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Tajikistan: The Changing Insurgent Threats
Tajikistan: The Changing Insurgent Threats
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Tajikistan: An ever-more fragile state in a brittle region
Tajikistan: An ever-more fragile state in a brittle region

Tajikistan: The Changing Insurgent Threats

Tajikistan, Central Asia’s poorest state and a key logistical link for international forces in Afghanistan, faces a growing security threat from both local and external rebels.

Executive Summary

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.

Bishkek/Brussels, 24 May 2011

Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

Tajikistan: An ever-more fragile state in a brittle region

Originally published in New Eastern Europe

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon pays lip service to democracy, but his presidency is characterised by economic and social stagnation exacerbated by venality and mismanagement. The only meaningful opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), has been banned and labelled terrorist. Fraudulent elections and dozens of arrests in 2015 have silenced political foes and an exiled opposition leader was even murdered in Turkey in March. Activists fear harassment and NGOs “operate in a high risk, uncertain environment”.

The president is not in a stronger position as a result. His political and security apparatus is fragile. Civil war divisions remain since the 1997 peace agreement; some areas controlled during the conflict by the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) never fully accepted central government authority. A Russian diplomat estimated Dushanbe effectively controls just 30 per cent of the country. The May 2015 defection to the Islamic State (IS) of Gen. Gulmurod Khalimov, head of the Special Assignment Police Unit (OMON), and Deputy Defence Minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda’s decision to fight his way out of the capital both point to crumbling loyalties. Rahmon’s draconian responses to political opposition, civil dissent and Islam, are creating a backlash

Banning the legal Islamists

The 1997 peace agreement ended five years of fighting between opposition and government forces that left 60,000 to 100,000 dead and an economy devastated. The agreement envisaged a multiparty system to channel aspirations of the Islamic and other segments of society into legitimate politics. In 2000, the IRPT won two of the 63 lower-house-of-parliament seats, while ex-UTO members were given government and security-service posts as part of the power-sharing deal. IRPT’s limited political participation maintained the basis of the peace agreement. However Rahmon continued to distrust the associationsof some ex-UTO commanders and resented the reluctance of certain areas to accept government control.

After the death of IRPT leader Said Abdullah Nuri in 2006 and the appointment of a more modern Islamist, the well-educated and articulate Mukhiddin Kabiri as his successor, Rahmon began to view the party as a direct threat to his leadership.

Ahead of the March 1st 2015 parliamentary elections, the government ordered imams at state-registered mosques to preach against voting for the IRPT, labelling it “the party of war”. The IRPT received just 1.5 per cent of votes and lost its two parliament seatsin elections described as “blatantly fixed”. Kabiri feared arrest and fled to Turkey. The government banned the party in August and swiftly declared it a terrorist organisation.

Depriving the ex-UTO constituency of formal political representation in parliament and enforcing a restrictive, government-approved version of Islam may make more radical alternatives attractive to Islamists, especially the young.

The Khalimov affair and IS

The defection to IS of the head of the Tajik Special Police in April 2015 badly wounded Rahmon’s sense of security. The defector, Col. Khalimov, trained in the US and Russia and was a veteran of government operations and had no UTO history. In May, a video of him surfaced on YouTube in which he threatened: "Listen, you dogs, the president and ministers. If only you knew how many boys, our brothers are here, waiting and yearning to return to re-establish Sharia [Islamic] law [in Tajikistan]. … We are coming to you, God willing, we are coming to you with slaughter... Listen, you American pigs, I’ve been to America three times, and I saw how you train fighters to kill Muslims. God willing, I will come with this weapon to your cities, your homes, and we will kill you."

Citing repressive religious policies, he appealed to both those working for the government and disenfranchised migrant workers to overthrow Rahmon.

Khalimov’s focus on restrictions against Islamic practises is significant. While there is no indication that violent religious extremism has attracted mass support, the government’s heavy-handed tactics adversely impact the devout, fuelling resentment and radicalising moderate believers. Though the percentage of confirmed Islamic extremists in Tajikistan’s 8.2 million population is small, the potential risk they pose is considerable. Hundreds of Tajiks have joined IS, but an OSCE official said estimates were “extremely conservative; you could double them at least”. IS black flags have been seen in several districts, especially near the Afghan border. A UN official said: "The potential radicalisation of Tajikistan’s youth is something to be concerned about... IS has a very slick recruitment regime, and the sense of stability and togetherness advertised by Chechen Russians has been effective... Life has become more difficult and financially unviable [in Tajikistan], and the lure and appeal of IS is understood."

The Tajik-Afghan border is a weak link in Central Asia’s security, under increased pressure from Taliban control of northern Afghan districts across from Tajikistan, risking that battle-experienced Islamic militants link up with small numbers of potential allies inside Tajikistan. The strength of the Tajik army that forms a second defence line behind 16,000 border guards is doubtful. If militants were to press north to target Uzbekistan the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) would likely be asked to intervene. With Tajikistan located between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, and its current fragile state, it poses an equal risk of conflict and destabilisation.

The Afghan border

While Central Asian governments may overstate the Islamic extremist threat in order to retain influence, gain financial advantage and justify internal repression, there remains a risk. The US announcement – since partially reversed – to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and Pakistan’s decision to attack militants in North Waziristan, close to th eAfghan border, amplifies the risk. Both factors have pushed foreign fighters, including Tajiks, Uzbeks, Kyrgyzs, Chechens and Uighurs into Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province where they have launched attacks against the Afghan army in Kunduz, Badakhshan, Baghlan, Faryab and Takhar provinces.

A former high-ranking Kyrgyz defence official said militants in northern Afghanistan could seek to advance into Central Asia in “two or three years”. Within the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), some factions are now aligned to IS, others to the Taliban in districts near Tajikistan. It remains more interested in Uzbekistan but may try to take advantage Tajikistan’s weakness to gain a foothold.

Russian President Vladimir Putin views the situation on the Afghan-Tajik border as critical and has pledged military support. Russia’s military base in Tajikistan, its largest abroad, will be increased from 5,900 men to 9,000 by 2020 and “advanced warplanes, attack helicopters, and unmanned drones” have been deployed as part of a “three-layer-deep defence”.

Russia has also bolstered its military presence close to Dushanbe, suggesting it is conscious of the multiple threats to Tajikistan. A Russian diplomat said, “Tajikistan can have the legal help of Russia if the threat comes from outside. The problem is if the enemy is inside, and we don’t have a mandate [to intervene] ….This is [Rahmon’s] internal problem …. We cannot save him if he takes the wrong steps in internal policy”.

Ironically, a peace deal in Afghanistan could create risks for Tajikistan because groups like IMU and others with foreign fighters would likely be excluded and cause some fighters to cross into Central Asiawhere states are ill-prepared for a return of militants. Any peace agreement should therefore include foreign fighters.


Drugs trafficking directly impacts Tajikistan’s border security and internal stability. It provides income – and 20 to 30 per cent of GDP – that can be redistributed or laundered through the economy. The absence of legitimate economic development has political and security implications, and control of lucrative routes is a source of rivalry between regional elites and within corrupted security services.

Western and Russian aid to bolster border security and counter drug trafficking has had limited impact. The EU-funded Border Management for Central Asia (BOMCA) program, the OSCE’s Border Management Staff College, the UN International Organization for Migration (IOM) border projects and bilateral, mainly US, security aid and training are estimated to have cost $83 million in 2005-2013 but such projects “lack active implementation” by the Tajiks.

US foreign policy goals in Central Asia have been overshadowed by military-strategic objectives in Afghanistan for more than a decade. The US and some EU states have relied on close co-operation with repressive regional governments to obtain logistical support for Afghan operations, often turning a blind eye to human rights. But the relative ineffectiveness of counter-narcotics aid coupled with increasing repression in Tajikistan should prompt a reassessment.

The US has spent millions of dollars in counter-narcotics programs in Tajikistan since 2007. However, the recipients are persistent human rights violators who are including accused of widespread torture and extrajudicial executions. One critic said “the US should not so easily accept the actions of the Tajik government. American-trained Tajik forces support the president, shelter the drug trade and extort and torture the people”.

External relations

While the EU, US and China have less leverage than Moscow, Tajikistan is so fragile that they should consider a serious conflict prevention effort, in co-operation with Moscow, over the short to medium term. Rahmon’s authoritarian government is as potent a threat to the state as a possible incursion from Afghanistan.

Moscow is unlikely to ask reforms from Rahmon that would transform the state or its governance system but a strategy of maintaining the status quo, in part to foster stability but mostly to retain influence, may eventually backfire.

The EU and US wield much less influence and have not been robust in applying conditionality to the co-operation and technical aid they provide. The 2010 EU Partnership and Cooperation Agreement includes “the facilitation of economic transition for Tajikistan, and the promotion of inclusive, sustainable human and economic development”. However this approach has not gained traction with Central Asian states like Tajikistan who have little to trade and no appetite for genuine reforms.

US co-operation has focused mainly on the defence and law enforcement sectors, local governance and transparency, but reform often comes second to the Afghanistan priority. Failure to address human rights abuses publicly in Uzbekistan, a more strategic partner, while commenting on Tajikistan’s raises questions about the even-handedness of the US approach to Central Asia.

The West must focus on accountability, human rights abuses, corruption and shrinking democratic space in Tajikistan. Russia should bolster security by urging Rahmon to recall the 1997 peace agreement’s ambitions and enact economic reforms aimed at job creation and relaxing pressures on devout Muslims. Moscow needs to make the connection between political and religious crackdown, increasing radicalisation, security service fissures and increasing state fragility.

It is in the interest of Russia, the West and Tajikistan’s immediate neighbours that Rahmon’s authoritarianism is tempered. All must work toward a peaceful transition for a less authoritarian post-Rahmon era, conscious of the link between repression and insecurity. Consensus on securing the Afghan border is essential, including the CSTO’s lead role. Russia should also re-engage with international efforts to stem the drugs flow. Misgivings about Moscow’s regional ambitions elsewhere are valid, but preventing conflict in Tajikistan is a common interest.