U.S. military cooperation with Tajikistan provides a necessary counterbalance to Russian influence, but also is helping authoritarian President Emomali Rahmon to cement his grip on power. That's the analysis of country's leading opposition politician, Muhiddin Kabiri, chairman of the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan, who sat down for an interview last week with The Bug Pit on the topic of the increasing U.S. military cooperation with Tajikistan.
Kabiri is a unique figure: although his party promotes "Islamic Revival," he is also, in the words of local analyst Alexander Sodiqov, "a moderate and pragmatic politician with explicitly pro-Western views." And he is widely regarded as a singularly credible and authoritative voice in Tajikistan.
U.S. military cooperation with Tajikistan has been increasing over the last few years, as the U.S. has sought to build relationships with the countries involved in the Northern Distribution Network, and to help local security services protect the countries of Central Asia from threats out of Afghanistan. The cooperation has focused on border security, as well as training and equipping the myriad of special forces in Tajikistan's military, National Guard, border security and police. Kabiri said the government has a variety of interests in this cooperation:
First of all, we need this training. After these events in the east of Tajikistan, this showed us that we are not so ready for terrorist attacks, so Tajikistan needs these units to be stronger.
Second, our president is using this opportunity to show to others that Tajikistan can have another friend, for example to Russia, China, our other partners, that even in this sensitive field of military cooperation Tajikistan can have another partner. Before this, all of our cooperation in military issues was with Russia, and small cooperation with Iran. And now everyone knows that there is very good cooperation between Tajikistan and the U.S. and European countries. So this approach gives Tajikistan more flexibility.
Of course he wants to make these units stronger, it's not only a political question. But at the same time, Mr Rahmon wants these units to be far from Russian influence. All of our high-ranking officers were educated in Russia, and now he wants to have some balance between Russian-educated officers and Western-educated officers.
Kabiri said there is also a domestic political interest, to strengthen the government's grip on power:
For all dictators, not just in Central Asia but in Egypt and other countries, for a long time this military cooperation with the U.S., these leaders use this cooperation to strengthen their own power. Of course, in Central Asia we will also have this result. The leaders are using this opportunity to become more powerful, to prolong their time in power. I'm not sure if this is to the benefit of the U.S., but this is the result.
This has been abetted by the U.S.'s increased focus on security issues in its relationship with Tajikistan, which has pushed other issues into the background, he said:
Two or three years ago, the main question between Tajikistan and U.S. representatives was economic questions, human rights, democracy and stability. But now, the main topic is military cooperation, transit. And human rights, democracy, free elections, these kinds of problems, maybe they will touch these questions, but only last, only for protocol. So our leaders are very lucky that the U.S. is not raising these sensitive questions.
Asked if he supported the training of Tajikistan's special forces, he said he supported it in principle, as long as it pushed the security forces in the direction of protecting all the people of Tajikistan, not just the government:
I'm not against military cooperation with the U.S. or other Western countries. To train our units, to have more modern equipment, to develop our facilities, how to protect the borders, all this is good.
I was recently in the airport in Istanbul and met 15-20 of our OMON troops who were returning from training in the U.S. I asked them about this training, and they said it was very good. I hope they will learn not only new military approaches but about human rights, how to protect people, how to protect human rights, the role of these kind of units in a democratic country. In our old Soviet system, the human has no place in this system. I hope when they have this training with the U.S. they will learn another approach, how to protect human rights, protect the country, not just one person. But I'm not sure if this has happened or not.
From the perspective of the U.S., the main interest seems to be not building up the security forces per se, but in using that as a means to build the relationship to help ensure military transit routes to Afghanistan -- a strategy that's paid off, he said:
[I]n the last 2-3 years the U.S. is sending some message to the leaders in the Central Asia region, to open a new page of cooperation, not only on humanitarian fields, on democracy and human rights, but also in military questions. Maybe in Washington some people decided that before withdrawing from Afghanistan there should be some cooperation with Central Asian leaders in this questions. Now we understand that this tactic was true, the U.S. had some problems with Pakistan and all the Central Asian leaders are willing to help the U.S., to use this region as transit for NATO forces. Without this military cooperation, it would be difficult for NATO to use this region as transit. So this approach from the U.S. side was effective.
He suggested that the government in Dushanbe exaggerates the threat from Afghanistan, and said that a Taliban government in Kabul may in fact improve security in Central Asia:
[T]here is some mythology about Afghanistan, the Taliban, that all of our problems come from this country. I'm not sure that the Taliban today is the same as the Taliban of 10 years ago. Ten years ago they were more romantic, more ideological. Now they've become more pragmatic. If they are in the next government, they will feel more responsibility and I'm not sure they will send some terrorists to Tajikistan or Uzbekistan, because they are also interested in stability in the region.
I think the Taliban will push Central Asian leaders to become more democratic. It is some kind of paradox: how can the Taliban develop democracy in Central Asia? Now, when Western countries, led by the U.S., talk about democracy, nothing is done. The Taliban are not talking about democracy, they are talking about sharia. But our leaders, our elites, they will feel some threats coming from Afghanistan, I think they will give some more freedoms, more opportunities for people to keep people under control, not to push people more toward Taliban and radicalism. It's a paradox, but maybe it will happen.
I asked what preparations the government is making for the eventual U.S./NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014. He said the preparation is less to improve security in Tajikistan, and more to get while the getting's good:
Not only Tajikistan, but all Central Asian countries are preparing themselves for 2014. And everybody wants to use this opportunity first of all to have more Western financial support. Second, they want Western countries leaving Afghanistan also to leave something here in Tajikistan. Maybe military equipment, tanks, I don't know. Also, they are trying to use these rumors, this myth about Taliban aggression against Central Asia, to not develop reforms and democratic changes. But I'm not sure they can manage this. Things are changing very fast. Nobody was thinking about the Arab Spring, or about Russia.