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Islamic State Threatens Central Asia
Islamic State Threatens Central Asia
Afghanistan’s Taliban Expand Their Interim Government
Afghanistan’s Taliban Expand Their Interim Government
Tajikistan commander Gulmurod Khalimov, chief of Tajikistan’s paramilitary police unit (OMON), appeared on an ISIS propaganda video released on 27 May 2015.

Islamic State Threatens Central Asia

The appearance of Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov in an Islamic State (IS) propaganda video on 27 May has sent a chill across Central Asia. The head of Tajikistan’s Special Assignment Police Unit (OMON), a key element in President Emomali Rahmon’s security apparatus, had disappeared shortly before. In the video he promised to return to wage violent jihad.

A trained-in-Russia-and-America veteran of brutal Tajik government operations, Khalimov has the qualifications. And Tajikistan, a desperately poor country ruled by a venal elite, is a vulnerable target. As I drove to its capital, Dushanbe, last summer through the ancient city of Khujand and the rickety, fume-filled, Iranian-built Shariston tunnel, I saw poverty and isolation that eclipses the worst pockets of deprivation in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

Khalimov has been an intimate of that elite, but at 40 years old he is relatively young and forceful, unlike the elderly, usually corrupt figures who have previously promoted themselves as Islamist guerrilla leaders in Tajikistan. His defection is a blow to Rahmon’s regime on many levels. He speaks to the parts of the elite not yet bought off and to the alienation of a substantial segment of society.

His message may be draped in Islamic fundamentalist rhetoric, but it is based on some of the potent, more worldly aspects of IS appeal. “Going out to work every morning, look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself: Are you ready to die for this state or not”, he said directly to the underpaid, overstretched Tajik security forces. “I am ready to die for the Caliphate – are you?”

More than one million Tajik migrants work low-paid jobs in Russia. The remittances they send back make up more than 40 per cent of its GDP. But the value of the remittances is plummeting as Russia veers toward economic crisis. Nearly 200,000 of the migrants went home to bleak prospects in the second half of 2014 alone.

To Tajiks still in Russia, the police commander’s message was “you have become the slaves of non-believers. Why do you humiliate yourself working for non-believers while they must work for you? Join us, brothers … there are no nationalities or states in the Islamic State and our nationality is Islam”.

The eight million people of Tajikistan have known much violence already in their quarter-century of independence since the Soviet Union’s collapse. Rahmon, the only president the country has had, consolidated his power in a civil war against Islamists that ended in 1997. By side-lining the relatively moderate Islamic Renaissance Party earlier this year, he further alienated the devout and gave plausibility to those who argue that with other options closed, extremism is only the politics of last resort.

IS and other foreign fighters, probably the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, are already operating on Tajikistan’s southern border, but that is not the only fault line. Gorno-Badakhshan, high in the Pamirs – a twelve- to fifteen-hour drive when roads are passable – is inhabited by ethnically distinct Pamiris, who were with the rebels in the civil war and barely accept central power today.

Badakhshan has a long, open border with Afghanistan to the south, Kyrgyzstan to the north and China to the east. The Taliban are already active on the immediate Afghan side of that border. It may only be a matter of time before IS is there too.

The Tajik-Afghan border already attracts Russian attention. Even two years ago, an official of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) of a half-dozen ex-Soviet republics told me it was uncontrollable and deadly. This year a Russian diplomat said privately that if the Tajik government requested it, Russia would return troops to it.

The apprehension does not stop there. Neighbouring Uzbekistan – Central Asia’s most populated and most authoritarian state – and chaotic, coup-prone Kyrgyzstan, would be deeply troubled by serious unrest in Tajikistan.

International Crisis Group has been in Central Asia for fifteen years, arguing that the West, particularly the U.S., is building a dangerous debit sheet here. To gain logistical help for war in Afghanistan, it has partnered with dictators like Rahmon and Uzbekistan’s Karimov, accepting excesses excused as counter-terrorism, including repression of peaceful Islamic manifestations.

If other security figures follow Khalimov’s lead, the bill to pay could be steep, and there will not be credit left to pay it with.

A vendor (2R) selling Taliban flags waits for customers next to a large Taliban flag in Kabul on 24 September 2021. Hoshang Hashimi / AFP
Q&A / Asia

Afghanistan’s Taliban Expand Their Interim Government

The Taliban have made additional appointments to their cabinet. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Ibraheem Bahiss discusses what the moves may mean for Afghan politics and international reactions to the new government.

What do the new appointments signify?

On 22 September, the Taliban published several new appointments, including at ministerial levels. The announcement came a day after the Chinese, Russian and Pakistani envoys met with the head of the Taliban government, Mullah Hassan Akhund, calling for more inclusive governance. The list of new appointees very slightly broadens the new government’s makeup, as the interim administration is no longer composed entirely of Taliban stalwarts. Most of the new appointees either have no prior affiliation with the group or are not prominent members of it. Key appointees such as the ministers for trade and public health, and their deputies, do not appear to have past affiliations with the Taliban. Others with no formal connection with the movement include Nazar Mohammad Mutmaeen, head of the National Olympic Committee, and Najeebullah, head of atomic energy. Still, many of these outsiders are considered sympathetic to the Taliban.

Has the interim government now become inclusive?

The [interim] government is still dominated by the Taliban's clergy.

Yes, slightly. With these additions, the new government now counts four Tajiks, two Uzbeks, one Turkmen, one Hazara, one Nuristani (an ethnic group native to Nuristan province) and one Khwaja (claiming Arabic lineage, Khwajas generally speak Dari as their native tongue). With a total of 53 members, this expanded cabinet is a small gesture toward including ethnic minorities, though it is still dominated by Pashtuns. Several of the new names appear to have been selected, in part, because of their ethnic backgrounds or professional experience. Noorudin Azizi, the new trade minister, is from Panjshir province, where the Taliban have been fighting the remnants of the Northern Resistance Front (NRF). Azizi and his two deputies are businessmen from the north, with no known affiliation with the Taliban. The new health minister, Qalandar Ebad, and his two deputies, all three of whom are medical doctors, also do not appear to be Taliban members. While the government is still dominated by the Taliban’s clergy, there are now a number of technocrats in less prominent ministries. The current list has at least three appointees with degrees in engineering, four with medical training and one with a doctorate. By contrast, there are at least fourteen maulawis or qualified clerics in the interim government. Some appointments, such as the new chancellor of Kabul University, have generated widespread debates, even among Taliban figures, on whether the leadership made the appointments sufficiently based on merit.

Do the appointments include women or former establishment figures?

Despite continued international pressure, the Taliban have so far failed to appoint any women in their cabinet. Their failure to do so exacerbates concerns about significant deterioration in women’s rights under the new regime, especially after the new government announced that secondary school would resume for male students only, while claiming that female students will be able to return in the near future. No public explanation has been provided for why girls have been prevented from resuming their education. In addition, the majority of women in the public sector have not yet been allowed to return to work.

Similarly, the Taliban have resisted calls from regional and Western governments to include figures from the previous Western-backed political establishment. Taliban interlocutors claim to Crisis Group that despite an internal push by some members to include figures associated with the former system in the new government, most of the top Taliban leadership has so far opposed such a move due to the perception that former politicians were corrupt and discredited. Perhaps more importantly, there were also concerns among the Taliban that if they moved to bring in either women or former politicians, they could risk backlash from the rank and file, who might view the leadership as betraying their ideals. The resurgence of the Islamic State Khorasan Province, which has sought to portray the Taliban as compromising their Islamist credentials, is likely to further diminish prospects for inclusion.

Do the appointments signal any significant shift in Taliban policy?

Although the inclusion of more officials from minority groups is something Western and regional governments have been pushing for, these nominations do not indicate that the Taliban are yet willing to make any significant concessions for the sake of international recognition, sanctions relief or the resumption of aid flows from Western governments. Many of the new appointments seem designed largely to strike an internal balance by accommodating various Taliban factions that felt neglected following the first round of nominations. For example, Sadr Ibrahim and Qayyum Zakir, two prominent commanders from Helmand province, have been appointed as deputy ministers for interior and defence, respectively. Gul Mohammad, another important figure within the faction associated with former Taliban leader Mullah Mansour, has been appointed as deputy minister of borders and tribal affairs. Maulawi Abdul Rahman Rashid, an ethnic Uzbek from current Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Baradar’s faction, is now the minister of agriculture. These appointments are likely to reduce tensions that appear to have resulted from the first round of nominations. They reaffirm the notion that as the Taliban continue to expand their cabinet and administration, they will likely prioritise the movement’s internal cohesion over external considerations.

The Taliban’s decision not to offer any ministerial positions to women ... deals yet another blow to hopes that the movement will be susceptible to external leverage.

The Taliban’s decision not to offer any ministerial positions to women or former establishment politicians deals yet another blow to hopes that the movement will be susceptible to external leverage. The group’s latest appointments appear to have been designed to make the government ever so slightly more inclusive, perhaps indicating a certain degree of pragmatism. But the Taliban’s rhetoric on sanctions is becoming increasingly uncompromising. The paucity of Taliban concessions is bad news for foreign powers concerned about finding counterparts in the new government for the work ahead on mitigating the humanitarian catastrophe already under way, Afghanistan’s impending economic collapse and the prospect of large-scale forced migration. Without any clear signs that the Taliban are willing to work toward a more inclusive governance model, donors remain understandably wary of empowering a regime at the early stages of what remains an uncertain transition from militancy to government.