Despite its 1300 kilometre-long border with Tajikistan, Afghanistan is rarely worried by the internal political strife and occasional violence to its north. The situation is, however, worsening. The Dushanbe government’s relentless attack on its domestic political (non-military) opposition, including the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), threatens to undo the relative peace and prosperity of Tajikistan’s post-civil war era. Most recently, violent clashes pitted government forces against the deputy defence minister, who was fighting to evade arrest. Guest author Christian Bleuer has been looking into how dangerous the situation is in Tajikistan and whether it could cause problems south of the border. He also considers why Afghanistan’s northern neighbours are largely centralising power whereas Afghanistan is, in practice, not.Emomali Rahmon, President of Tajikistan. Credit: Kate Dixon (Flickr)
For two decades, the government of Tajikistan has worked to wipe out its domestic opposition, targeting both former allies and current members of the opposition, inside the country and out. It appears to be finally nearing the completion of that task. The government has, at times, uneventfully removed former opposition members from the comfortable business perches or government positions they received as a result of the 1997 peace agreement that ended five years of civil war. This extremely complex war (1992-97) can be most simply described as a conflict between powerful commanders based in different regions of the country – these commanders used regional and ethnic identities to mobilise forces to fight for control of the state, while using the façade of ideology and Islam to represent themselves and their true loyalties and identities (for example, Tajiks from Gharm versus Tajiks from Kulob; not actually Islam versus communism). The Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) was the strongest and most well organised faction on the opposition side and, despite losing control over most field commanders during the war, remained the most prominent of the opposition political forces into 2015.
Now though, the Tajik government, led by President Emomali Rahmon, a former communist provincial government official who has ruled Tajikistan since the end of 1992, (1) has become so paranoid that it even goes after harmless exiled intellectuals and long-ago marginalised powerbrokers who live overseas. There have been a series of attacks on, assassinations of, attempts to extradite and renditions of opposition members abroad. (2) These tactics are used despite the fact that exiled intellectuals and government officials offer no serious threat to the ruling elite of Tajikistan. At other times, the Tajik government goes after former field commanders who do decide to fight – often to the death.
This was the case at the beginning of September 2015 with deputy defence minister General Abduhalim Nazarzoda. The former opposition civil war field commander (3) fought back when the government moved to arrest him for unspecified crimes. (In these situations the government eventually provides a long and usually unbelievable list of historical and current offences.) The court that would have tried the general has a conviction rate of nearly 100 per cent and life in a Tajik prison is a horrific existence, so it was no surprise that the general and a few of his loyalists chose to fight. The end result, after brief clashes in the capital Dushanbe and nearby city of Vahdat on 4 September and later in the Romit Valley where the attackers had withdrawn to, was dozens killed on both sides. They included General Nazarzoda himself and, on the government side, the commander of the elite Alpha special forces unit [see: here ; here ; here ].
Historical and recent authoritarian power consolidation
The reason the Tajik government under President Rahmon did not move against opposition forces earlier is that the governing elite has always been a loose and fragile coalition of former field commanders and businessmen/warlord figures who were pressured into the 1997 peace deal. This pressure came from Russia, Iran and Afghanistan’s Ahmed Shah Massud, all of whom wanted an end to the Tajik civil war, so that the campaign against the rising Taleban would not be hindered by having the various anti-Taleban forces backing opposite sides in the civil war in Tajikistan.
Since 1997, Rahmon has continually worked to consolidate his power, first sidelining powerful members of his own coalition: ethnic Uzbeks, leaders from the country’s north (the northern Leninobod region, now renamed Sughd, was the base for the previously dominant power networks), those from outside his home region of Kulob (formerly its own province), and those from his own region whom he feels were insufficiently obedient or who controlled attractive economic assets. There is now only one truly unmovable ally, ie someone with some independent power who is not fully subservient to the president: Mahmadsaid Ubaydulloev, a life-long technocrat who serves as both mayor of Dushanbe and chairman of the upper house of parliament. The long-time defence minister Sherali Khayrulloev (1995-2013), previously also considered an unmovable ally, was gotten rid of only after his abysmal failure when ordered to destroy the Ismaili commanders in their stronghold of Khorog in the eastern province of Badakhshan (it shares the same name as Afghanistan’s province to the south) during the government offensive in summer 2012 (here; background in this AAN dispatch).
As well as using predatory business tactics, rigged elections (4) and bogus criminal charges to target opposition figures, the Tajik government has also directly and violently attacked former opposition commanders, some of whom were occupying official government positions including in the security structures. Despite some setbacks and brief sporadic battles, the Tajik government has emerged victorious throughout the former opposition strongholds in what was once the Gharm province (Rasht Valley and Darvoz), at times capturing and summarily executing its rivals on the battlefield.
However, government troops have been far less successful in their attempt to remove opposition commanders in the Ismaili strongholds in Badakhshan where those commanders enjoy considerable support. That fight ended in a stalemate that still holds. The exceptions here were one ill and wheelchair-bound Ismaili commander whom (it is presumed) government forces shot dead at his home and the regional Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan leader, whom government security forces tortured and executed, despite his marginal position as a representative of a Sunni Islamic political party in a region that is mostly Ismaili (here and here).
What has been most apparent in Tajikistan’s stunted political environment is the strong resistance of the Tajik government to power sharing, even though the leadership has managed to thoroughly dominate the economy and government. Now these tactics have evolved to the point that the president cannot even tolerate the existence of a political opposition, let alone share power with it. The Tajik government has, since the very beginning, relentlessly worked to remove all others from positions of power and influence in a campaign that, as many in Tajikistan privately joke, will only end when the sole power elite in Tajikistan consists of the Rahmon family – which looks to be a dynasty in the making, with the president’s eldest son Rustam working his way up through various government positions. He is currently head of the State Anti-Corruption Agency.
The campaign against the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan
The attempt to arrest deputy defence minister Nazarzoda came at the peak of the campaign against the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), now a spent political force that had already been reduced, by unfair and unfree elections, to zero seats in parliament and which has not been able to rally forces to its side since the mid to late 1990s. It is a thoroughly non-radical party that leans more towards ‘Islamic’ than ‘Islamist’. Historically rooted in a defence of traditional Central Asian Islamic practices (roughly, Hanafi jurisprudence, the prevalence of Sufi orders, tolerance for local pre-Islamic rites that had been integrated into Islamic practise, and vigorous attacks on Salafi/Wahhabi ideology), the IRPT is not the radical Islamist terrorist force that the Tajik government has recently been alleging. In its promotion of cautious and conservative social norms and stability, it is actually more likely to be a force that works against truly radical views, ie Salafi/Wahhabi Islam, such as those of the recent recruits from Tajikistan to the Islamic State (here: here and here). The government, by completely destroying the IRPT, may find something far worse rises in its place. (An earlier peak of this campaign against the IRPT was described in this 2013 AAN dispatch)
As for former opposition commanders such as Nazarzoda, their connections to the IRPT are obscure, unknown and quite possibly sometimes non-existent. Nazarzoda fought only for the first few months of the civil war (late summer to early winter 1992) and then departed to Kazakhstan, not returning until a peace deal was reached. Only those few opposition field commanders who were based in exile out of Taloqan in Afghanistan had strong connections to the party leadership which was also based there; the command was restructured after winter 1992-93 under the military umbrella of MIRT – the Movement for the Islamic Revival of Tajikistan).
Generally, opposition commanders were rather loosely affiliated and their loyalties were undecided – aside from sharing a common enemy. Nevertheless, none of this now matters. The government decided to move against the IRPT and Nazarzoda at the same time, and Nazarzoda’s violent response gave the government their pretext to claim that the IRPT and its leadership was behind a terrorist coup attempt headed by Nazarzoda. At the time of writing, party members are fleeing Tajikistan and leaders at various levels are being detained and interrogated (here ; and here ).
The IRPT, as a legal political force, is now dead. There is no more space for opposition in Tajikistan, aside from the government-approved or created ‘pocket parties’ who run fake campaigns to provide the pretence of contested elections (here and here). Other opposition parties include the Communists, who are a dying force that holds onto two seats in parliament, and the Social Democrats, who earned 0.5 per cent of the vote and hold zero seats.
There is not merely a lack of political space for Islamists in Tajikistan. There is not even political space for anything ‘Islamic’, (5) even of the most ‘moderate’ variety. All political forms of Islam are now underground, save for ‘political’ commentary of those imam-khatebs in the mosques that are permitted to operate, reading government approved sermons that praise the president or focus on non-political issues. Islam, in President Rahmon’s state, is to be a strange invented variety of Hanafi Islam that exists primarily to support the government, with God coming somewhere afterwards. The recent ban on government workers attending Friday prayers exemplifies the government’s desire to control the religious lives of Tajiks, as the state leadership sees no difference between the private worship practices by citizens and government business.
Afghanistan and Tajikistan: Why so different?
Afghanistan has, despite its decades of violence, or perhaps rather owing to them, produced a type of governance that often includes power-sharing, negotiation and compromise. A rival faction with weapons, followers, control over territorial and/or economic assets, is not a force that can be discounted and pushed aside. Often compromises must be reached. Examples here are not just the various alliances that were formed during the civil war, but the more recent formation of the National Unity Government, as well as the previous administration of President Karzai – in essence a compromise government that included many rivals as ministers, governors, etc.
At first glance, this would also seem to apply to Tajikistan’s situation in 1997 when the peace deal and power-sharing arrangements were agreed upon. But in the southern parts of post-Soviet Central Asia there are historical legacies that still affect contemporary styles of leadership. Before the Russian conquest of Central Asia, there was a common cultural, economic and political space that stretched throughout the north of Afghanistan and the southern areas of Central Asia (an area referred to variously throughout history as Turan, Khorasan, Turkestan, etc). The Anglo-Russian 1895 border agreement that set the boundaries between Afghanistan and the Russian Empire began the process of isolation and sent the areas to the north and south of the Amu Darya on vastly different political, economic and cultural trajectories.
Afghanistan’s northern cross-border neighbours – Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan – have political elites that only know the worst of the Soviet system that they were moulded under. Their preferred leadership style is delivering orders to subservient and frightened bureaucrats who can easily be fired or replaced with no repercussions. Tajikistan does not have the iron-fisted rule seen in Turkmenistan or the superior security forces of Uzbekistan, but it does have a ruling class that aspires for a level of control in its own country similar to that exerted by Turkmen and Uzbek leaders in theirs. However, as mentioned above, Tajikistan had to compromise as a result of the breakdown of the old system after the civil war that began in 1992. The peace agreement of 1997 gave the united opposition a junior position in the power sharing, with a 30 per cent quota in government positions and, for opposition leaders, many other perks.
In the countries of post-Soviet Central Asia, the tendency to play aggressive zero-sum games is a much more popular strategy. The total defeat of all political and economic competition is the goal. The existence of any opposition, no matter how marginalised, is often viewed by ruling incumbents as an affront to their honour and a sign of their own weakness. While this may also apply to some of the leadership in Afghanistan, the state’s limited capacity and the heterogeneous nature of the Afghan elite makes this strategy less feasible than in the more effective, centralised governments in Central Asia (with the exception, here, of Kyrgyzstan). Tajikistan’s rulers refuse even the smallest concessions and try to appoint only subservient loyalists to even the lowest district level government positions (of course, one must be not just a loyalist, but also pay a substantial bribe for the position). That any person anywhere in Tajikistan may not be directly loyal to the president’s circle is something the governing elite just cannot tolerate.
The top leadership in Tajikistan has taken all the most valuable economic assets into its own hands, apart from one failure – to take over the full chain of the heroin trafficking networks in Ismaili areas in the east. This control over the economy was a priority, but the security sector was a very close second. Tajikistan’s president and his inner circle have an obvious strategy for their security apparatus: remove all commanders associated with the former opposition from the military, police and Committee for National Security (the KGB successor). An optimum situation for the president would be for all the powerful figures in the security structures to owe their loyalty to him personally. In a time of crisis, the leadership needs its soldiers, police and secret police to have no option but to support them. A man like General Nazarzoda was clearly someone who the president and his people felt could no longer be relied upon to be loyal in times of crisis (for example, if there were anti-government street demonstrations or coups lead by internal rivals).
As for the Afghan-Tajik comparison, perhaps Tajikistan could offer Afghanistan a model for authoritarian consolidation over a deeply divided country that transcends its disparate political cultures. It is possible that the top levels of the Afghan government would do as Tajikistan has done, if they could consolidate power similarly (and not have their aspirations knocked down by strong resistance). However, Tajikistan only had six months of truly terrible conflict during which 90 per cent of deaths occurred, in the second half of 1992, and only localised insurgencies afterwards. In contrast, Afghanistan’s long conflict has led to such a thorough destruction of centralised governance that it may take generations before any ruler is able to control even just a majority of Afghans.
Defending and controlling the Afghan border
The long river border that has divided Afghanistan and Tajikistan, leading to the abovementioned differences, is no longer a guaranteed line of demarcation, if considered in the medium to long-term future. The border has a long and complex history, and the current situation is even more complex than usual (See AAN report here). In 2005, Russian border guards handed control of the border back to Tajikistan. Since then, the possibility of Russia coming back to the border has been regularly floated by Russian journalists and government figures. This sort of speculation is now widely ignored and dismissed by Central Asia watchers, although it did recently get some attention from the Afghan press who may be unaware of the perpetually recurring nature of this claim.
Nevertheless, Russian support is still crucial for Tajikistan’s security. Preparations for what are called an ‘Afghan scenario’ can be seen in such activities as the most recent May 2015 military exercises of the six-nation Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a Russian-dominated mutual defence military alliance that war-gamed in southern Tajikistan against a military force invading from Afghanistan (here). While the exercise included forces from Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Belarus, the assumption was that the burden in any real-life war would fall on the Russian component of the CSTO. At the moment, Russia still maintains three garrisons with almost 7,000 soldiers in Dushanbe and two southern Tajikistan locations. At the most recent CSTO summit in Dushanbe, all participants agreed that militants in northern Afghanistan were one of the main threats faced by member states.
Aside from Russian support, the Organisation for Security for Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the United Nations and the European Union also provide funds or technical support for border programmes in Tajikistan. On the American side, the US government’s main efforts are seen in its training and equipping of Tajikistan’s elite police and military units (here and here). However, it is unlikely that the US would or could offer the same level of support to Tajikistan as Russia. Furthermore, the Tajik-American relationship is not built on any solid foundation, but rather some vague common interest in managing the ‘problem’ of Afghanistan. As for the people of Tajikistan, the trend is towards stronger pro-Russian sentiments and viewing America’s role in the world negatively. The US is increasingly making an appearance in the numerous Tajik conspiracy theories as the villain: with the US completely controlling the narcotics trade, the Taleban being American-supported, the Islamic State an American-Israeli creation, and so on.
All these trends fit with the tendency of many in Tajikistan, from the governing elite to even some people in the street, to blame outsiders for internal social, political and security problems, and identify forces outside Tajikistan as the truly dire future threats. This is clear enough with the CSTO’s identification of dangers, and it even makes an appearance in the current campaign against the IRPT and General Nazarzoda, as the prosecutor’s office has accused unnamed charities from foreign countries of funding Nazarzoda’s rebellion. But aside from very specific incidents such as this, the Tajik government usually just points vaguely to ‘Afghanistan’ as the main source of threat to order and stability in Tajikistan.
Dim prospects for the future
Alongside the many problems that Afghanistan faces, an unstable northern neighbour could soon be added to the list. Tajikistan, while not an important trade partner on the national level in Afghanistan, is important economically in certain sectors (electricity imports) and in some areas close to the Tajik border. Furthermore, Tajikistan, as a stable country, offers a base (and a possible back-up home in times of crisis – Jamiat commander Mir Alam fled there during the recent Kunduz crisis, for example) for some prominent Afghan politicians and commanders who own homes in Dushanbe (see Tajikistan sections in AAN report here). Furthermore, an uneventful Tajik border allows Afghanistan to deploy its stretched security forces to more insecure locations. A chaotic Tajikistan would end these mutually beneficial connections.
In the near future, the only way to effectively deliver humanitarian aid to parts of northern Afghanistan could be via the neighbouring Central Asian countries. Stability there is an obvious prerequisite for support to Afghanistan. In other scenarios, Central Asia may have to host more Afghan refugees (beyond the tens of thousands of refugees and stateless persons from Afghanistan that are already there).
Instability in Central Asia would add to the difficulties that Afghan refugees there already face, namely populations and governments that, despite sympathetically cheering for refugees fleeing to Europe, widely disdain Afghan refugees in their own countries. This phenomenon is seen most clearly in Tajikistan, despite the shared ethnicity with many across the border and despite Afghanistan having hosted as many as a 100,000 Tajiks who fled their civil war in late 1992, mostly returning between 1993 and 1998 (See AAN report here).
The 1990s offer insight into the behaviour of regional and international powers in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of a large international military force. This scenario may soon be repeated again (assuming that the American and Afghan government do not come to another new agreement on the presence of a significant residual American force in Afghanistan). Similar to the support given by Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Russia in the late 1990s to anti-Taleban forces, the Central Asian region and its Russian ally may again be called upon to help resist the Taleban and others (eg, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Islamic State). The United States may play a greater role in managing Afghanistan-based problems in the near future than it did from the early 1990s to late 2001 when it largely kept out, only reacting to Afghanistan-based al-Qaeda attacks, like the one against the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, with cruise missile strikes against al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. Again, stability in Central Asia will be key to any US or Russian-backed operations focused on Afghanistan.
However, the Tajikistan government has now chosen – with the worst levels of insecurity in northern Afghanistan since 2001 – to launch a full-scale attack on its Islamic opposition and others, such as Nazarzoda. Tajikistan’s claim to be worried about external sources of instability is contradicted by actions that prioritise aggressively attacking internal opposition. This strategy has not backfired too terribly in the past, but it may only be a matter of time before Tajikistan does experience a catastrophic failure.
Bibliography and further reading:
Jesse Driscoll, Warlords and Coalition Politics in Post-Soviet States (Cambridge, 2015).
John Heathershaw, Post-Conflict Tajikistan: The politics of peacebuilding and the emergence of legitimate order (Routledge, 2009).
John Heathershaw and Edmund Herzig (editors), The Transformation of Tajikistan: The Sources of Statehood (Routledge, 2012).
Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Tajikistan: A Political and Social History (ANU Press, 2013). Free download.
(1) President Rahmonov came to power during the civil war. Before him, there were several interim leaders and one elected leader, President Nabiev, who won Tajikistan’s first post-Soviet election in late 1991 and who resigned in fall 1992 at gunpoint. The position of president was discarded between 1992 and 1994, and Rahmon served as the head of the legislature, with considerable executive powers. In the peace deal of 1997, Rahmon had to give the opposition forces (generally referred to as the United Tajik Opposition) a 30 per cent quota in government positions. The Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan and power figures close to them took many of these positions.
(2) Most recently, Umarali Quvvatov, an exiled Tajik opposition leader, was assassinated in Istanbul. Other opposition figures have instead been kidnapped and transported back to Tajikistan, usually from Russia. In some cases, Tajik opposition figures go through an official extradition process. (See sources here and here). Other countries are less friendly to Tajikistan; both Spain and Ukraine have refused to extradite former Tajik opposition figures.
(3) Nazarzoda had no known affiliation. There were countless commanders like him in 1992. The IRPT had very few commanders under its control.
(4) Tajikistan’s March 2015 parliamentary elections were unfree and unfair, with the government using the security organs and state media to relentlessly attack the IRPT in particular. In addition, the government used the state budget to promote candidates from President Rahmon’s party while heavily restricting opposition candidate’s expenditures and access to media. The IRPT ended up losing its sole two seats in parliament. See: here and here. For more in-depth electoral analysis, see the annual reports published by Freedom House: here.
(5) One temporary exception were the (unpolitical) Salafis. The government tolerated them at first, as it was supposed they undermined the IRPT by taking away their supporters. When the Salafis became too numerous, their leaders were jailed. They were released around 2013 on condition that they attack the IRPT. They have now descended into total obscurity.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020