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Tajikistan Early Warning: Internal Pressures, External Threats
Tajikistan Early Warning: Internal Pressures, External Threats
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Photo shows Tajik border guards checking identification documents of people crossing the Tajik-Afghan border on a bridge across the Panj River outside the city of Panj, August 2010. AFP PHOTO
Briefing 78 / Europe & Central Asia

Tajikistan Early Warning: Internal Pressures, External Threats

Plagued by violence, corruption and economic hardship, and exposed to a long, insecure border with Afghanistan, Tajikistan is under dangerous stress. President Rahmon’s autocratic undermining of the 1997 peace agreement is fostering Islamic radicalisation. As Tajikistan’s growing fragility impacts a brittle region, the country must become a conflict-prevention priority.

I. Overview

Tajikistan, Central Asia’s poorest state, is under dangerous pressure both internally and externally. President Emomali Rahmon’s 23-year rule is marred by violence, lack of accountability, corruption and mass migration. Remittances and drug trafficking are key sources of income. Controls on religion and political opposition, including a ban on the moderate Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), foster resentment. Security along the 1,400-km border with Afghanistan is inconsistent at best, and increasing instability in northern Afghanistan, where Central Asian militants are allied with the Taliban, poses a threat to Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan alike. Russia’s support to Tajikistan is a major component in regional security, but Moscow’s concerns about internal opposition to Rahmon are growing. The European Union (EU) and U.S. have only modest ability to influence the Tajik government, but they, Russia and others should be alert to the increasingly worrying direction of Rahmon’s leadership, the risks of state failure and the potential for Islamist extremists to capitalise.

The 1997 peace agreement masked rather than resolved tensions after a brutal civil war (1992-1997) and is unravelling. Its core was IRPT representation of the war’s opposition forces in parliament, but Rahmon deprived the party of its parliament seats after March 2015 elections that were riddled with irregularities, banned it in August, and declared it a terrorist organisation in September. The IRPT’s fate and restrictions on religious expression underscore the state’s contempt for pluralism. Widespread corruption and cronyism send the message to Islamist and secular citizens alike that the political process is closed to all who might challenge Rahmon.

The defection of the head of the Special Assignment Police Unit (OMON), Gen. Gulmurod Khalimov, to the Islamic State (IS) in Syria in May revealed schisms within the security elite, suggested Rahmon may no longer know who can be trusted and reflected the growing appeal of violent radical Islam. The president’s responses are about his survival and do little to reverse the perception that the government is politically and morally bankrupt.

The economy is crippled, with the downturn in Russia adding to the difficulties because remittances are more than 40 per cent of GDP, and some 300,000-400,000 migrants returned home in 2015 with little hope of finding work. The rough economic climate, however, is fundamentally of the government’s making: years of endemic corruption have bled local businesses dry and limit the impact of donor aid. Meanwhile, drug trafficking from Afghanistan is growing. Border security, despite investments and technical assistance from Russia, the EU and U.S., is at best haphazard, partly because of the mountainous terrain but also because the illegal trade has corrupted Tajik security structures.

Given its problems, Tajikistan should be a conflict-prevention priority for the international community. While pragmatic engagement should focus on preventing further repression and encouraging an orderly transition when Rahmon’s term ends in 2020, the risks in sustaining a frightened autocrat with no interest in a credible political process must be factored in. Under the weight of economic crisis and political stagnation, the state may continue weakening, perhaps with little impact beyond its borders, but its internal and external fragility might also lead to instability that would resonate in the broader region. The border weaknesses increase Tajikistan’s potential as a staging post for Islamic militants with ambitions elsewhere in Central Asia. The Uzbek border is relatively strong but that with Kyrgyzstan is much weaker.

State failure, due to whatever factors, would pose a major headache for Russia, other members of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and China, with whose restive Xinjiang province Tajikistan shares a 414-km border. CSTO membership and Russia’s military presence in the country is a deterrent against incursions, but the CSTO is untested. Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, which have clear interests in maintaining peace and security in Tajikistan, should prioritise the security of their respective borders with it, not least as insurance against weaknesses on the Tajik-Afghan border.

Russia, the EU and U.S. should support efforts to increase regional border security. In their political engagement in the region, including their formal security and human rights dialogue formats, the EU and its member states and Washington should also highlight the strong link between political oppression and human rights abuses and longer-term instability. Russia, the UN and others who helped engineer the 1997 agreement, including the U.S. and Iran, should urge Rahmon to honour its principles in the interest of sustainable stability. Otherwise, there is little to stop a slide back into old conflict patterns, now aggravated by a restless northern Afghanistan and the appeal of militant Islam.

Bishkek/Brussels, 11 January 2016 

Yemen’s Multiplying Conflicts

A Huthi suspension of hostilities in Yemen and an apparently positive Saudi Arabian response offer a chance to avoid regional conflagration. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2019 - Third Update for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to encourage inclusive dialogue between the warring factions, which can lead to intra-Yemeni negotiations.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2019 - Third Update.

As 2020 approaches, Yemen confronts two acute security challenges: avoiding further entanglement in the wider regional conflict between the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Iran, and preventing a war within a war among anti-Huthi forces. On 14 September, the Huthis claimed responsibility for an attack on Saudi oil facilities that temporarily cut off nearly 50 per cent of the country’s oil production capacity. Riyadh, Washington and several European governments accused Iran of the attack, and the Huthis’ claim has tied the group more closely to Tehran in the eyes of its opponents.

While the conflict could turn into a true proxy war or trigger a wider regional confrontation, there is still a chance to avoid such outcomes. Signs are tentative but promising. A week after the Aramco attacks, the Huthis unilaterally suspended cross-border attacks into the Kingdom and called for the Saudis to freeze airstrikes in exchange. Riyadh has reportedly responded positively, limiting but not entirely halting its aerial campaign in Yemen. The fragile arrangement needs to be preserved and built upon.

As Yemen’s war intersects with and fuels regional tensions, it is also becoming more internally complex and harder to resolve.

As Yemen’s war intersects with and fuels regional tensions, it is also becoming more internally complex and harder to resolve. An August 2019 takeover of the internationally-recognised government’s temporary capital of Aden by separatist forces aligned with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – Saudi Arabia’s main coalition partner – could set off a larger battle between UAE- and Saudi-aligned components of Yemen’s anti-Huthi bloc for control of the country’s southern governorates.  Here too, there has been progress toward an understanding, but it is far from done.

International actors, including the EU, need to move quickly to turn the fragile de-escalation between Saudi Arabia and the Huthis into an agreement that ultimately yields a ceasefire and restarts UN-led negotiations among Yemeni political groups to end the war. Continued diplomatic support is also needed to reconcile opposing forces within the anti-Huthi camp. A deal between the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and separatist southern forces, in particular, would offer an opportunity to update the UN peace process for Yemen and make negotiations more inclusive.

Recommendations for the EU and its member states include:

  • Support EU-wide and French initiatives to de-escalate tensions between Iran and the U.S., and between Saudi Arabia and Iran; push local and regional parties to the Yemen war toward a political settlement.
     
  • Coordinate diplomatic pressure on Saudi Arabia and the Huthis to reach a de-escalation agreement that includes a halt to cross-border attacks, which in turn could enable a return to UN-led intra-Yemeni talks.
     
  • Advocate for broadening the UN-led peace process to include Yemeni actors beyond the Huthis and Hadi government, both in official negotiations and in informal Track II meetings.
     
  • Work with the office of the UN special envoy to coordinate all EU-sponsored Track II initiatives, especially those related to the south and women’s participation in the peace process, so that these talks better inform UN-led negotiations. To do this, the EU could fund a coordinator role within the envoy’s office.
     
  • Swiftly deliver technical assistance and staffing support to the UN Mission to Support the Hodeida Agreement (UMMHA) to which the EU and its member states have already committed, and increase support to the mission.

Preventing further escalation in the region

Huthi claims of responsibility for the 14 September Aramco attack threatened to drag Yemen deeper into the regional power struggle between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia on one side and Iran on the other. Although the Trump administration decided against a military response and there have been signs of potential Iranian-Saudi engagement, the situation remains fragile. Another major attack of this kind, attributed to Tehran or its allies, could raise again the threat of retaliatory measures, with consequences throughout the region, including in Yemen.

In the eyes of Iran’s regional and international rivals, by claiming the Aramco attack the Huthis signalled their complicity with Tehran in its regional power struggle against Saudi Arabia and broader struggle with the U.S. Some Huthi officials seem to see a major regional war involving the U.S. and Iran as inevitable, and argue it would benefit them, as it would divert Riyadh’s attention from its southern neighbour. Others want to avoid such an outcome and have offered de-escalatory measures.  

On 20 September, the Huthis announced a unilateral suspension of cross-border attacks against Saudi territory. The move offered an opportunity for direct Saudi-Huthi talks and mutual de-escalation. Although Saudi officials remain sceptical of the Huthis’ intentions, wary that they might use a pause to replenish and reposition their forces, they have signalled both publicly and privately an interest in testing the proposition. The Saudis reportedly reduced airstrikes in response. Huthi hardliners mirror Saudi scepticism and question the logic of the move. Any resumption of Huthi strikes on Saudi territory – notably a successful attack on critical infrastructure or one that results in civilian casualties — could spark a broader conflagration, especially if any of the victims were American. Such a resumption would be hard to avoid if the two sides fail to reach agreement not only on cross-border strikes but also on easing Saudi-led coalition restrictions on access to Huthi-controlled territories, particularly limitations on fuel imports.

Yemen’s multiplying internal conflicts

Yemen now hosts multiple overlapping internal conflicts driven by three central belligerents: the Huthis in the north west, the UAE-backed separatist Southern Transition Council (STC) in the south and Saudi-backed Yemeni government forces, whose main hub is Marib in the north east. Both the STC and government-aligned forces are battling the Huthis, but the two nominal allies are also fighting each other, reflecting deepening divisions between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. On 10 August, UAE-trained and -equipped forces affiliated with the STC seized control of Aden, the Hadi government’s interim capital, in what the government described as a UAE-backed coup. After Saudi-aligned government forces mounted a counter-attack, UAE airstrikes stopped them in their tracks. In an escalating war of words, the UAE claimed it had targeted “terrorists”, while the government asked the UN to intervene against what it described as a direct assault on its sovereignty by a foreign power. 

The power struggle between the STC and the government could ignite another war within Yemen’s civil war, with the UAE and Saudi Arabia on opposing sides.

Left unresolved, the power struggle between the STC and the government could ignite another war within Yemen’s civil war, with the UAE and Saudi Arabia on opposing sides. In September, the Saudis stepped in to mediate between the Yemeni sides, gathering the parties in Jeddah. But tensions remain high, and both STC- and government-backed forces are reportedly preparing for another round of fighting over oil-rich Shabwa governorate. Tensions are also high in neighbouring Hadramout between the government and the UAE-backed governor, Faraj al-Bahsani, who remained neutral during the August battle for Aden.

There are some grounds for optimism. At proximity talks in Jeddah, Riyadh proposed forming a technocratic government with a prime minister acceptable to both sides. Also under discussion is an STC quota in the government’s negotiating team that would participate in future UN-mediated talks with the Huthis. If agreed, this would be an important step toward greater inclusiveness in the peace process, potentially paving the way toward a more credible and durable political settlement. Any deal to end the war will require buy-in not just from the Hadi government and the Huthis, but also from the STC and other Yemeni groups, such as Islah (the country’s main Sunni Islamist party), the former ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) party and non-STC affiliated southern groups.

A Role for the EU and its member states

Ending the Yemen war is increasingly urgent given both its dramatic humanitarian costs and regional tensions. EU member states are already involved in direct mediation efforts with Iran, including through EU and E4 (France, Germany, Italy and the UK) consultations and individual initiatives, such as France’s direct diplomacy with Tehran and Washington. The EU and member states should build on these efforts to strengthen the UN-led political process to end the Yemen war. In that context, the EU and its member states should advocate for a clear de-escalation plan between the Huthis and Saudi Arabia, which in turn would facilitate starting intra-Yemeni negotiations.

The EU and member states are well-placed to advocate a more inclusive [...] political dialogue.

The EU and member states are well-placed to advocate a more inclusive (and therefore more credible) political dialogue. EU institutions and member states have sponsored Track II dialogues among Yemeni groups on a range of local and national issues since the beginning of the war. A core criticism of these initiatives is that they are not sufficiently linked to formal UN efforts. In cooperation with the UN special envoy’s office, the EU and member states could help ensure findings from Track II meetings on the south and women’s participation in the political process, as well as on tribal and local perspectives, feed into UN-led negotiations, and that Track II exercises are informed by the UN envoy’s approach.

The EU and member states, which have direct channels with Riyadh, are in a strong position to press the Hadi government and Saudi-led coalition to broaden participation in the official peace talks by diversifying the government negotiating team to make it more representative of the anti-Huthi bloc. The EU and member states should also use their channels with the Huthis to press for greater inclusivity on their part, including by women. The European External Action Service should also continue to meet with and channel perspectives from groups not involved in the UN-led process to the UN envoy, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

The 2018 Stockholm Agreement, and particularly the agreement to demilitarise the port city of Hodeida, can be either a stepping-stone toward a more comprehensive peace process or, should it remain stalled, a stumbling block. EU member states have offered technical and staffing assistance to the UN Mission to Support the Hodeida Agreement (UNMHA), the UN body set up to oversee the agreement through technical assistance and personnel secondment. But they have delivered little to date. UNMHA remains severely understaffed, in part because of delays in personnel transfers.  EU member states should promptly fulfil their commitments in this regard.