While Islamic fundamentalism exist to a greater or lesser extent in every Central Asian country, these threats are greatest in Tajikistan. Regardless of whether radicalized Islam in Tajikistan is considered a consequence of the civil war including the marginalization of former allies of President Rakhmon and members of the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan (IRP), poverty exacerbated by corruption driving people to seek justice through religion, or a crumbling regime losing control at the “top” and “bottom” of its society, the new pattern of violence indicates serious challenges for Tajikistan. Unless the government finds ways to improve its intelligence and security forces, the unrest will likely continue and worsen.
BACKGROUND: The causes of Tajikistan’s civil war lay in the struggle among elites at the republican level, which spread to other regions as the clash of interests among different regional clans intensified. As a result, the IRP was created as a regional counterbalance against the Communist Party of Tajikistan, which was dominating in mainly Khujand and Kulyab in the 1990s. The IRP's followers were mainly from Garm and Gorno-Badakhshan, which had a minority stake in the government and were not able to enjoy the economic benefits of these positions. Their purpose was to overthrow the Communist Party in order to establish an Islamic state. As the government moved to repress the IRP, the latter spawned the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) coalition forces with other opposing groups under the agenda of advocating nationalism, democracy, and Islamism to fight for political and economic inclusion. Antigovernment demonstrations that started in the spring of 1992 were shortly followed by the civil war.
The ruling secular party secured support from Russia and Uzbekistan and was able to repulse the UTO forces. As a result, the UTO sought save havens in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and to a lesser extent Iran and those who did not leave the country hid in regions difficult to access for the government troops. Reconciliation was reached when the two parties signed a peace deal in 1997, in which the UTO was offered a 30 percent quota in governmental positions. Nevertheless, most political power has been concentrated in the presidential office, which was dominated by President Rahmon’s Kulyabi clan, depriving the opposition of a significant role in the management of the country. The president did little to share political power and economic resources beyond his clan-based network.
Since the 1997 peace agreement, the president has gradually been sidelining those former opposition and allied commanders whom he viewed as posing a real or potential threat to his power. A suspicious car crash on October 2 involving the head of the IRP and his deputy is a recent example. This resulted in the growth of discontent and has caused frequent armed clashes between the government and former opposition forces since the middle of 2005.
IMPLICATIONS: The new wave of tensions and conflict over the last three months indicate the resurgence of militant Islamists in Tajikistan after a long period of relative quiet since the end of the civil war in 1997. In themselves, the September 3 suicide attack on a police station in the northern city of Khujand, killing four police officers, and the September 6 bomb explosion in a disco in Dushanbe, wounding seven, could be characterized as the usual Central Asian hit-and-run-attacks aiming to threaten the government. However, the prison break by 25 prisoners in Dushanbe on August 23 and the latest ambush of a military convoy, sent to capture the breakaway prisoners, by militants in the Rasht Valley on September 19, claiming the lives of 20-40 soldiers, indicate that the situation is now far more serious. Despite the government’s launch of a large-scale operation in the Rasht Valley, it continues experiencing failures. On October 4, wounded and dead soldiers were returned from that area to Dushanbe. The helicopter carrying soldiers crashed and officially killed four soldiers, while unofficial sources claim the actual death toll amounts to 28. Six more soldiers died in landmine explosion in the same area. The government claims the events were accidents due to technical failure.
The events in the Rasht Valley reiterate the dominant position of the militants in the mountainous regions. This is not surprising given that the population in mountainous areas is mostly socially, economically, and politically deprived, and views the sitting government simply as domination by the other clans as opposed to theirs. In such an environment, Islamic militants may easily garner support. On the other hand, the audacious prison break indicates that the militants are gaining a foothold in the capital as well. There are strong indications that sidelined ex-government and ex-opposition commanders are behind the recent violence and are trying to make a comeback.
The recent events are an indication of two new tendencies in Tajikistan. First, the country experienced its first ever suicide attack. Second, the attacks are professionally conducted. In the well-prepared and coordinated military convoy ambush, the government troops experienced heavy casualties, losing as many as a third to half of their soldiers and many others were seriously wounded. The convoy drew heavy fire from grenade launchers and machine guns. The extent of the violence indicates that the militants may have formed a well-organized local insurgency with extended networks and planning more serious fighting.
As the militants now have enough power to cause trouble for the current government and challenge its security, the stability and future of Tajikistan will depend on the extent to which the government will be able to resist the new wave of violence. Tajikistan’s government may be able to prevent smaller groups from entering Tajikistan from Afghanistan, but will it be able to prevail if their numbers increase? Now that the militants are strong both inside and outside of the capital, does the government have the institutional and logistical capacity and resources to act effectively against the Islamists to neutralize their violent opposition? Will Russia, Uzbekistan or any other country be ready materially to assist Tajikistan to oppose those forces this time?
At the same time, the government’s failure to address the crumbling infrastructure and social systems and the absence of functioning governmental institutions are undermining public support for the government. The Tajik public, despite fresh memories of the bloody civil war, will probably feel fewer inhibitions about taking to the streets to protest. In light of the planned withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan, the recent outbreak of violence in Tajikistan puts the future of Central Asia’s security and stability into question.
CONCLUSIONS: Although clashes between the government and militants are not a new occurrence in Tajikistan, their intensity, frequency and sophistication is new and need to be given special attention. The latest events indicate that government security forces are ill-prepared to stand up to resurgent militant groups, likely supported by militarily sophisticated elements from Afghanistan, both in the mountainous areas bordering Afghanistan and in the capital. As the existing power structure starts to crumble, Islamic fundamentalism can turn into a major problem for the country and its immediate neighbors. Poverty, corruption and the absence of basic services for the population, as well as the marginalized former warlords and elites allow radical Islam to breed. Unless the government finds ways to avert the continuing violence through better intelligence and strategies that can neutralize the militants before they are able to extend their power bases further, perilous times for Tajikistan and the rest Central Asia could be just around the corner.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Umida Hashimova is an independent researcher based in Washington D.C.