By Georgiy Voloshin
As the eyes of the world were riveted to the ongoing battle between Syrian rebels and government forces in Syria’s largest city of Aleppo, the government of Tajikistan decided to carry out a military operation against its own rebels in the country’s south. This operation was launched in the wake of a mysterious murder: the head of a local office of the National Security Committee (the KGB’s successor in Tajikistan), General Abdullo Nazarov, 56, was stabbed to death by unidentified armed men. All of his four companions, including three personal bodyguards, were reported to be wounded, but survived the attack and even refused hospitalization, claiming that their lives were out of danger.
A file photo of joint counter-terrorism military operations between SCO membersIn response to the killing, Tajikistan’s government accused Tolib Ayembekov, a local leader, of smuggling drugs, precious stones, and tobacco across the border with Afghanistan. The murder of Nazarov, whose responsibility was to fight organized crime in the country’s most unstable and poorest province, was judged as a vendetta for his resistance to Ayembekov’s illegal trade. On July 24, three days after Nazarov was killed when crossing the region in a heavily guarded vehicle, the outskirts of Khorog, which is the administrative center of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province (GBAO), were bombed by the Tajik military. Local media reported that the operation on the ground was conducted not only by the National Security Committee and the Interior Ministry, but also by several detachments of the presidential guard.
From the first hours of airstrikes resounding across the mountainous areas of southern Tajikistan, several experts, both in the country and abroad, expressed serious doubts concerning the validity of the official version of events. Tajik officials working in such remote areas are generally considered to be relatively independent from central authorities in Dushanbe and have been frequently accused of practicing corruption and providing cover-ups for illegal businesses. Locals living in Khorog spoke about Abdullo Nazarov’s direct involvement in large-scale transfers of tobacco across the border. He had purportedly provided protection for most shipments of tobacco products imported without compulsory customs clearing, and was killed as a result of an altercation with his “business partners” over a shipment he had previously refused to accept.
Whatever the real causes of this incident, the situation in the GBAO region of Tajikistan has always remained very strained. In 2008, popular protests were sparked by widespread indignation over the government’s relentless hunting down of “annoying” persons amongst former rebels. Today, Tajikistan is Central Asia’s poorest country, with its GDP per capita rate hardly exceeding $800. Yet, the situation in the country’s south, on the border with Afghanistan, remains particularly difficult. Numerous ethnic groups populating these areas consider themselves to be mercilessly oppressed by Tajiks, while social and economic development is hampered by irresponsible actions on behalf of the central government’s representatives.
One of the explanations behind Dushanbe’s decision to launch a military operation against locally operating criminal groups could be the desire of President Emomalii Rahmon to eliminate potential adversaries from the ranks of former rebels, given their high popularity in poverty-ridden towns and villages. Between 1992 and 1997, Tajikistan was in a state of civil war, with southern groups overtly affiliated with Islamist elements opposing the central government. Following a truce which concluded years-long hostilities, most of the rebels decided to lay down arms and retain full liberty in exchange for their acceptance of the civilian authorities in Dushanbe. As the domestic situation in Tajikistan has been deteriorating against the backdrop of a severe economic crisis and worsening security conditions in neighboring Afghanistan, those rebels who once fought the current president and his supporters have rapidly become popular with Tajikistan’s southerners.
Earlier in June, serious concerns about the security situation in Tajikistan were expressed by the commander-in-chief of Russia’s ground forces, General Vladimir Chirkin. Speaking before the Committee on defense and security of the Federation Council (Senate), he particularly stressed the probability of armed conflicts in Central Asia on energy and water-sharing grounds. In this regard, it should be noted that Tajikistan’s relations with Uzbekistan have been traditionally complicated because of unresolved disputes related to the projected construction of several dams on Tajik territory. First proposed in 1959, when both countries were still part of the USSR, the Rogun dam, which is the largest of all those ever planned by Dushanbe, has been blocked for decades by Uzbek authorities, fearful of its potential impact on the availability of irrigation water supply for Uzbekistan’s vast cotton fields. Energy is also a factor of friction between the two capitals: Tashkent already resorted to unilateral halts in gas supply to neighboring Tajikistan in order to convince this “brotherly nation” of the necessity to reconsider its ambitious construction projects.
Interestingly, General Chirkin whose comments had previously attracted criticism from several Central Asian republics is currently negotiating the extension of Russia’s lease for its military facility in Tajikistan. Opened in 2004, the 201st military base of the Russian Federation became the largest in personnel across the whole CIS space. At the time, Russia promised to assist Tajik border authorities in ensuring security in the vicinity of Afghanistan, exempting itself from any payments for the use of Tajik territory. While the initially agreed lease term will expire in 2014, Russia is trying to extend its presence in Central Asia by renewing the historic conditions of a bilateral agreement between Moscow and Dushanbe. In its turn, Tajikistan has recently demanded several modifications in Russia’s obligations, expecting it to pay around $250 million per year. It also insists on the reduction of the next lease term from 49 years, as was requested by Russian counterparts, to 10 years until 2024. Therefore, Mr. Chirkin’s comments should be interpreted as a warning to Tajikistan’s government that Russia’s departure from Central Asia could leave the region without necessary military guarantees.
However, Tajikistan’s role in Central Asian geopolitics is not limited to its relations with the Kremlin. As ISAF forces are already scheduling their withdrawal from Afghanistan (the 2012 NATO Summit in Chicago decided that more than 130,000 troops would leave Afghanistan by the end of December 2014), the US Government is already seeking new partnerships in Central Asia. While Kyrgyzstan has maintained its decision to close down the Manas Transit Center, which now serves as a main logistical base for coalition troops in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan remains too unreliable after it already drove US soldiers out of its own military base in 2005. Thus, with Turkmenistan staying permanently neutral and Kazakhstan engaged in an active military cooperation with Russia, Tajikistan seems to be the only plausible option. As a proof of Washington’s nascent reorientation towards Dushanbe, the White House has recently submitted to Congress a request to double military aid to Tajik armed forces (from $800,000 to $1,500,000) for the 2013 financial year. A delegation of US Congressmen visiting Tajikistan in early July also promised to raise the question of establishing a military base on Tajik soil after 2014, when US troops will definitely leave the Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan.
While Tajikistan’s actions in its southern province have already led to accusations of “genocide” against the local Pamir ethnic groups and are also interpreted as President Rahmon’s attempt to get rid of political opposition to his rule, the country’s role in Central Asian security should also be highlighted. Rampant corruption, social tensions, poor economic conditions and unstable relations with neighbors make Tajikistan a particularly problematic partner, especially in terms of military cooperation. As Tajikistan is negotiating with Russia over the latter’s presence on its territory, Moscow’s unwillingness to satisfy several of Dushanbe’s demands could lead to the withdrawal of remaining Russian troops on the border with Afghanistan and further jeopardize the country’s security. Meanwhile, despite its plans to stay engaged in regional affairs, Washington would be unable to cope with security challenges on its own, without using the help of both Russia and China, whose interest in overall stability across Central Asia is well-known. Therefore, the White House’s and the Pentagon’s reliance on individual Central Asian partners could prove to be a dangerous strategy, risking additional security burdens for an already crisis-stricken US economy.
Georgiy Voloshin is a contributor to Geopoliticalmonitor.com