Militants, some of whom may have been involved in a massive prison break in late August, are being blamed for a raid that left at least 23 Tajik soldiers dead. The attack marks the boldest in a string of recent incidents that is posing a serious security challenge for President Imomali Rahmon’s administration.
Using small arms and rocket-propelled grenades, militants ambushed a military convoy on September 19 in the Rasht Valley, about 150 miles south of the capital Dushanbe. The region has been the scene of growing militant activity over the past year or so. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
Many of the approximately 80 government soldiers who were traveling in the convoy were seriously wounded, meaning the death toll could rise.
“This terrorist act, according to the information we have, was committed by Abdullo Rakhimov, or Mullo Abdullo,” Faridun Makhmadaliyev, head of the Defense Ministry’s press service, told EurasiaNet.org. “His group consists of militants who are mainly citizens of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Chechnya.”
Mullo Abdullo, a former commander during the country’s 1992-1997 civil war, refused to reconcile with Rahmon’s government and fled to Afghanistan and later Pakistan’s tribal areas. He reportedly returned to the eastern Rasht Valley last year. Since then, government forces have carried out security sweeps in which they detained dozens, if not hundreds of suspected militants. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
Many of these militants received lengthy prison terms in August for plotting to overthrow the government and engaging with violent organizations such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Twenty-five escaped from a maximum-security prison in Dushanbe on August 23. The fugitives included Russian, Afghan and Uzbek citizens. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
Following the embarrassing prison break, a suicide bombing in the northern city of Khujand left two police officers dead. Days later, a nightclub bombing in Dushanbe wounded seven. Authorities blamed Islamic radicals for both bombings. [For background see the EurasiaNet’s archive].
On September 11, the Defense Ministry issued a statement saying that a border clash between government troops and Taliban fighters had left 20 militants dead. Over the past two years, Islamic militants fighting to overthrow Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government have dramatically increased their operations in Afghan provinces bordering Tajikistan.
Paul Quinn-Judge, the Central Asia Project Director for the International Crisis Group, suggested that Islamic militants may be probing the capabilities of Tajik forces. “There’s no pattern yet that can lead us to any clear-cut conclusions that the insurgents are going to or have developed a tactic or anything like that,” Quinn-Judge told EurasiaNet.org. Nevertheless, “one has to suspect that Islamic insurgents are looking with interest at Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and wondering how strong these regimes are. It cannot be excluded that they are trying to test the situation in Tajikistan right now.”
Earlier in September, Tajik security officials were in the Rasht Valley negotiating with a former UTO commander, Mirzokhuja Ahmadov. They were also reportedly hunting for Mullo Abdullo, local media reported. The fact that authorities now routinely blame security incidents on Abdullo is fostering a sense of skepticism among some analysts, including Crisis Group’s Quinn-Judge.
“Another question is Mullo Abdullo: whether he exists, or if he is put up as a straw man every year just to be defeated,” Quinn-Judge said. “The obvious thing is that these operations are not being carried out by veterans of the civil war. They’re getting too old. It does seem to indicate there are new generations of fighters getting involved. That should have the security forces worried.”
Since the civil war ended in 1997 with the signing of a power-sharing agreement, Rahmon has steadily squeezed former opposition leaders from power, his critics say. The Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), once the most influential element in the UTO opposition coalition, now holds only two seats in a parliament dominated by Rahmon loyalists. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
IRPT Head Muhiddin Kaberi suggested the law enforcement agencies are ill trained to handle the current security challenges. While recent events “do not suggest Tajikistan is splitting again,” it remains up to the security forces to carry out their jobs “carefully and not let the society split,” he told EurasiaNet.org on September 20.
The Taliban and radical Islamists pose a minor threat to Central Asia compared with other social factors, Kaberi contended. He added that authorities regularly exaggerated the threat posed by radical Islam, mainly in an effort to obscure the government’s shortcomings in its handling of the economy. “There are many other [destabilizing] elements in Central Asia itself […] such as no economy, no democracy, and a weak human rights situation,” Kaberi said. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
Pro-administration analysts are quick to downplay the possibility that domestic political factors were at work in the recent violence. There is little chance of a return of civil warfare, insisted Farrukh Umarov, a political analyst at the Center for Strategic Studies, which is closely linked to the Tajik president’s office. “Those people are only mercenaries,” he said, referring to the militants involved in the September 19 attack. He also claimed that the militants do not enjoy strong popular support. “There is a link to the Taliban, because Mullo Abdullo was once cooperating with them and he was in Afghanistan," he added.
The fact that the prison escapees allegedly headed for the Rasht Valley, rather than making a break toward the porous border with Afghanistan, indicated that the fugitives were not interested in leaving Tajikistan.
Asked if Tajikistan needs help, Rahmon’s former advisor, Ibrahim Usmonov, who negotiated with the UTO during the civil war, said Russian involvement was perhaps the most logical next step. “I think this zone is the zone of Russia’s influence. We have security agreements with Russia,” Usmonov said. “We should cooperate with those countries that sympathize with us, and at the moment I don’t see any other country than Russia in this regard.”