Posted by: Christian | May 30, 2011

The Insurgent Threat to Tajikistan: Exaggeration or Accurate Assessment?

The International Crisis Group has published a report on Tajikistan:

International Crisis Group, “Tajikistan: The Changing Insurgent Threats”, Asia Report No. 205 (24 May 2011). Download PDF.

The ICG’s assessment is generally pessimistic. The report starts with this paragraph:

Tajikistan, by most measures Central Asia’s poorest and most vulnerable state, is now facing yet another major problem: the growing security threat from both local and external insurgencies. After his security forces failed to bring warlords and a small group of young insurgents to heel in the eastern region of Rasht in 2010-2011, President Emomali Rakhmon did a deal to bring a temporary peace to the area. But he may soon face a tougher challenge from the resurgent Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a group with a vision of an Islamist caliphate that is fighting in Afghanistan alongside the Taliban.

And this line is the shortest summary of the ICG’s worries over Tajikistan:

Tajikistan is so vulnerable that a small, localised problem could quickly spiral into a threat to the regime’s existence.

Already I am in broad disagreement with the ICG. The local threat has receded and the over-estimated  “external threat” shows little interest in threatening Tajikistan any time sooon. As for the IMU, the pervasive exaggeration of this group is not confined to the analysis provided here by the ICG.

Pic from 1993: Back to the bad old days? (via Magnum):

I’ll sort through all of these points throughout this post. I’ll spare you the nitpicking and skip the small problems I have with terminology and history. These are the issues I have with the ICG’s assessment of Tajikistan:

1. Rasht: The (Unjustified) Focus of Concern?

Is the instability in the broader Rasht region (alternately Qarotegin or Gharm) a vital security concern for the government of Tajikistan? The ICG definitely feels so. Since 2008 the Tajik government has been attempting to assert a higher level of control over the region. Basically, since the end of 1992 the government of Tajikistan has been slowly been gaining control over the country. It has had to contend with not just the opposition insurgency, but unhappy allies who have at times taken up arms against the central government. Areas outside central control control have slowly been brought to heel by President Rahmon’s government. And Rasht has been the last of these areas.

So why was Rasht left so late? Because it is so insignificant. The north, Dushanbe and Hisor/Tursunzoda have the overwhelming large share of industry and economic assets, while the Vakhsh Valley and Tajikistan’s piece of the Ferghana Valley hold the lion’s share of the country’s agricultural output. Rasht is the periphery. There is really not much to speak of up there. It was not worth it for the government or their self-interested commanders to fight hard for a place that has such little value.

The ICG takes pains to point out that the Rasht region, which they define broadly to include places such as Darvoz/Tavildara, is “highly attractive terrain for any guerrilla organisation.” I would say instead that it was the only option for the opposition as they were heavily defeated in the areas they focused their initial efforts on: Dushanbe and the Vakhsh Valley.

During the war the Rasht region, despite coming right next to the capital, was never a launching-pad for any force significant enough to threaten the regime. In fact, the most significant threat was from an unhappy ally (Khudoyberdiev). How about more recently? Well, the chance that any of those grumpy commanders (Ahmadov, Ali Bedaki, Ziyoev, Mullah Abdullo, etc…) could have left their high valley base of operations and threatened the government’s hold of the country were about as good as Tajikistan’s chance of winning the World Cup are presently.

Pic from 2006: Reading the laws of warfare up in the hills (via Red Cross):

What the ICG is/was worrying about (the occasional fighting since 2008) are/were security operations on the periphery to bring down the last recalcitrant commanders, not a fight that will lead to guys with big beards marching through Dushanbe. And why the hype over the actual fighting? Mullah Abdullo is dead, Ali Bedaki is dead, Mirzo Ziyoev is long dead and Mirzokhuja Ahmadov (the opposition commander turned police chief) turned on the anti-government forces. The ICG maintains that “The deal with Akhmadov seems more like a surrender of authority than a cunning political move. Akhmadov remains the area’s power broker.” The government has been doing this for years, and these temporary deals have served them well in the face of no better alternatives. I would think that Ahmadov might see the fate of Abdullo, Bedaki and Ziyoev and decide that he is too old for this sort of thing.

Of the above-mentioned commanders, only Ali Bedaki and Mullah Abdullo were the ones actively involved in fighting the government recently. Losing a couple of Kamaz trucks’ worth of conscripts plus the transport helicopter crash that killed a good number of men from the Alfa unit was quite harsh, and it was the worse round of losses of government forces in quite a long time. But the men responsible for that are dead, and there is not exactly a good supply of these guys. This is not like killing Taliban commanders in Helmand and seeing them immediately replaced by competent insurgents.

It’s almost as if this report was written before the death of Abdullo and Ali Bedaki, and then only begrudgingly updated.

2. Where’s the input from a broader range of expertise?

There is a lack of engagement with academic literature (and beyond) in the ICG’s report on Tajikistan. Neither academic works on Tajikistan, nor  anything that comes vaguely close to referring to the broad range of literature on state failure, social movements, violent conflict, military studies, etc… is included in the report (aside from a quick point by Kamoludin Abdullaev). When the report discusses the supposed fragility of Central Asian governments, it writes that “Events in Tunisia and Egypt have destroyed the fallacy that one can predict the survival or collapse of an authoritarian state.” Any perusal of expertise inside academia or the political risk industry would reveal that fallacy does not exist. The report does not deal with the great number of analyses on the resiliency of authoritarian and/or “weak” states. Inexplicably, it doesn’t even refer to the work done on Tajikistan. The field may be weak compared to other regions, but there are still many good sources to work from. Works by John Heathershaw, Sophie Roche and Heathershaw, Jesse Driscoll, Anna Matveeva (PDF), Gunda Wiegmann (PDF), these people (PDF) and others (i.e., a broader range of local analysts such as Parviz Mullojonov) would help the ICG to look at the country in a new way. This stuff is not too hard to find (e.g., the first issue of Central Asian Survey this year is a special issue dedicated to Tajikistan or this list of experts).

Of course, the ICG by its own admission is dominated by “prominent figures from the fields of politics, diplomacy, business and the media…” It might be  that the paucity of experts from academia, the political risk industry and from NGOs that work on issues of conflict are holding back the ICG’s analysis. The group has good access to local and foreign officials, but that is only a fraction of the views on Tajikistan.

The ICG has neglected to include the two most insightful articles from 2010 on the recent troubles (here and here). The authors (Roche and Heathershaw) base much of their analysis on their time in the area of concern. The ICG should know who they are and seek out their opinion. Roche and Heathershaw again wrote an article at the beginning of this year. They wrote that:

In the villages of Rasht, support for the uprising was also minimal.  Although some individuals joined the Mujahed groups, only 2 to 3 people per village left for the mountains. Moreover, the declarations of both the militants and state officials that the rebellion is somehow supported by the Taliban and other global Islamist groups is one that must be viewed with great suspicion. What is true is that the Mujahed did call for help and do have links to a world-wide network, but the conflict is not (yet) of global or even regional significance. […]

The military conflict in Rasht may now have ended.  But it cannot and should not be fully explained in terms of militant Islam. It has complex roots in Tajikistan’s political and economic struggles. What is more, the Government’s response to the conflict may increase the likelihood of outbreaks of Islamic militancy in the longer term.

So not a bed of roses, but no need to panic any time soon.  BTW, Heathershaw’s book on Tajikistan is now available in paperback.

3. Where’s the analysis on Russia?

Russia does not get much attention in the ICG report. This is a little strange as nobody has been as involved as Russia has in Tajikistan – not just in the past (i.e., the civil war and the border until recently), but presently and in very likely in the future as well. Russia has enduring interests here and it knows the country, unlike the US and China (which features in the report). No power is as important to Tajikistan as Russia is – economically, militarily, socially, etc…

Pic: Medvedev and President Rahmon visit Russia’s 201st “base” in Tajikistan (via Kremlin.ru):

The military force that has bases and troops deployed throughout the south of the country should get more attention than it gets in this report. The 201st “Don’t call it an MRD, we’re a base” will always play the dominant role in Tajikistan’s security. That needs to be acknowledged and analyzed.

4. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan

In the vast majority of analysis out there, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is the undying bogeyman of the terrorist/insurgency world. This report is not much different, although it does acknowledge that the information available on the IMU is a little shaky.

Pic: He’s dead, but how’s the rest of the IMU doing?

These are the relevant excerpts on the IMU:

Since at least 2009, there have been steadily increasing reports of Central Asian guerrillas operating in the northern provinces of Afghanistan. Most are described as members of the IMU, founded in the late 1990s in the Uzbek areas of the Ferghana Valley.

What is clear is that the movement has over the past decade evolved into an ethnically diverse movement, embracing jihadists from across Central Asia, the former Soviet Union and possibly Xinjiang in China.

Some analysts feel that the IMU guerrillas are not at this point interested in challenging the regime. They may prefer an enfeebled regime that allows them to maintain a discreet presence and gradually expand their presence in regions of interest, like Isfara, on the Kyrgyz border to the north-east, or Rasht. […] Other analysts believe, however, the IMU may be tempted to take a more active line. If for any reason the IMU felt the need to demonstrate its strength, it might choose to do so in Tajikistan: the country increasingly looks, an experienced international observer remarked, like an “easy knock-over”.

These excerpts are then decorated with some anecdotes and very dodgy rumors and about IMU members hailing from former Soviet republics. So I’ll just say it: those “IMU” fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan who are allegedly from the former Soviet Union are instead overwhelming locals. The Pakistani and Afghan security forces want to blame foreigners for everything. And many in the US government and military are blindly consuming this. There are Tajiks, Turkmens, and Uzbeks in the Taliban who are from Afghanistan (this has been discussed for a while already: e.g.,  PDF and PDF). There are fighters from the former Soviet Union, but I strongly believe that they are a small minority.

I won’t repeat what people with experience on the ground in the north tell me (I would first ask permission to even just quote anonymously). So I’ll go to a recent article by Kate Clark wherein she analyzes the claims that local insurgents are part of the IMU:

It is highly unusual for […] an Afghan to be a member of the IMU. The latter appears to be a fairly routine allegation for ISAF to make when Special Forces kill or capture any Afghan who is an ethnic Uzbek whom they suspect of being a Taleb. […]

Labelling dead ethnic Uzbek Afghans as IMU adds to the narrative of an external ‘terrorist’ threat and makes whoever was killed or captured sound extremely dangerous. From our point of view, it just underlines that international security forces have a blurred picture about whom they are opposing and that not much is known about IMU and its links to the Taleban, al-Qaeda and other militant Islamist organisations.

Of course, Afghan and Pakistani officials love making the same type of allegations. This is not an ISAF thing only.

How about the IMU presence north of Afghanistan in former Soviet Central Asia? Well, there must be quite a significant presence of IMU operatives and supporters since the security forces in these countries are always making this allegation when they arrest someone, right? No, not right. Security forces in the region arrest all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons and they tend to label people as being members of the IMU. But if the IMU is so omnipresent in Central Asia, then they sure are inactive. Or, we could just surmise that the authoritarian governments of the region are labeling people as IMU members with the same accuracy that Gaddafi labels his opponents as being members of Al Qaeda.

I would love to take the time to write a long report on the IMU, but for now I’ll just say that the IMU threat is exaggerated. The second part of this brief qualification by the ICG should have been front and center: “Now most ballpark estimates put its fighting force in the low thousands. These seem not much more than guesses, however, and little is known about the IMU’s organisation or aims.”

5. Underestimating President Rahmon?

The authors of this piece underestimate Emomali Rahmon. Whether you like it or not, the man has beaten all expectations. When he was appointed Chairman of the Supreme Soviet in November 1992 (the top leadership position at the time), nobody gave him much of a chance. But since then his power and grip on the country has, with some blips, seen a linear increase in strength. This recent “crisis” is laughable compared to what he has dealt with in the past.

Pic: President Rahmon meets a couple of his friends (via State Dept):

The report, in my opinion, is more so making moral judgements as opposed to making a pragmatic, realist assessment of Rahmon. And the focus on Rahmon neglects to analyze who else in Tajikistan has a stake in him continuing to be the leader. It’s more people than this report acknowledges.

6. The US role?

So how about America’s role in Tajikistan?

The outside forces most interested in regional security – China, Russia, the U.S. in the first instance – might then, like it or not, find themselves forced to become involved.

China will do little more than those joint SCO exercises, Russia I already discussed, and the role of the United States is an ongoing uncertainty.

Pic: Virginia National Guard training Tajik soldiers in 2007 (source):

I agree with the ICG here:

The U.S. timeframe in Central Asia is probably much shorter than that of China and Russia. One can argue that much of its security interest in the region is coterminous with its presence in Afghanistan.

But when the topic turns to security assistance the report quickly jumps to a bunch of very unreliable variables:

An equally acute challenge, however, comes from the declining social and economic situation in the country – ageing infrastructure and the government’s failure to address the poverty, unemployment and social alienation of its seven million people.

Again, the massive disconnect from work done by academics, certain NGOs, and those working in political risk is readily apparent.

6. How about the report’s recommendations?

Well, the recommendations are OK. But I really doubt the ability of the international community to use aid (even smarter aid) to get authoritarian governments to do what they think is best. That flag pole is one giant obvious metaphor.

So that’s about it. I won’t get into a line-by-line level of criticism on the report.

I am obviously not as worried as the International Crisis Group. I don’t see any prospective Islamist insurgents getting the support they would need. But to be honest, I don’t know what will happen over the next few years. There are more than one ways for a state to fail.  I do hope that things will get better….

Photo: enough with the powerful people, here’s a nice scene from Tajikistan (credit):


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