Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is planning to visit all five Central Asian republics next week; the visit is expected to focus on energy cooperation but will also seek to boost India's growing military ties in the region and will include a visit to the newly built Indian military hospital in Tajikistan.
The tour will take place July 6-13, and will also include a stop in Ufa, Russia, for the summits of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and BRICS -- India is a current member of the latter and is expected to join the former as a full member (along with Pakistan) at this summit.
"Countering the spread of Islamic State (IS) terror will be a key part" of the visit," The Hindu newspaper reported, citing "sources."
"The Prime Minister will discuss counter-terror technology, training forces and also countering radicalism. Significantly, the government had also appointed former [Intelligence Bureau] chief Asif Ibrahim as a special envoy recently, with a mandate to discuss the spread of IS and terrorism, and liaise with governments abroad on the issue," the newspaper reported. “'Given India’s efforts to counter Islamic radicalism, these Central Asian states, are natural allies,' an Indian official said."
The State Department has released its annual "Country Reports on Terrorism" reviewing terrorism activity from the past year and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the ISIS is the overwhelming focus throughout the report, but also in the former Soviet Union.
"The ongoing civil war in Syria was a significant factor in driving worldwide terrorism events in 2014," State wrote in the report's introduction. "The rate of foreign terrorist fighter travel to Syria – totaling more than 16,000 foreign terrorist fighters from more than 90 countries as of late December – exceeded the rate of foreign terrorist fighters who traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, or Somalia at any point in the last 20 years."
The report continues State's practice of describing governments' perceptions of the threat of terrorism, rather than Washington's own perception. The introduction of the section on South and Central Asia reads: "Central Asian leaders have expressed concern about the potential terrorist threat posed by the return of foreign terrorist fighters to the region in the wake of ISIL’s growth in the Middle East and the drawdown of U.S. and Coalition Forces in Afghanistan."
Last year's report expressed substantial skepticism about Central Asian government's claims about terror threats; that skepticism is less apparent in this report's newly written sections on ISIS. However, a senior State Department official testified before Congress earlier this month on ISIS in Central Asia and downplayed the threat, noting that the vast majority are not recruited in Central Asia but abroad, particularly in Russia.
With the World Bank and Asian Development Bank soon to decide on Tajikistan’s request for $40 million more in budget support, they may wish to consider how past donations have benefited people close to the autocratic president while doing little to solve the long-term problems they were aiming to fix.
The two banks have spent over $140 million since 2009 topping up Tajikistan’s budget. But where does the money go? In 2012 alone the government spent $145 million recapitalizing a private bank that had handed out dozens of astronomically risky loans, many of them benefitting companies owned by relatives of the then-deputy prime minister, Muradali Alimardon (a man who had been promoted after admitting he’d lied to the IMF about the country’s reserves).
As I wrote for The Economist last week, the loans then disappeared but the directed lending continued. The bank is now deep in the red and Tajikistan’s whole banking sector looks on the edge of collapse.
Donors concede they struggle to piece together what is really going on. Their documents repeatedly describe Tajik bank statements as if they are purposely misleading. Internal memos say the banking sector’s structural problems stem from government resistance to reform, the lack of an independent central bank, ineffective internal controls, and ongoing fraud.
As Tajikistan’s banking crisis has snowballed over the last two or three years, donors have repeatedly seen their calls for reform ignored. So will they reward President Emomali Rahmon and his cronies for their persistent unwillingness to change the system?
Tajikistan’s most high-profile Islamic State fighter has threatened to kill his brother back home and dismissed rumors he is a government mole on a secret mission inside the so-called caliphate.
Police special forces (OMON) commander Gulmurod Halimov’s shock defection last month to the Islamic State caused panic in Dushanbe. Authorities quickly blocked access to social media carrying his video, in which he condemned authoritarian President Emomali Rahmon and vowed “we are coming to you with slaughter.”
On June 18, Halimov appeared in another video published online. Lounging between two Tajik militants, and sporting a bushier beard than in his first video, Halimov responds to criticism from his older brother by threatening to cut off his head.
Saidmurod Halimov had denounced his brother’s decision to join the Islamic State in an interview with Radio Ozodi.
The five-minute video lacks the high-tech editing and graphics seen in his first clip.
Qatar has brokered the release of four Tajikistani border guards who had been held hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan since December.
The news came from the Qatari foreign ministry on June 14, but thus far the border guards haven't appeared in Tajikistan, nor has the Tajikistan government commented.
“Under the directives of HH the Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, Qatari mediation succeeded in the release of four soldiers from Tajikstan who were captured by Taliban in December on the Northern borders of Afghanistan,” the Qatari statement said. “Qatar is using all its resources and diplomacy to save lives."
The four guards were kidnapped while gathering firewood on the border with Afghanistan; their commanding officer was later sentenced to eight and a half years in prison for ordering the men to gather the firewood.
Within days after the kidnapping the Tajikistan government said that they knew where the four were being held and that they would be released imminently, but since then little information has come out.
The intriguing element of the reported release is the Qatari angle. It's not known what Qatar did to secure the guards' release, but the Taliban regularly kidnap foreigners for exorbitant ransoms.
The march against corruption advances undaunted in Tajikistan. Or does it?
A senior official has been felled in the trumpeted campaign to battle the country's scourge of all-encompassing graft, Russian news agency Interfax reported on June 15. Khasan Radzhabov was serving as adviser to the president on personnel affairs at the time of his arrest by the anticorruption agency.
Interfax cites a law enforcement source as saying that Radzhabov is suspected of embezzlement and bribe taking on a massive scale. No other details are yet available.
What personnel recommendations might Radzhabov have given the president?
He may learn to regret them if they included the March appointment of President Emomali Rahmon's 27-year-old son, Rustam Emomali, as head of the Agency for State Financial Control and Combating Corruption.
That nod invited immediate suggestions of high-level nepotism, although Emomali appears to have sought to dispel those thoughts by embarking on his job with gusto.
Izzattullo Azizov, an official with the state religious affairs committee, was arrested days after Emomali took up his post on suspicion of soliciting $2,000 bribes from devout Muslim hoping to go on the hajj. That detention was eagerly advertised on the evening news.
Interfax says several other senior functionaries have been arrested since.
There can be little disagreement that Tajikistan has a major corruption problem. The country ranks 152 out of 175 in Transparency International’s most recent Corruption Perceptions Index.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has finished a weeklong tour of the five Central Asian states by appealing for them to improve their dismal human rights records. He called on the region’s autocrats to respect civil liberties, at the very least as a means to preserve stability.
“There is no peace without development. No development without peace. And neither is possible without a respect for human rights,” Ban told a meeting of students and officials in Turkmenistan, which campaigners describe as one of the world’s worst human rights abusers.
Speaking in Ashgabat on June 13, the last day of his tour, Ban pointed to concerns about a “deterioration of some aspects of human rights – a shrinking democratic space” across Central Asia.
Restrictions on freedoms might foster “an illusion of stability in the short-run,” he added, but ultimately threatened to create “a breeding ground for extremist ideologies.”
“Around the world, the way to confront threats is not more repression, it is more openness. More human rights,” he added.
A day earlier, in Uzbekistan, Ban had heeded calls by human rights campaigners to press Tashkent over the issues of forced labor and torture.
He acknowledged progress in eliminating the use of child labor, but urged the government to address “the mobilization of teachers, doctors and others in cotton harvesting,” and also “prevent the maltreatment of prisoners.”
Ban hailed “good laws” adopted in Uzbekistan to uphold the rule of law, but added that “laws on the books should be made real in the lives of people.”
A senior State Department official has downplayed the threat of Central Asian fighters joining ISIS amid heightened concerns after a high-ranking Tajikistan police official announced that he had joined the radical Islamist group.
While some Central Asians are joining the group, the vast majority are recruited outside the region, particularly as labor migrants in Russia, said Daniel Rosenblum, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs.
"For the overwhelming majority of Central Asians, the conflict in Syria and Iraq is a distant phenomenon; it is not something they think about day-to-day. But a small minority of Central Asians have been successfully recruited by violent extremists to join the conflict," Rosenblum said .
Rosenblum was speaking at a June 11 hearing of the U.S. Congress's Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe titled"Wanted: Foreign Fighters -- The Escalating Threat of ISIL in Central Asia." In spite of that somewhat overwrought title, Rosenblum did not discuss the what threat ISIS may pose to Central Asia itself, though he did mention media reports of ISIS appearing in Afghanistan: "We have seen signs that ISIL is attempting to spread into Afghanistan, and that some Taliban groups have rebranded themselves as ISIL to attract funding and recruits. ISIL’s presence in Afghanistan is a relatively new phenomenon and it will take time to evaluate its long-term prospects."
U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan Susan Elliott posing with two OMON officers in 2013. (photo: twitter)
The senior Tajikistan police official who apparently defected to ISIS had taken part in United States training on five seperate occasions, a State Department official has said.
Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov, the head of the Ministry of Interior special forces OMON units, claimed in his ISIS promotional video that he gone to the U.S. three times for counterterrorism training, including with American mercenary firm Blackwater. "Listen, you American pigs: I've been to America three times. I saw how you train soldiers to kill Muslims," he said. "You taught your soldiers how to surround and attack, in order to exterminate Islam and Muslims."
That claim was confirmed by the State Department on May 30. "From 2003-2014 Colonel Khalimov participated in five counterterrorism training courses in the United States and in Tajikistan, through the Department of State's Diplomatic Security/Anti-Terrorism Assistance program," spokeswoman Pooja Jhunjhunwala told CNN.
OMON has been one of the key elements of U.S. security cooperation in Tajikistan, which has focused on training and equipping the country's various special forces units. That training has been controversial, even before there was any ISIS connection: while the special forces are Tajikistan's most capable units and would be used to combat genuine security threats, they also are a key element of President Emomali Rahmon's repressive rule and have been implicated in indiscriminate force in suppressing internal opposition.
Screenshots of a man who appears to be Tajikistan's OMON Commander, Colonel Gulmurod Halimov, propagandizing for the Islamic State.
After weeks of speculation about his whereabouts, missing paramilitary police commander Gulmurod Halimov has shown up inside the so-called Islamic State. In a YouTube video released on May 27, the US-trained officer explains that he joined IS to protest increasing restrictions on religious freedom at home in Tajikistan.
The high-definition release is glossier than the usual Tajik extremist videos. IS, it appears, has wasted no time capitalizing on the propaganda potential of their most high-profile Tajik recruit to date.
In the ten-minute clip, Colonel Halimov – who spends most of his time speaking in Russian, suggesting he seeks a wide post-Soviet audience – discusses his 19-year career with Tajikistan’s paramilitary police unit (OMON). He talks about going to the United States in 2003 and 2007 to train with the U.S. Army and defense contractor Blackwater. “I came to America three times. I saw how you train people to kill Muslims. I will come with this gun to your home and kill you,” he declares.
He talks about studying Islam at school and how he started praying in 2001. His country’s repressive religious policy, he says, made him decide to join the Islamic State’s jihad. All Tajiks, including those in Russia, should join IS, Halimov declares, and fight the regime of Emomali Rahmon.
Taking aim at his former colleagues in Tajikistan’s secular security forces, he claims that Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda ordered a hijab ban in Dushanbe and that the Interior Ministry paid prostitutes 10 dollars each to appear in hijabs in a recent video that state media used to discredit Islam.