Insurgent activity is bringing Tajikistan's political security into question, raising fears that violence could spread beyond the border. As investors in Tajikistan begin to pay attention to the Central Asian nation, the future of the country looks to be defined by increasing unrest.
On September 4th, armed groups led by General Abduhalim Nazarzoda assaulted police posts and military bases on the outskirts of Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. The gunmen then retreated into the Ramit Gorge, roughly 50 kilometers outside the city, and where they remain at large. These most recent clashes highlight the growing instability within this Central Asian republic, and may well indicate greater trouble throughout the region.
Tajikistan is a country facing both domestic and external threats. Like many post-Soviet states, a civil war was fought here following the USSR’s dissolution. From 1992 to 1997, the country tore itself apart, with peace being only narrowly maintained ever since. It is widely believed that the current unrest is a remnant of the civil war, as true stability has remained elusive.
Adding severity to the problem is the fact that Tajikistan shares a direct border with Afghanistan, a country which is once again seeing fighting in its northern regions. Such clashes have occurred within kilometers of the border, and in one instance resulted in the capture of four Tajik border guards. The potential for violence to spill beyond national boundaries is very real, and has attracted the attention of the external powers.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit Tajikistan from 14-15 September to meet with Tajik President Imomali Rakhmon. Kremlin aid Yuri Ushakov, ahead of the talks, said, “We are ready to provide assistance one way or another, as well as political support, and I think this matter will be one of the key ones during talks." No specific remarks were made regarding military assistance, though a military dimension of Russian aid is likely given the close defense ties the two countries share.
Moscow maintains a military presence in Tajikistan and worries about growing instability following the withdrawal of ISAF troops from neighboring Afghanistan. Geo-strategically, Tajikistan is important for the world’s great powers. Russia, China, and the United States each maintain security investments in the country, though Moscow maintains the largest presence by a significant margin. Russia also has the largest economic relationship with Tajikistan, the latter being a major source of migrant labor for the former. However, a recent decline in remittance payments coming from Tajik migrant workers in Russia has weakened Tajikistan’s already fragile economy, likely helping to facilitate unrest and providing opportunities for Islamist recruiters.
Black Flags over Central Asia?
Further complicating matters is the defection of Gumurod Khalimov, the American-trained head of Tajikistan’s elite security force, who joined the Islamic State this past April. Khalimov appeared in IS propaganda videos, vowing to return to Tajikistan, after a mysterious disappearance from his home country. He specifically cites the ‘anti-religious’ policies of the government in Dushanbe and the difficulties facing Tajik migrant workers in Russia as his reasons for defecting. These drivers likely motivated other Tajiks to join the Islamic State, with estimates placing the total number of Tajik foreign fighters between 200 and 500.
The fact that these factors continue to worsen does not bode well for counterterrorism efforts in Central Asia. As Tajikistan is the world’s most remittance-dependent country, the recent decline of revenue from expatriates in Russia will be devastating; recruiters for the Islamic State and other Salafist organizations may soon find fertile ground in this former Soviet Republic.
This is not a new trend; such Islamist undercurrents may already have a strong footing. It is widely believed that General Nazarzoda was a member of the recently banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, though Party representatives deny any association. If true, Tajikistan may well find itself in the crosshairs of more radical Islamist forces.
Political intrigue and religious radicalism will define Tajik politics for the foreseeable future. Though questions remain unanswered regarding the latest clashes, the long-term security and political situation of Tajikistan looks increasingly unstable. As the world’s great powers continue to invest in this resource-rich region, such security concerns will be of increasing interest internationally.