Crossroads Asia

Central Asia’s Moment of Instability

A key Tajik figure announces his allegiance to the Islamic State, with some significant potential ramifications.

Central Asia’s Moment of Instability

The recent video appearance of Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov, commander of Tajikistan’s Interior Ministry Special Forces, announcing his allegiance to Islamic State, reminds us that grievances do not necessarily resolve themselves when the attention of the world shifts elsewhere – sometimes they expand and draw others in – building to an unstable moment.

Not surprisingly, the story that is captivating the international media about Khalimov is that he was trained in the United States and Russia in tactical operations related to fighting terrorists; leaving the impression that somehow the U.S. and Russia missed a hidden radical in the cloak of a moderate who now poses a threat to us. Yet the unpursued story of why a successful 40-year-old senior official chose to leave his post, country, and presumed privilege to fight with the Islamic State in Syria – and more urgently – the potential ramifications of this event on stability in Tajikistan and Central Asia, are perhaps of greater importance. Khalimov is not from the mountains and valleys of Rasht or Badakhshan where the Mujahideen of the 1990s Tajik civil war originated. He is from the capital city of Dushanbe. He served as part of the Presidential Guard during the height of the inter-Tajik conflict and was already receiving training in Russia as the Tajik peace agreement was being penned. He was not isolated from the center; rather, he was deeply connected to it. The assertion that religion is the sole cause of his alignment with Islamic State is too simplistic to hold up to scrutiny. Certainly it appears to be an important consideration for Khalimov; but doubtful that it is the proximate cause.

While it is impossible to know the exact motivations of Khalimov’s exodus from Tajikistan and his emergence in Syria, his videotaped remarks and focus of ire on the government of Tajik President Emomali Rahmon provide some insight into the targeted audience and potential impact of his actions and statement. Kalimov’s opening greeting, peppered with the requisite religious framing, serves to establish his credentials as a true believer. His closing comments in Tajik are largely directed towards the young, poorly educated, non-Russia speaking foot soldiers of the Tajik armed services. The bulk of the twelve minute video, in Russian, is aimed at the one million Tajiks who work abroad, primarily in Russia, as well as other Russian speakers from across Central Asia.

In words that are reminiscent of a 2011 statement by Jamā’at Anṣār Allah Tājīkistān, Khalimov points to crackdowns on average Muslim citizens: Much of the video highlights the failure of governance in Tajikistan, as evidenced by restrictions pertaining to the hijab and other Muslim practices. Khalimov paints a picture of a Central Asia that should not be defined by nationalities or ethnicities: “Our people and our nation is Islam.” And through this statement, Kalimov implicitly invites not only Tajiks, but Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, and Kazakhs to imagine a change of leadership in their countries. As a whole, this video serves as an orchestrated rallying cry for revolt in Tajikistan, specifically, and more broadly in Central Asia. Islam and the unifying banner of a caliphate – a governance structure that sings a siren song of improvement over the broken ones currently in place in Central Asia – is used as the galvanizing element for each of these audiences. This is not a new message; but this messenger is more compelling, given his resume. Undoubtedly, there is growing concern in the presidential palaces of Dushanbe, Tashkent, Bishkek, and Astana about the effect this will have on recruitment to expand violent jihad within their countries, and whether a percentage of the 4,000 Central Asians already battle-hardened and fighting in Syria may lead the charge.

The timing of this galvanizing message comes at a particularly volatile moment for a country already beset with issues. Though the Pamir Mountains have earned Tajikistan the lofty moniker “roof of the world,” there are other less vaunted superlatives that describe Tajikistan: The poorest of the former Soviet Republics; the world’s most significant transit route for illegal drugs; and the world’s top recipient of remittances as a share of GDP, at 42 percent, primarily from the migrant workers in Russia. Rahmon has been in power since 1992, shrewdly navigating the Tajik civil war, integration of the United Tajik Opposition into government structures, and deep chronic economic challenges. And through it all, he has managed to quash viable opposition – religious and secular – and retain a virtual monopoly over leadership. He has used migrant labor as a safety valve for not only buffering the otherwise abysmal economy with crucial remittance money, but also by ensuring that potential malcontents are productively busy outside the country’s borders.

However, with Russia’s economy severely weakened by the global decline in oil prices and a dramatically devalued ruble, Russia’s appetite for Tajik migrant workers has rapidly and significantly decreased. Combined with the imposition of strict migration regulations, there has already been a substantial repatriation of Tajiks. If this situation endures, not only will it have a catastrophic impact on Tajikistan’s household incomes and GDP, the potential social upheaval of a large and rapid influx of people to Tajikistan will create the real possibility of instability in this country and region that sits along the northern border of Afghanistan.

A nose-diving economy and large numbers of disgruntled young people returning home at a moment when a charismatic, overtly moderate, former insider is calling for revolution should be worrisome not only to the president of Tajikistan and his Central Asian peers, but to the United States, Russia, and other countries that share an interest in ensuring that localized grievances and revolt do not pave a path to the expansion of global jihad. This situation is a potential tinderbox that could be ignited by a knee-jerk crackdown by any of the Central Asian governments on perceived extremists or overtly devout Muslims. If past is prologue in Central Asia, that match may soon be taken out of the box.

During the Tajik civil war, William B. Farrell was seconded by the United States Department of State to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe as Deputy Head of Mission to Tajikistan where he played a substantive role in the peace negotiations. From 2001-2004, he oversaw the United States Agency for International Development’s conflict mitigation programming across the five Central Asian countries. He is currently a fellow at the School of Policy and International Affairs at the University of Maine where he researches jihadi organizations.