Unease in President Emomali Rahmon’s Tajikistan

by Derek Bisaccio, International Military Markets Analyst, Forecast International.

September was a tough month for Tajikistan, particularly for Tajik President Emomali Rahmon. Two terrorist attacks in one day by a former defense official at the start of the month and the fall of Kunduz in neighboring Afghanistan at the end of the month set the tone for a series of discussions with other regional leaders about security in Central Asia and especially in Tajikistan.

On September 4, former Deputy Defense Minister General Abduhalim Nazarzoda and a band of followers carried out two separate terrorist attacks around the capital, killing nine police officers. Nazarzoda and his followers later fled to the Ramit Gorge, where Tajik authorities cornered and killed Nazarzoda.[i] Owing to Nazarzoda’s status as a former Islamist warlord during the 1990s, Rahmon accused the rogue general of leading an Islamist extremist group and attempting a coup, though Nazarzoda’s supposed extremist ties are subject to dispute.[ii]

On September 28, several weeks after the events in Dushanbe, the Taliban pulled off a stunning assault on the city of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, capturing the city from Afghan security forces, which were forced to retreat to the nearby Kunduz airport. With the help of American airstrikes and Afghan Special Forces, the Afghan Army retook Kunduz after 15 days of fighting.[iii] The initial collapse in Kunduz, however, shows that the Afghan Army may be vulnerable to a resurgent Taliban, which in turn could cause the violence to spill over Afghanistan’s northern borders.

The threat Islamist militant groups pose to Central Asian states is not existential in nature and is often overhyped,[iv] but even so, the risk of spillover from Afghanistan and elsewhere has the potential to exacerbate internal political dynamics. In Tajikistan, Rahmon is seemingly seeing increasing dissidence from elite members of society. Nazarzoda, according to a profile by Eurasianet, is the fifth general to be accused of plotting a coup against the government.[v] In May, former elite police commander Gulmurod Khalimov defected to the so-called Islamic State and threatened to return to target the Rahmon administration.[vi] As an indication of the nature of Tajik internal politics, Rahmon has reportedly sought to return to the fold Bakhtiyor Langariyev,[vii] a prominent elite whose powerful family had previously fallen out with Rahmon. Langariyev returned to the country in October, after leaving seven years ago, prompting speculation that he would receive a top government position.

Tajikistan has taken steps to consolidate power, which have manifested in the form of blaming internal issues on the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). Dushanbe has cracked down on the IRPT throughout the year, increasing the pressure immediately prior to and soon after Nazarzoda’s rampage. Despite IRPT denials, government accounts of the events of September 4 label Nazarzoda as a member of the political party. After having been banned and shut down earlier in the month, on September 29 the party was branded as a terrorist organization,[viii] a label the IRPT rejects.

Pressuring the IRPT limits the opposition group’s political potential, but could have unintended consequences. Since legitimization, the IRPT had stuck to nonviolent methods of opposition. This, however, could change in light of the ban on its activities and the arrest of many top members on terrorism charges.[ix] Some elements of the IRPT, disillusioned as a result of the crackdown, may eschew the party’s nonviolence and seek to target the government. A resurgent Taliban across the border in Afghanistan only exasperates the situation further, particularly if money, weapons, and militants start to flow across the 1,300-kilometer border to assist in fighting Rahmon’s government.

Seeking reassurance from abroad, Rahmon flew to Sochi after Kunduz fell to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Moscow maintains a sizeable military presence in the country and has played a key role in maintaining stability. Soon after the meeting, Russia announced it was reinforcing its deployment to Tajikistan with Mi-24P attack helicopters, to be based out of Ayni airfield.[x] At the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) summit in Dushanbe in mid-September and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) summit near Astana in October, the security of members – Tajikistan in particular – was a top item of discussion.

Given the internal and external security risks to Tajikistan’s government, the country would presumably be interested in boosting the capability of its forces; however, Dushanbe has a very limited military budget that hampers any modernization efforts and procurement of military hardware. Because of this, Tajikistan is reliant on external assistance, most of which comes from Russia. Recent deliveries of tactical equipment from the United States, however, indicate that Rahmon is taking whatever help he can get.[xi]

[i] Farangis Najibullah, “Death of a Fugitive: Abduhalim Nazarzoda, Tajik General Blamed for Recent Violence,” RFERL, September 16, 2015. http://www.rferl.org/content/tajikistan-general-nazarzoda-deadly-attacks/27233955.html

[ii] Abdujalil Abdurasulov, “Motives for Tajikistan violence murky,” BBC News, September 5, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-34163628

[iii] Rod Nordland, “Taliban End Takeover of Kunduz After 15 Days,” New York Times, October 13, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/14/world/asia/taliban-afghanistan-kunduz.html?_r=0

[iv] Casey Michel, “Moscow Hypes the Central Asia Jihadist Threat,” The Diplomat, October 6, 2014. http://thediplomat.com/2014/10/moscow-hypes-the-central-asia-jihadist-threat/

[v] Eurasianet, “Who Is Tajikistan’s Fugitive General?” September 8, 2015. http://www.eurasianet.org/node/74976

[vi] The Guardian, “Tajikistan police chief defects to Isis,” May 28, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/28/tajikistan-police-chief-defects-to-isis

[vii] Asia-Plus, “Brother of late prominent commander of Popular Front returns to Tajikistan after seven years,” October 6, 2015. http://news.tj/en/news/brother-late-prominent-commander-popular-front-returns-tajikistan-after-seven-years

[viii] Tass, “Tajikistan declares Islamic Revival Party terrorist organization – court,” September 29, 2015. http://tass.ru/en/world/824587

[ix] Asia-Plus, “Case of arrested members of the banned IRP reportedly classified as ‘top secret,'” October 15, 2015. http://news.tj/en/news/case-arrested-members-banned-irp-reportedly-classified-top-secret

[x] Asia-Plus, “Russia beefs up its base in Tajikistan with attack helicopters,” October 7, 2015. http://news.tj/en/news/russia-beefs-its-base-tajikistan-attack-helicopters

[xi] Embassy of the United States Dushanbe, “U.S. Embassy Dushanbe Delivers Tactical Equipment to the Government of Tajikistan’s Law Enforcement Agency,” September 23, 2015. http://dushanbe.usembassy.gov/pr-092315.html

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