollowed out, leaving a state with no resilience to cope with natural disasters, economic crises or political shocks.
A new generation of guerrillas is emerging, both within Tajikistan and in the IMU. They are mostly men in their twenties with little memory of the Tajik civil war of 1992-1997. This development has punctured two comfortable assumptions: that the IMU was a forlorn rump of ageing jihadists and that Tajiks were too scarred by the memory of the brutal civil war to turn on the regime. The latter has long been central to the analyses of both the Tajik leadership and many foreign governments.
The secular, Soviet-trained leadership that emerged from the civil war now finds itself dealing with a society increasingly drawn to observant Islam. The regime’s response to this is as inept as its efforts to bring Rasht to heel. Tajiks studying in foreign Islamic institutions have been called home; the government is trying to control the content of Friday sermons and prevent young people from visiting mosques; it has also dismissed some clerics. Officials allege that the main opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party, is becoming increasingly radicalised. Clumsy policies may make this a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Jihadist groups, too, are paying more attention to Tajikistan. Limited infiltration of armed guerrillas from Afghanistan has been taking place for several years. The numbers seem relatively small and their intent unknown. Many pass through to other countries – notably Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Some, however, are probably probing for government vulnerabilities. A small number of fighters from the North Caucasus have also been active in Tajikistan in recent years. Radicalisation by osmosis is growing: Tajikistan is gradually becoming part of the virtual jihad. Islamist websites are paying increasing attention to events in the country. Islamic militants in Tajikistan are adopting tactics already well known in other jihadist struggles, notably in the North Caucasus. In September 2010 the country witnessed what was described as its first suicide bombing. And while most military attention is focused on Rasht, the northern border area of Isfara, not far from Khujand, is developing the reputation of a safe haven for armed militants.
Billions of dollars of drugs pass through Tajikistan en route to Russia and China every year. There is a strong suspicion within the international community that senior members of the ruling elite are protecting the transit of narcotics from Afghanistan. High-level protection is almost certainly undermining international organisations’ attempts to control the border with Afghanistan – efforts that officials involved admit have had very little effect. At a time of growing menace from Afghanistan, the first line of defence is being kept artificially weak.
With the IMU engaged, for now, in Afghanistan, it would be advisable to use whatever breathing space is available to re-evaluate security and aid policies. China, a silent but crucial player in the region with vital security interests, could usefully be drawn into joint consultations, along with the U.S., Russia and others, on measures to assess the security problems and possible responses. Bilateral and multilateral donors should examine the utility of providing assistance to a regime that cannot prevent a very significant proportion being lost to corruption. Conditionality should be adopted as the norm. The Tajik government should be put on notice that a failure to address support for the narcotics trade within its own elite will seriously damage its credibility and outside support.
President Rakhmon denies that the North African scenario of popular unrest and revolt could happen in Tajikistan; despite the different circumstances, such confidence is questionable. Tajikistan is so vulnerable that a small, localised problem could quickly spiral into a threat to the regime’s existence. The speed with which the popular mood can move from passivity to anger was demonstrated not just in the Middle East, but much closer to home, in Kyrgyzstan, in April 2010. Tajikistan is not immune.
To the Governments of Russia, China and the U.S.:
1. Institute joint consultations with a view to assessing the risks to the Afghan-Tajikistan border, and Afghanistan, from Afghanistan-based insurgent groups of Central Asian origin or interest. Share information and intelligence on the strength, strategic intentions and capabilities of Islamist insurgent groups like IMU. Discuss joint measures to reinforce border security and inhibit the trans-shipment of narcotics.
To the U.S., Other Members of the International Coalition in Afghanistan and Major Donors:
2. Raise explicitly and regularly with the president of Tajikistan and other senior leaders the concerns of the international community that senior members of the leadership are benefiting from narcotics smuggling. Urge the government to take energetic measures to investigate and punish any senior officials found to be active in the trade and warn it of the potential repercussions of failing to take such steps – notably reduction or termination of aid.
To the International Community and Donors in Tajikistan:
3. Reconfigure the strategy and philosophy of aid. Make conditionality the norm to reward reform and new approaches and penalise corruption or incompetence. Maintain a flexible aid fund, to be disbursed according to performance. In developing this policy, pay particular attention to developing well-coordinated positions to avoid duplication; investing in long-term institution and capacity-building; and avoiding short-term superficial responses (eg, investing in new anti-corruption courts, rather than the existing judiciary) or focusing overly on security measures. Investing now in developing aid staff expertise in Tajikistan and Central Asia would pay significant dividends.
To the Government of Tajikistan:
4. Engage in open and public dialogue with all Islamist groups that explicitly repudiate the use of violence to achieve their ends. Repeal laws banning such organisations and encourage their free participation in all forms of political and social life.
Bishkek/Brussels, 24 May 2011