Kazakhstan soldiers in southern Tajikistan for CSTO joint military exercises. (photo: CSTO)
Russia and several of its allies have completed joint military exercises on the Tajikistan Afghanistan border, which they say was necessitated by the worsening situation in northern Afghanistan.
The drills of the Collective Security Treaty Organization began last week and the first step was deploying the 2,500 troops, without prior notice, to the exercise site in Tajikistan's Khatlon province. According to the scenario of the exercises, "the situation on the Tajik-Afghan border seriously deteriorated. Armed groups invaded the territory of Tajikistan from the territory of Afghanistan. The Tajikistan armed forces together with other security structures carry out military operations to repel the invasion."
Military units from the various CSTO member states carried out individual tasks: Tajikistani aircraft carried out aerial reconnaissance and identified the position of "terrorist groups" numbering 700 people.
Then an Armenian special forces company reconnoitered the site on the ground, traveling with modified Nissan pickup trucks armed with machine guns. Then, various special forces units from Belarus, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan advanced to "capture the militants' field commander and secure the withdrawal of the Armenian reconnaissance troops."
In the final stage, Russian and Kazakhstani bomber jets carried out air strikes on the militant positions, and drones identified targets for further artillery strikes.
The Islamic State has narrowly missed a chance to enlist its most high-profile Tajik recruit to date, according to a sensational report circulating in Tajikistan.
According to TojNews, Turkish authorities have arrested the decorated commander of Tajikistan’s Interior Ministry paramilitary squad (OMON), Gulmurod Halimov, who disappeared last month. Colonel Halimov was travelling on a fake passport with the intention of crossing into Syria, an unnamed Interior Ministry source told TojNews on May 19.
Halimov disappeared on April 23, telling his family he was leaving for a short business trip. His brother told Radio Ozodi that his phone was switched off, but that his personal items, including his passport, were left as if he departed in a hurry. Citing unnamed sources, Dushanbe’s Asia-Plus news agency reported that he flew to Russia on May 1 with ten others and was seen in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport the next day.
The colonel’s disappearance set the Tajik rumor mill into overdrive. A sensational theory emerged: Halimov had joined the Islamic State. A number of Halimov’s colleagues fuelled this speculation, describing how he had developed an unhealthy interest in the terrorist group. Halimov had “become a fanatical follower of the Islamic State and began to spread its propaganda amongst his relatives,” one unnamed friend told Asia Plus.
Central Asia faces a gloomy economic outlook for the rest of this year and into next, battered by the tanking Russian economy and low commodity prices, according to a regional outlook released by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on May 19. Several countries face double-digit inflation.
“The region has been hit by two major external shocks: the oil price and the slowdown in the Russian economy,” Juha Kahkonen, deputy director of the IMF’s Middle East and Central Asia department, told a briefing in Almaty as the forecast was released.
Growth slowed last year and is set to decrease “much more significantly” this year, he said, before recovering “only slightly” next year.
All the Central Asian states are feeling the pinch of the slump in Russia, “which has close linkages with the region through remittances, trade, and foreign direct investment,” the IMF pointed out.
Energy exporters (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) and importers (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) alike are suffering: exporters are battling falling revenues from the drop in global oil and gas prices, while importers are feeling what Kahkonen described as “only a very small beneficial impact” from lower prices because of the long-term nature of their energy import contracts in which prices are set.
Falls in prices for other commodities (gold in the case of Kyrgyzstan and aluminum for Tajikistan, for example) are also biting.
Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are also suffering from a drop in labor remittances from Russia, as migrants lose their jobs and the dollar value of remittances falls because of the depreciation of the ruble. This is causing weaker domestic demand in remittance-dependent economies.
A Tajik conscript in GBAO guards the border with Afghanistan.
Tajikistan has banned foreigners from visiting its vast mountainous Badakhshan Province, the country’s main draw for tourists and the scene of fighting between locals and government forces in 2012 and 2014, Asia-Plus reports.
The government claims it has stopped issuing permits to foreigners to visit the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) due to fighting across the border in Afghanistan. The ban is a temporary measure done for the safety of tourists, said Rizo Nazarzoda of the Committee on Youth, Sports and Tourism.
Fighting has intensified in northern Afghanistan in recent months, but some analysts question the Tajik government’s claim that it poses an imminent threat to the Central Asian country. Indeed, some feel it offers cover for the government to crack down on Islamic worship and hype the threat of radicalism.
Dushanbe has tenuous control over GBAO, which comprises approximately 45 percent of Tajikistan’s territory but 3 percent of its population. The region is home to a disaffected ethnic and cultural minority that has been largely ignored by the government in the far-off capital. GBAO is also a hive of drug smuggling, which seems to have played a role in the recent violence.
Troops from Russia and other members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization are taking part in snap exercises to practice quickly deploying to the border of Tajikistan.
The exercise is taking place amid heightened tension in Tajikistan, as fighting in northern Afghanistan has -- according to some officials -- the potential to destabilize Central Asia.
The CSTO has tried to position itself as the guarantor of security in Tajikistan; in March the group's head said that CSTO rapid reaction forces could reach the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border in three days if fighting broke out there. This exercise is taking place in Tajikistan's Khatlon province, just across the border from Kunduz province in Afghanistan, where heavy fighting broke out last month.
"We are worried by incoming reports about the deterioration of the situation in the north-eastern provinces of Afghanistan on the border with Central Asian countries. We are particularly concerned by the large-scale offensive launched by terrorists in Kunduz, a province that borders on Tajikistan, during which administration buildings were attacked in a number of districts," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in an April 30 statement.
The Tajik security services are well known for employing heavy-handed tactics as they attempt to stamp out extremism. In recent months, some have reportedly forced men with beards under the razor, tried to ban sales of hijab, and carried on with the usual mass arrests of suspected Islamists. But there is a softer side to counter-terrorism in Tajikistan.
On May 9 the Interior Ministry promised amnesty to Tajik militants in Syria and Iraq who wish to come home. The ministry “is ready to help them return,” the statement declares.
“The Ministry of Interior has received information through its law enforcement agencies that young people have been led astray and are fighting in Syria, Iraq and other countries. Some are now in Turkey and can return home voluntarily. We also inform you that these persons will be exempt from criminal liability,” the ministry’s statement said, without naming any conditions.
Last year the prosecutor’s office in Sughd Province, in the north, offered to amnesty returning fighters. This is the first time authorities have declared a nationwide amnesty.
Authorities are keen to counter messages that the Islamic State is some kind of paradise on earth. On May 7, a man claiming to be a repenting jihadist who had recently returned from Syria spoke to a large crowd in Khujand about his experiences there. Farrukh Sharifov described beheadings, sexual slavery and terrible living conditions. The event, organized by the Interior Ministry, has been widely publicized.
A tenth-grader in Tajikistan’s capital has been detained after successfully soliciting a $50,000 bribe by impersonating the son of President Emomali Rahmon, Asia-Plus reports.
Last August, according to the state anti-corruption agency, Khushdil Kurbonov and a relative took $50,000 from a man in exchange for promising him 0.3 hectares of land just outside the capital.
Kurbonov then called a local official in charge of the land and said he was Somoni Emomali (sometimes Somon), the president’s younger son, and instructed him to hand over the deed. The official did not believe Kurbonov.
Kurbonov attends the Dushanbe International School, according to Asia-Plus. In 2012 Tajik media reported that Somoni was attending the Dushanbe International School; he would now also be in the 10th grade.
The organization investigating the case, officially known as the Agency for State Financial Control and Combating Corruption, is headed by another of the president’s nine children, Rustam Emomali. Rustam became head of the agency in March. His appointment (by his father) increased long-standing concerns that official corruption investigations will steer far and wide of the long-ruling first family.
That someone thought he could pull this off by posing as the president’s son speaks volumes about how business works – and the first family is viewed – in Tajikistan, a country that ranks 152 out of 175 on Transparency International’s most recent Corruption Perceptions Index.
In the ongoing battle that could be known as Tajikistan vs. Islam, Islam has taken some low blows lately: police nabbing bearded men on the street and submitting them to the razor; state television instructing viewers that women who wear hijab are prostitutes.
The latest target in the Muslim-majority country is Muslim-sounding names.
Under instructions from President Emomali Rahmon, Tajikistan’s rubberstamp parliament is considering a bill that would forbid the Justice Ministry from registering names it thinks sound too Arabic, the deputy head of the ministry’s Department of Civil Registry, Jaloliddin Rahimov, told Interfax on May 4.
"After the adoption of these regulations, the registry offices will not register names that are incorrect or alien to the local culture, including names denoting objects, flora and fauna, as well as names of Arabic origin," Interfax quotes Rahimov as saying.
Though the law would not apply to existing names, only to babies born after it is signed, Interfax suggests some parliamentarians are demanding everyone with an Arab-sounding name pick a new, moreTajik-sounding one.
If parents cannot come up with a name on their own, the Justice Ministry is preparing a list of recommended names. It’s unclear if there will be a list for minorities, such as ethnic Uzbeks, who make up approximately 15 percent of the population.
Tajikistan has created a "second line of defense" along the border with Afghanistan in response to the flare-up in fighting in northern Afghanistan's Kunduz province, government officials have said.
"In connection with the battles between the security forces of Afghanistan and Taliban fighters in the Afghan province of Kunduz, it's been decided to create a second line of defense, and it was carried out in recent days," said one government official. (Tajikistan newspaper Asia-Plus and Russian news agency Interfax seem to have gotten identical statements; Asia Plus identifies the source as a Ministry of Defense official.)
"We are in constant contact with Afghan security forces, and our allies in the CSTO [Collective Security Treaty Organization]. Tajikistan today is able to prevent the escalation of tension in its border areas," the official continued.
The official didn't specify what is meant by a "second line of defense," and for much of the 800-mile long Afghanistan-Tajikistan border there is barely a first line of defense. Aid that Russia has promised to shore up border defenses has been slow to arrive, so it's not clear what might be forming this extra defense.
The fighting in Kunduz has displaced 2,000 families and killed 20 Afghan troops and 150 Taliban fighters, according to Afghanistan officials. Tajikistan officials last week said that the fighting represented no threat to their country.
An influential U.S. government body has once again recommended the State Department classify Tajikistan as home to some of the world’s worst restrictions on religious freedom.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) – a bipartisan American group that advises the State Department, the president and Congress – said in its 2015 report, released April 30, that Dushanbe “suppresses and punishes all religious activity independent of state control.”
For the third year running, USCIRF recommends that Tajikistan join two other post-Soviet republics – Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – on Washington’s official list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC). CPC are “either perpetrating or tolerating some of the worse abuses of religious freedom in the world.”
So far the State Department has ignored the recommendation.
This year USCIRF says worshipers in Tajikistan face tough times that only seem to be getting worse. The regime of strongman President Emomali Rahmon, the report argues, systematically interferes in the religious lives of citizens:
Numerous laws that severely restrict religious freedom have been implemented in the country since 2009. […] Tajik officials monitor mosques and their attendees for views they deem extremist or statements critical of the government; place restrictions on Muslim religious dress; control the age and the numbers of hajj (religious pilgrimage) participants; and indirectly control the selection and retention of imams and the content of sermons.