Tajikistan: Intrigue, Assassinations, and Defections (Part One)

As the United States and their North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies have ended combat operations and pursued a path of withdrawal in Afghanistan, problems that have wracked the South Asian country have increased in intensity. A recent surge of anti-government forces into key areas in Northern Afghanistan, to include the Taliban and other groups, has once again brought the consequences of a failed state in Afghanistan into stark relief.

The security problems wracking Afghanistan have far-reaching implications for the entire region. This is especially true for the states of Central Asia. Among the most susceptible of these countries to a destabilization as a result of this surge of militancy in Afghanistan is the country that borders Afghanistan to its north: Tajikistan. But Tajikistan is threatened not only by the emerging instability in Northern Afghanistan to its south but by a number of other issues, some derived of internal political problems. Internal dissent, a failure of the ruling regime to integrate political opposition into the government, a migrant worker crisis, an intensifying rivalry between the United States and Russia, and the rise of the Islamic State (IS: also known as The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS) all threaten to further destabilize Tajikistan. I will examine these issues in detail throughout this series.

As ISIS has grown from a group battling for control of territory in Syria into a widely feared international terrorist organization, fears of increased radicalization of Tajiks have followed. Following the group’s surge into Iraq and the overrunning of Mosul last June, the overwhelming majority of headlines related to the problems of Islamist violence were disproportionately tilted towards the Levant and the Middle East. The attention focused on the problems posed by ISIS in Syria and Iraq has been in large part at the expense of reporting on Afghanistan. As a result, the security issues that have radiated outward from Afghanistan into the surrounding region have received less attention and scrutiny than those in the Middle East.

Reports reflect a serious decline in remittance payments from Tajik migrant workers in Russia largely due to the collapse in oil prices, indicating that the Tajik national economy could be on the precipice of serious problems. In particular, the impact of the devaluation of Russia’s national currency this past year and the Putin regime’s tightening of restrictions on migrants from Tajikistan will have great impact upon the Tajik economy and, further, could cause security problems for the Dushanbe regime.

In context of recent political assassinations of key dissident leaders and a coordinated effort to marginalize political opposition using the ISIS narrative, Tajikistan is entering a pivotal period of its history. Afghanistan’s fight and the militants battling for control of northern areas of the country have had great impact upon the security posture of the Tajik government, particularly in Gorno-Badakhshan.

Map courtesy of the United States Central Intelligence Agency.

Map courtesy of the United States Central Intelligence Agency.

Reports have emerged in the last year of increased Tajik recruits traveling to fight the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. While there is are critics of the claim of increased numbers of Tajiks (and other Central Asians) fighting in Syria, there is little doubt that the rise of ISIS in the past year has impacted Islamism in Central Asia. This is particularly true for Tajikistan. Whether this perception is founded in reality or whether it is merely construct of national leaders being used in cynical fashion to suppress dissent and political opposition, the so-called rise of ISIS has had an undeniable impact on Central Asia.

In this series, I will explore how increased security problems in Tajikistan could impact the future of the country and the region. In Part One below, I outline the short history of post-Cold War Tajikistan and examine important recent events that have impacted the security posture of the country.

Militants in Afghanistan Surge in the North, Tajikistan’s Government Reacts

Security issues that have threatened to destabilize the fragile but growing Afghan national government have begun to plague larger swaths of territory in the country. As the violence has grown throughout Afghanistan (particularly in the northern provinces), that instability has threatened to spillover into the states of Central Asia. As such, this spring it has become increasingly obvious that the militancy and insurgency that grows in Afghanistan presents urgent and grave implications for the entire region. Unfortunately, what little attention has been paid to the surging violence in Afghanistan this past month has been buried once again beneath news of the Syrian civil war and its spillover into Iraq. Consequently, much of the Western analysis on Afghanistan continues to be superficial at best and, at worst, horribly inaccurate.

This spring, the Taliban offensive has been particularly impactful in the northern and northeastern provinces of Afghanistan. What little media attention has been given to Afghanistan in recent months has focused on the ‘rise of ISIS’ in the country. Tying a news story to ISIS is the quickest way in which to capture the attention of viewers and readers. It is unfortunate that while ISIS remains a serious threat in the Levant and Iraq, reports of ISIS-affiliated groups and fighters have seeped into other important regions. Among the areas where the narrative of an ISIS ‘crisis’ of sorts has taken hold most strongly are the Caucasus (Georgia, Chechnya, and Dagestan) and the states of Central Asia. In recent months, Russian officials have cited reports of increasing recruitment of men in Pankisi Gorge of Georgia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan.

In what is an annual surge of Taliban forces into the region, insurgents led by Taliban-affiliated commanders conducted a massive offensive in Kunduz Province in Northern Afghanistan in late April:

The assault on Kunduz city, which began Friday, is the cornerstone of the Taliban’s spring offensive. Already, the fighting is posing a dire test of the Afghan security forces, which struggled on multiple fronts last year after taking the lead from coalition forces. (Mujib Mashal and Jawad Sukhanyar, The New York Times, April 28)

Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) have acquitted themselves well in responding to the insurgent onslaught with attrition of enemy forces being measured in the hundreds in the month since major combat operations led by the military and police forces began. Provincial Afghan government officials have reinforced the success of ANSF in places such as Kunduz.

Since the assault began and the response of the ANSF was implemented, the escalation of insurgent freedom of movement in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province has led many observers to doubt that ANSF can fight off the resurgence alone. The increase in threats spilling over into Central Asian states increases as the insurgents grab large swaths of ground in the northern areas of Afghanistan. Reports of foreign fighters, notably Uzbeks, emerging from across the border in Pakistan in eastern Afghan provinces have increased as well. The surge of Taliban and allied groups into places such as Kunduz has underlined the problem as a regional one. In particular, the security and the governments of the states of Central Asia is at risk. Recently, I wrote of a collective approach to the problem of Afghanistan’s insurgency and the fallout from the future of a possible failed state in the region. You can find that article here.

There are important geopolitical and geostrategic catalysts and consequences related to the ongoing battle for influence in Central Asia. In particular, the so-called great powers that include the United States, Russia, and China are all simultaneously competing for influence. However, the efforts of these three states in particular are driven by individual state interests with an eye toward long term influence in the energy-rich region.

Map courtesy of Cacahuate and Wikimedia Commons.

Map courtesy of Cacahuate and Wikimedia Commons.

China in particular has an advantage as they deal without insisting on the U.S. demands for increased reform of government. That’s all just scratching the surface, however. There is much more to the battle that is being waged in Central Asia. We’re witnessing the beginning stages of a long and potentially very bloody conflict in Central Asia. Russia has dominated the states of Central Asia for a century, integrating the economic, political, and cultural systems of the countries first into the former Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the Russian Federation was created out of the ashes of the former Eurasian empire, Russian policy makers and strategists began assessing ways in which to ensure long term access to energy resources in places such as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. In addition, those same strategists pursued political influence in Kyrgyzstan and exercised military muscle in furtherance of security interests of the Russian Federation in Tajikistan.

In this article I will examine Tajikistan’s history in brief, lay out recent events in detail, and offer analysis on the future of the country as a geographical pivot point. Further, I will assess the geopolitical consequences for potential increased influence in the country by the three aforementioned great powers and explore possibilities as a result.

The United States has recently re-booted its policy towards the Central Asian states (something I outlined in my recent series on Central Asia and Afghanistan). American policymakers worked to assuage concerns in the region that the U.S. would be abandoning the states as it withdraws from Afghanistan. Tajikistan is a fundamental and pivotal country in all respects for the three aforementioned power players in what has become more well known recently as The New Great Game (Alexander Cooley). In addition, experts such as Christian Bleuer (a research fellow at the Australian National University’s Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies) have written extensively on the topic of Afghanistan’s relationship with the states of Central Asia. Most recently, Bleuer participated in a podcast which focused on the threat that Northern Afghanistan’s growing militancy poses specifically to Tajikistan. You can find that podcast here, courtesy of the Central Asianist Podcast.

The Smallest of the Central Asian States

Tajikistan, a comparatively small and landlocked country that borders Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and China, rarely garners much attention of Western media outlets. Though the country has suffered through a civil war not unlike that which is currently ravaging Syria, Tajikistan’s location on the map often renders it invisible to international geopolitical analysts, buried beneath heavy media focus on nearby countries such as China, Pakistan, India, and Iran. However, Tajikistan’s geographical location is ironically the factor which could make the country pivotal for Russia, China, and the United States in each country’s effort to affect the future of Central Asia.

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan stumbled through an initial period of instability and chaos that resulted in a vicious internal conflict. From 1992 until a peace agreement in 1997, factions within Tajikistan fought a bloody war that went comparatively unnoticed in the west. Often compared to he brutality of the Syrian Civil War (2011-present) and the Second Russian war in Chechnya (1999-2009), Tajikistan’s civil war killed upwards of 50,000-100,000 people (estimates vary based on source) and created more than one million refugees. In the wake of the civil war, elements of the former Islamist-secular alliance that comprised the opposition agreed to lay down their arms in return for a modicum of representation in the national government. Many of these opposition members had been aligned with Islamist militants that would eventually join in the fight for Taliban rule in Afghanistan. Among these groups was the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an al-Qaeda aligned group that maintained camps and havens in the mountains of Eastern Tajikistan in the latter part of the decade. In large measure, subsequent military campaigns in Afghanistan following the invasion of the United States and its allies in late 2001 would render the group’s presence in Tajikistan effectively reduced to an inconsequential level for purposes of Tajik national security priorities.

For the Russian Federation, Tajikistan’s geographical location is important in terms of the country’s security. In the wake of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 and the subsequent collapse and dissolution of the Soviet Union itself in 1991, Tajikistan became incredibly unstable. Islamists battling the Russian Federation in the North Caucasus during the wars of the 1990s and early part of the 21st century were supported by militants originating from camps in Northern Afghanistan. Following the withdrawal of Soviet occupation military forces in 1989, the Taliban regime had effectively moved to fill the power vacuum left in the wake of the collapse of the weakened Afghan central government. As the Taliban regime consolidated its power over the remnants of the Northern Alliance, training camps were constructed across the provinces in the northern part of Afghanistan. These camps were often found to have facilitated the training and operational planning of militants that would eventually overtake the more nationalist elements in Chechnya during the second Chechen war of 1999-2009. At the outset of the war in Afghanistan waged by the United States and its allies in October 2001, the Russian government, led by newly elected President Vladimir Putin, supported NATO forces as they sought to destroy insurgent havens throughout the country. However, when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, the relationship between the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush and that of President Putin had deteriorated to such an extent that cooperation even on matters of intelligence was frayed.

Several recent events in Tajikistan have raised the country’s international profile. While mainstream Western media reporting on the former Soviet republic remains rare, several recent incidents in Tajikistan have underlined the importance of the fight for stability in Afghanistan. A Tajik police commander’s apparent defection to the Islamic State, crackdowns on political dissent, and international military exercises under the auspices of the Collective Security Organization (CSTO) highlight recent curiosities in Tajikistan. Most recently an Op Ed by Pakistani journalist and author Ahmed Rashid has brought Tajikistan and the growing threat of militancy spillover from Afghanistan into the spotlight. Rashid writes of the problems that the surge of Afghan anti-government forces in the border provincial areas present to security and stability in Tajikistan. Published June 11th, Rashid first details his interaction with Tajik officials on assessments of the Central Asians fighting in Afghanistan:

I recently met with senior Tajik military and intelligence officers who rarely talk to reporters — and never do so on the record because they are forbidden to publicly discuss sensitive security issues. They told me that more than 5,000 Central Asian militants from half a dozen groups were fighting in northern Afghanistan alongside several thousand Afghan and Pakistani Taliban members. In late April, those forces came within two miles of Kunduz, a major Afghan city. The Afghan Army pushed them back, but only to 10 miles outside the town. (Rashid, The New York Times, June 11, 2015)

Rashid writes of the escalating threat of Islamist militancy spilling over into Tajikistan from Afghanistan and underlines the problem by noting the recent defection of Tajik Special Police Commander Colonel Gulmurod Halimov to the Islamic State fighting in Syria. Rashid’s underlying premise in the Op Ed was to assert that there is a significant and urgent threat posed by the intensifying insurgency in Northern Afghanistan, particularly in the provinces of Kunduz and Badakhshan.

The region around the border has been the focus of counter terror operations for Tajik forces throughout the past two decades but more recently, a reinvigorated effort by Moscow to re-assert its influence along the river has been observed in CSTO exercises and agreements for basing rights in several villages. The border itself continues to be a throughway for the trafficking of drugs and is often cited by both Tajik and Afghan authorities as a transit area for militants traveling between the two countries.

While there is well-founded criticism of the claims that militants travel between the two countries in large numbers, what is hardly contested is the fact that the border is difficult to control, porous, and prone to being used by criminal networks and groups to traffic illicit and black market goods from Afghanistan into Central Asia. In recent months, there have also been increasing numbers of violent incidents. In December, four Tajik border conscripts were abducted by suspected Afghan militants and taken back into Afghanistan.

All four served in Unit 2610 of the Panj Border Service detachment, about four hours’ drive south from Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital, an area rife with drug smuggling. When they were captured, the young men were all between 19 and 24 years old.

Officials say the captured conscripts are fine, that they are being held by the Taliban (rather than one of the many other insurgent groups operating in the region) and that negotiations are ongoing. But the families of Farhod Kalonov, Tuichiboy Nurboev, Mehroj Shodiev and Sirojiddin Davlatov are nevertheless despairing. And critics say the government is not doing enough to secure their release.

“The [captured] frontier guards are healthy and alive. We continue negotiations about their release, but the Taliban have not named their conditions,” a source at the Border Service, which operates under the State Committee for National Security (GKNB), told EurasiaNet.org on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the press. He said the Tajik conscripts were kidnapped on the Afghan side of the border, in a remote area where the river is wide, shallow and poorly guarded. The source insisted Tajik security officials are working with their Afghan counterparts to secure the conscripts’ release, but would not provide operational details. (The Fifth Column, June 9, 2015)

Negotiations for their release dragged on until May when reports from Afghanistan indicated that the abductors had been killed in a firefight with Afghan forces. To date, the fate of the four Tajik guards is unknown. This incident underlines the tense and fragile nature of the border separating Tajikistan from Afghanistan. As the spring offensive carried out by insurgents in Afghanistan has threatened to overrun several key areas of border provinces in Afghanistan, the Rahmon government has responded by allowing increasing numbers of Russian military forces to station in strategic villages within close vicinity of the Panj River. Recent exercises conducted under the auspices of the CSTO have included drones being flown in the Pamir Mountains.

Tajikistan’s Intrigues Centralize in Turkey: A Dissident Leader is Assassinated

President Rahmon’s government has consistently applied the narrative of an encroaching ISIS threat upon the stability of Tajikistan to its political opposition. In particular, the regime has attached the threat of the spread of Islamism to dissidents in Islamic political parties that have challenged the regime’s control of government in the national legislature.

On March 6, opposition leader Umarali Kuvatov was assassinated while living in exile in Istanbul, Turkey. Witnesses state that Kuvatov (and members of his family) were dining at a restaurant in Istanbul when they grew fiercely ill. Suspecting poison, the family moved outside where an assassin then shot Kuvatov dead. Turkish investigators released a forensic report in April which concluded that Kuvatov had been poisoned with the drug clozapine. Kuvatov, the leader of a Tajik dissident group named the Group 24 Movement, had been targeted by Turkish authorities months earlier when he was arrested in December for suspected visa fraud. He was released shortly after his detainment. Interestingly, Kuvatov’s assassination occurred just one week after the more high profile murder of Russian dissident and opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

For quite a few years, Turkey has become known more as a location for international assassination and as a gateway for militants joining the Islamic State in Syria than it has as a geostrategically important member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The geopolitical rivalry and growing regional hegemonic battle between Sunni majority states Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and a number of Gulf states on one side opposing Iran and the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad on the other has elicited accusations by many of Turkey’s complicity in the growth and strengthening of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

The assassination of Kuvatov has further exacerbated tensions between the ruling Tajik regime of President Rahmon and a dedicated movement that stands in opposition to Rahmon’s continued rule. Even while ISIS has reportedly intensified its penetration into Tajik society (a claim contested by some observers of Tajikistan and something that will be addressed in a later article in this series), others assert that Rahmon has cultivated a narrative of Islamist threats not only in Tajikistan but to the wider region of Central Asia in order to consolidate his power in the country.

Representation in government continues to be a frustrating factor in those identifying as dissenters as well. Opposition groups in Tajikistan have been further frustrated by a decline in their representation in the national legislature in recent national elections. Western observers (many largely unfamiliar with the power dynamics and political and social elite networks that dominate the authoritarian government in Dushanbe) have coupled the growing resentment to a perceived escalation of support for ISIS in Tajikistan. Unfortunately, this is a mirage. While Islamist militancy certainly does exist in Tajikistan, it is the domineering rule of the Rahmon regime which has further isolated political opposition and marginalized many dissidents with legitimate grievances from national debate.

On the heels of the assassination of Kuvatov in March, Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT) leader Muhiddin Kabiri has announced plans to go into exile amidst fears that he may be jailed by the Rahmon regime. Even as Kabiri made plans to return and continue to lead the push for reforms, he was advised by his deputy to remain outside of Tajikistan.

Tajik Special Police Commander Crosses into Syria to Join the Islamic State

In late May, Tajikistan Special Police Commander Gulmurod Halimov disappeared from his job in Dushanbe, immediately sparking speculation that he had joined ISIS. Halimov’s apparent disappearance catalyzed a search for the missing Tajik officer in Turkey with reports of his arrest further muddying the effort to discern why he had disappeared. Halimov, the head of the interior ministry’s OMON special forces unit, would eventually be featured in an ISIS video posted online. He is an extraordinarily perplexing and interesting case of ISIS recruitment.

At the time of his disappearance, suspicions had arisen that Halimov had recently demonstrated increasingly radicalized Islamist views. Other sources stated that Halimov had begun speaking of the war in Syria:

Some sources at the country’s power-wielding structures and Halimov’s friends say that he has collected detailed information about the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), its ideas and armed formations from social networks lately.

“He became devotee of ISIL and began to spread ISIL ideas among his friends,” said one of Halimov’s friends, who wanted to remain unnamed. (Asia-Plus, May 12)

For its part, the Tajik government had initially remained fairly tight-lipped about the missing commander, at least officially:

Meanwhile, Tajik Deputy Interior Minister Ikrom Umarzoda said he has no information about the whereabouts of Colonel Halimov. Umarzoda neither denied nor confirmed the information that Tajik police special unit commander had joined ISIL militants in Syria. “I know nothing about it,” the deputy interior minister told Asia-Plus in an interview. Gulmurod Halimov was appointed commander of the Tajik special police unit three years ago. (Eurasia News, May 13)

At the time of his disappearance in late April, Halimov’s family, friends, and associates had remarked on recent changes in the police commander’s behavior. Family members asserted that they had not heard from him:

Interfax reported today that one of Halimov’s colleagues, who wished to remain anonymous, said that the commander “simply got obsessed with this Islamic State earlier this year. He kept reading online articles about their ideology, started disputes with his colleagues and tried to persuade them that the truth is on their [Islamic State] side.”

Another anonymous source in the Tajik special services, according to Interfax, “confirmed the suggestion that Halimov had traveled to Syria to join Islamic State there,” and said that “he was not alone. He gathered about a dozen single-minded persons.” (Catherine Putz, The Diplomat, May 15, 2015)

On May 19 reports from Tojo News in Turkey claimed that Halimov had been arrested in Turkey while attempting to cross the border on a fake passport. However, the report proved to be false and Halimov would soon thereafter make his first appearance since his disappearance.

The news of Halimov’s defection from his post as a commander in the Tajik Special Police has shocked Tajikistan and its government. Tajikistan’s regime, while also having to focus on what it has asserted is a rise in recruitment of Tajiks by ISIS in Syria, is now also pre-occupied with a growing threat of spillover from militants that have overrun key provincial areas of Northern Afghanistan in recent weeks.

In the days that followed the initial news report of his defection, a video was reported posted to You Tube (since removed) where Halimov stated that he had trained in the United States and subsequently traveled to Russia. In response to the video, Halimov’s brother appealed publicly for his return to Tajikistan, noting his own inability to discern why Halimov had turned to ISIS. Adding to the intrigue is an incident weeks earlier in Turkey. Earlier in May, Turkish authorities arrested “…Turkish citizen of Afghan origin on suspicion of recruiting for the Islamic State (IS) militant group.” When observed in context of Halimov’s eventual defection to ISIS and travel to Syria, the recent assassinations and arrests in Turkey are not easily dismissed as isolated incidents.

An especially intriguing aspect of Halimov’s defection is the depths of his knowledge and experience in counter terrorism. Even more intriguing is his exposure to counterterrorism training in the United States, noted in the first video and confirmed later by the United States Department of State. More interestingly, Halimov reported to have traveled to Russia. Andrew Roth, writing on the video for The New York Times, noted the remarks of Halimov in an article on May 29:

A senior police commander from Tajikistan who vanished last month has reappeared in an online video, saying he had defected to join the Islamic State group in Syria.

The development on Thursday raised concerns of growing extremism in Tajikistan, a former Soviet republic that Russia supports as a bulwark against militant Islamism.

The officer, Col. Gulmurod Khalimov, was the commander of the elite OMON division of the Tajik national police. In the video, shot in high definition at an unnamed location, the colonel is seen declaring his intention to wage jihad in Central Asia.

Wearing a black turban and holding a sniper rifle, Colonel Khalimov says in the video that he traveled to the United States three times and received training there from Blackwater, the security company that was once a major contractor for the American government in Iraq and elsewhere. (The company is now known as Academi.) (Roth, The New York Times, May 29, 2015)

In mid-June, Halimov appeared in a second video that emerged online at You Tube. In the second recording, he appeared to have grown out his beard and was accompanied by two fellow Tajik ISIS fighters. Halimov addressed rumors that he had been sent as an operative to target and kill a Tajik leader who is assessed to be in large measure responsible for the recruitment of other Tajiks for ISIS in Syria. In the second video, Halimov rails against the Tajik state, threatening to be-head his own brother and return to Tajikistan to kill a well-known government-sponsored Islamic cleric.

For nearly a year, reports have repeatedly asserted that ISIS is recruiting people in Central Asia with renewed vigor, particularly in Tajikistan. ISIS has apparently assessed the former Soviet states of Central Asia as fertile ground for recruits. Disaffected, poverty-stricken, politically marginalized youth in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan have been targeted by the terrorist group for recruitment to fight in Syria:

Ex-Soviet Tajikistan, where remittances from migrants working in Russia account for around half of economic output, is the poorest of five former communist republics in Central Asia. Sharifov, who returned home on May 6 after escaping IS, said the group had its sights on the region, echoing President Emomali Rakhmon’s warnings that cast Islamic radicalism as the country’s main challenge. Emissaries from the IS group — which Sharifov condemned as “un-Islamic” and “evil” — are looking to “direct the flames of war towards ex-Soviet countries,” he said. (Akbar Borisov, AFP, May 15, 2015)

While stories of Tajiks, Uighurs, Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, and even Turkmen in Syria are not entirely uncommon, the actual number of Central Asians joining and fighting for ISIS is difficult to assess. In particular, Uzbeks comprise an apparent large number of Central Asians fighting for ISIS in Syria:

There are no exact figures for how many people from the five ex-Soviet Central Asian states are now fighting in the Middle East, but the International Crisis Group (ICG) says between 2,000 and 4,000 people may have travelled to Syria and Iraq since 2011. Tajikistan, which says 386 of its nationals are living in the two countries, has launched a crackdown on Islamism at home, with some accusing authorities of going too far. (Borisov, AFP, May 15, 2015)

However, there is ample evidence to also assert that authoritarian regimes such as that of President Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan and President Emomali Rahmon in Tajikistan are using the ISIS narrative in a much more cynical fashion. Political opposition and dissidents in Tajikistan in particular have been accused of joining the Islamic State in numbers that are difficult to verify and on their face are often absurdly exaggerated. With the increasing attention paid to ISIS by Western media, an opportunity to exploit the growing narrative of ISIS absorbing fighters from Central Asia has been seized by the Rahmon government. In particular, Rahmon has sought to leverage the fear of ISIS raising its profile in Tajikistan to his advantage by accusing dissidents and political opposition of being aligned with the goals of the group.
Training Tajikistan’s Security Forces

Assistance provided by the United States., intended to professionalize Tajikistan’s federal security services, has recently been criticized by both internal investigations at the United States Department of State. However, the training provided by the U.S. units had, at its core, the mission purpose of maturing Tajik security forces charged with maintaining security in the country and battling potentially widespread destabilizing Islamist militancy.

A barricade erected on the northern edge of Khorog, Tajikistan, during the 2012 battle on the M41 highway. Photo courtesy of Jamie McDonald and Wikimedia Commons.

A barricade erected on the northern edge of Khorog, Tajikistan, during the 2012 battle on the M41 highway.
Photo courtesy of Jamie McDonald and Wikimedia Commons.

In April, the U.S. embassy was embroiled in a controversy over an investigation into the U.S. government’s training of Tajik special forces. The Tajik forces in question had been accused of war crimes in Khorog, the capital of Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province, during a Tajik military operation in 2012. Joshua Kucera explored the interesting case of the U.S. embassy in Dushanbe being investigated internally by the United States government in an article for EurasiaNet in April. U.S. involvement with Tajik government forces that participated in an incident in Khorog in 2012 was criticized in an internal investigation which cited training the U.S. had provided the forces that would eventually participate in the Khorog attack:

On April 7 the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General released a report on the Dushanbe embassy’s activities, and among the issues it investigated was U.S. military aid policy in the context of the controversial 2012 military operation in Khorog. In that operation, special forces units — which have been the focus of extensive U.S. training and equipping programs — opened indiscriminate fire in the town, killing about 20 civilians. That raised questions about whether the aid was in violation of U.S. laws that try to prevent military aid going to human rights violators. (Kucera, EurasiaNet, April 7, 2015)

More concerning than the training the embassy reportedly provided was the response of the embassy in the aftermath of the Khorog incident:

When the State Department tried to look into the event and U.S. military aid policies in Tajikistan, the information they were given was written by the military officers of the embassy, rather than the diplomats who were supposed to be providing oversight, the OIG report says. That “frustrated” officials in Washington trying to investigate, and “undermined confidence that the embassy provides a full and reliable picture of local developments.” (Kucera, EurasiaNet, April 7, 2015)

Kucera has written on U.S. participation in training Tajik special services before. In 2011, he noted the participation of U.S. forces in training special services in Tajikistan and in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. An especially interesting portion of Kucera’s 2011 article is his mentioning of the history of human rights violations by the two countries’ national security forces and the impact that history has upon U.S. participation:

Officials from the US State Department, which administers military aid, declined to comment to EurasiaNet.org. Representatives from US Special Operations Command, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the US embassies in Bishkek and Dushanbe did not respond to requests for comment.

According to the most recent State Department budget documents justifying military aid to the region, “assistance to the Tajikistan Ministry of Defense and the National Guard will continue to support more professional and capable ground forces. Reforms to the defense establishment will result in a force prepared to cooperate with United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces in peacekeeping and other multilateral operations.”

Assistance to Kyrgyzstan “will be used to provide equipment to military forces to enhance their ability to protect the country from terrorist threats. The US Government will work directly with Kyrgyz Security Forces to identify shortfalls in equipment necessary to complete the security mission.”

US law prohibits military aid going to units that have committed human rights violations. But there is nothing that forbids assistance on the grounds that it would help a particular president, rather than the country’s security as a whole. (Kucera, EurasiaNet, December 19, 2011)

In a 2012 report, Kucera outlined the military support the U.S. had provided to the Tajik government forces, noting in particular the counterterrorism focus of much of the training and the effort of the U.S. forces to further professionalize the Tajik security services. Historically, the Tajik regime has used its security services (including its police and military) to suppress dissent in ways that have been harshly criticized by many international observers. The U.S. training of these units was ostensibly in an effort to mature the forces and provide stability and security to the country in a way that prevented the type of incident which would emerge in Khorog. Kucera’s published work reflects training specifically focused on the professional aspects of approaching internal and external threats to the country:

Another cable, from October 2008, describes the curriculum of the special forces training exercises: “Critical training tasks that the Tajik National Guard, Border Guards, and OMON squads have requested include the following: staff organization and planning, orders production, mission analysis and the military decision making process, intelligence preparation of the battlefield (IPB), direct action (raids and ambushes), special reconnaissance, close quarters combat/battle (CQC/B), sniper/observe operations, military operations in urban terrain (MOUT), Counter-Improvised Explosive Device (C-IED), Sensitive Site Exploitation (SSE), tactical communications and basic combat lifesaving”29. The United States appeared to want to get more heavily involved in organizing Tajikistan’s special forces. One diplomatic cable from February 2010 said that forces from the U.S. Special Operations Command Central were planning an assessment and then would be “organizing these groups into special units” and then “sustain an increase in capabilities” via training with U.S. special forces. “Security cooperation remains a strong point in our relationship with Tajikistan,” the cable said.30 (Joshua Kucera, U.S. Military Aid to Central Asia: Who Benefits?, Open Society Foundations, September 2012)

As President Rahmon has moved to consolidate his power in the country, he and his regime have begun using stronger measures to suppress dissent and marginalize political opposition. This has meant greater use of the Tajik national security services in battling perceived threats to both the security of the country and the regime itself.

The defection of Halimov to ISIS and his movement into Syria have underscored the delicate nature of the relationship between the U.S. (particularly the embassy in Dushanbe) and the government of Tajikistan. Kucera, again writing for EurasiaNet, notes the recent history of U.S. sponsored training of Tajik special units and the relationship that the U.S. embassy in Tajikistan nurtured with the Rahmon regime:

OMON has been one of the key elements of U.S. security cooperation in Tajikistan, which has focused on training and equipping the country’s various special forces units. That training has been controversial, even before there was any ISIS connection: while the special forces are Tajikistan’s most capable units and would be used to combat genuine security threats, they also are a key element of President Emomali Rahmon’s repressive rule and have been implicated in indiscriminate force in suppressing internal opposition. (Kucera, EurasiaNet.org, May 31, 2015)

The incident in Khorog has become a blight on the history of cooperation between the U.S. and Tajikistan, rendering the relationship between the two countries open to suspicion by political opposition both inside Tajikistan and those abroad in exile. The latter point is further underscored by the assassination of Kuvatov in Turkey where intrigue surrounds both the incident itself and the affects on political dissent inside Tajikistan in the aftermath.

While many opposition leaders have begun to feel the pressure of the Rahmon regime’s crackdown, many have doubled down on their efforts, seeking to solidify a stronger support base for change in Tajikistan’s governance. Opposition party leaders have encouraged increased dissent in response to the Rahmon regime’s policies. However, in late June members of Tajikistan’s Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) suddenly resigned in large numbers, many espousing support for the Rahmon regime through posted videos.

Many members of the opposition continue to seek out ways in which to induce more transparency in the government and elicit concessions on eliciting greater representation in the government itself, they remain a target of both the government and the state security forces.

Looking Ahead: Part Two

In Part Two, I will expand on recent events in Tajikistan as well as explore the geopolitics and importance of the country to the region. I will also explain how these events and the associated geopolitics could shape Tajikistan’s future and the security of surrounding countries.

(Map of Tajikistan: Featured photo courtesy of the United States Central Intelligence Agency.)

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Eric Jones

Eric Jones

Director, Co-founder, and Editor in Chief at Foreign Intrigue. Eric researches and writes about international affairs and US foreign policy, particularly Europe, Russia, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. You can email Eric at Eric.Jones@Foreign-Intrigue.com. Follow Eric on Twitter via @Intrigue_Jones. Follow Foreign Intrigue on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/ForeignIntrigue.

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