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.


To the Governments of Russia, China and the U.S.:

1.  Institute joint consultations with a view to assessing the risks to the Afghan-Tajikistan border, and Afghan­istan, from Afghanistan-based insurgent groups of Central Asian origin or interest. Share information and intelligence on the strength, strategic intentions and capabilities of Islamist insurgent groups like IMU. Discuss joint measures to reinforce border security and inhibit the trans-shipment of narcotics.

To the U.S., Other Members of the International Coalition in Afghanistan and Major Donors:

2.  Raise explicitly and regularly with the president of Tajikistan and other senior leaders the concerns of the international community that senior members of the leadership are benefiting from narcotics smuggling. Urge the government to take energetic measures to investigate and punish any senior officials found to be active in the trade and warn it of the potential repercussions of failing to take such steps – notably reduction or termination of aid.

To the International Community and Donors in Tajikistan:

3.  Reconfigure the strategy and philosophy of aid. Make conditionality the norm to reward reform and new approaches and penalise corruption or incompetence. Maintain a flexible aid fund, to be disbursed according to performance. In developing this policy, pay particular attention to developing well-coordinated positions to avoid duplication; investing in long-term institution and capacity-building; and avoiding short-term superficial responses (eg, investing in new anti-corruption courts, rather than the existing judiciary) or focusing overly on security measures. Investing now in developing aid staff expertise in Tajikistan and Central Asia would pay significant dividends.

To the Government of Tajikistan:

4.  Engage in open and public dialogue with all Islamist groups that explicitly repudiate the use of violence to achieve their ends. Repeal laws banning such organisations and encourage their free participation in all forms of political and social life.

VIA:International Crisis Group


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