Features | Security | Central Asia

Violence in Tajikistan

A wave of violence in Tajikistan is raising fears that the government is losing control of parts of the country. It’s a dangerous development in unstable Central Asia.

Joshua Kucera
Violence in Tajikistan
Credit: Veni Markovski

Tajikistan’s current crisis began on August 22, when a group of 25 prisoners escaped from a top-security prison in the capital city of Dushanbe, killing five guards in the process. The escapees included several high-profile opposition figures, including some with Islamist sympathies. And, while a handful were apprehended, most of them disappeared.

Since then, there have been a number of dramatically violent incidents across the country. On September 3, a pair of suicide bombers drove an explosive-laden car into a police station in Khujand, the second city of Tajikistan, killing four people and injuring dozens more. On September 19, 26 government troops – mainly young, poorly trained conscripts – were killed in an ambush in the Rasht Valley, a narrow stretch of Tajikistan between the Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan borders. On October 6, at least 27 government troops were killed in a military helicopter crash in the Rasht Valley; residents say that the helicopter was shot down. And earlier this month, police said a woman in the far northern Isfara region blew herself up when they tried to arrest her.

All this has been an unwelcome reminder of the civil war of 1992-1997, where different government factions, backed by rival clan groups, fought and killed as many as 100,000 people. The war ended in a power-sharing agreement, with the winning faction, led by President Emomali Rahmon, a former collective farm boss, ceding some positions in the government and security forces to the losing factions, which included both Islamists and liberals.

But as the years have passed, Rahmon has increasingly lost interest in sharing his power, and has consolidated authority around a small group of family members and allies from his home region of Kulyab, shutting out not only the Islamists and liberals but more and more of his former allies. He has cartoonishly put forward his children as potential future leaders: his daughter has been a TV news presenter – aged 16. His eldest son is a member of the Dushanbe city council, owns (as well as plays on) the national champions soccer team, and heads the Youth Union of Tajikistan and an investment-promotion agency. He’s 22. Meanwhile, many parts of the country have electricity for only an hour a day, and young Tajik men migrate abroad, especially to Russia, in droves to find jobs.

As a result of the narrowing of the circle of power, Rahmon has accumulated plenty of enemies, and so it’s not clear who’s behind the recent rash of violence, or indeed if any single group is responsible.

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The government has tried to pin the violence on transnational Islamist terror groups and attributed the suicide bombing in Khujand to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The IMU, while initially made up of Islamist opponents to the government of Uzbekistan, has focused more recently on Afghanistan and Pakistan than Central Asia. It remains, however, a favourite bogeyman for Central Asian leaders who want to claim that their opponents are implacable international jihadis rather than homegrown political opposition, so many observers are suspicious of the government’s blaming of the IMU.

Meanwhile, a previously unknown group calling itself Jamaat Ansarullah in Tajikistan, with apparent ties to the North Caucasus, claimed responsibility for the attack, and Rahmon said in a news conference that the group may in fact exist and that it is tied to the IMU. Government officials also attributed the suicide bombing in Isfara to the IMU; the woman who killed herself was the widow of a former IMU regional commander killed in 2006. (It appears unlikely at this point, however, that the incidents in Khujand and Isfara are connected to the uprising in Rasht.)

And the IMU itself claimed responsibility for the ambush in Rasht, though many local analysts believe that it may not be the work of the IMU proper, but instead local Islamists with loose allegiances to the organisation, and that the IMU may be trying to inflate its importance by claiming a presence in Central Asia that it doesn’t actually have.

There’s no doubt, however, that the uprising in Rasht is the work of disillusioned Tajiks. The government has blamed the ambush in Rasht on a group of former fighters in the civil war, including Mirzokhuja Ahmadov, Abdullo Rahimov (known as Mullo Abdullo) and Alovaddin Davlatov. Abdullo refused to abide by the peace deal of 1997 and instead fled to Afghanistan; the government now claims that he may have re-entered Tajikistan, though other sources claim that he was killed in Afghanistan in the early 2000s but that the government continues to use him as an Islamist whipping boy. (Taliban sources in northern Afghanistan, however, did tell Newsweek that between 70 and 150 of their members have crossed into Tajikistan in recent months.)

Ahmadov, by contrast, did take part in the power-sharing deal and was brought into the government security structures as a colonel in charge of a division combating organized crime. But he had clearly grown dissatisified with the direction of the government. In late August, Ahmadov gave an interview with Der Spiegel in which he expressed his discontent with Rahmon. ‘The leadership promised the former opposition land and loans, but we got nothing,’ he said. ‘Instead we are being watched around the clock. They apparently don’t trust us at all anymore. Our fighters’ old camps in the mountains are filling up again. It’s very possible that the civil war will be reignited soon.’

Rasht’s residents are embittered by the government’s malevolent neglect of their region, and by the brutality of military conscription. All young males are supposed to serve two years in the armed forces, but the experience is so miserable that many refuse, and the government has resorted to press-ganging. That has created a young populace that’s receptive to calls by leaders like Ahmadov to resist the government. And while religion isn’t the focus of the uprising, it has taken on a tint of Islam, the only ideology available to most Tajiks that provides a framework to understand the injustice of their government.

‘The outbreak of violence is only partially about Islam and the state. It’s also about central control over regions which have never been fully under the control of Dushanbe,’ writes John Heathershaw, an expert on Tajikistan at the University of Exeter, in the upcoming issue of the Caucasian Review of International Affairs. ‘It is about the brutality of conscription as an institution, the hopelessness generated by the difficulties of migration and the hidden resentment against the government in many peripheral regions.’

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting reported that a government delegation went to Rasht in September to try to gain Ahmodov’s cooperation in capturing Abdullo. But if that was the case, it apparently failed, and government officials subsequently named Ahmadov as the ringleader of the ambush, and claimed that he and Abdullo had been running Islamist terror training camps for youth.

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Although the conflict’s roots are primarily local, it could have regional implications. While the rebels don’t appear to have the ability to take over the central government in Dushanbe, nor does the central government appear to have the capacity to defeat the rebels. That suggests the possibility a long-term power vacuum in a part of Tajikistan that borders northern Afghanistan and southern Kyrgyzstan, both of which are themselves becoming more and more unstable.

It could also draw in the big powers. Russia maintains a large military base outside Dushanbe and while Tajikistan’s relationship with Russia has lately deteriorated, some in Dushanbe believe that the government may eventually have to call on Russian help. The United States, too, has announced plans for a counterterror training facility in Tajikistan.

This month, the government announced that it was withdrawing troops from the Rasht Valley, and Rahmon said the situation is ‘under control.’ At this point, that seems a little optimistic.