Abdul Rashid Dostum and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu meet in Moscow. (photo: Dostum's facebook page)
After the Taliban took over the city of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, Russia has responded by taking a number of measures aimed at shoring up security in the region, strengthening both their own and partner armed forces.
Taliban forces seized Kunduz at the end of September, marking the first time the group has controlled a major city since being driven out of power in 2001. Afghan government forces retook the town days later, but the episode nevertheless highlighted the deteriorating security situation in the northern part of the country.
While the Taliban's goals still appear limited to Afghanistan's borders, their growing strength in the region has worried Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, which lie just over Afghanistan's northern border. And Russia, in spite of already being militarily engaged on multiple fronts, is trying to increase its engagement in Central Asia, as well.
First, Russia announced that it would bolster its military base in Tajikistan with a new air group and additional Mi-24P attack and Mi-8 MTV transport helicopters. (This announcement, incidentally, let us learn a little more about the murky situation around the Ayni air force base outside the capital of Dushanbe. Russia has reportedly been trying to gain control of the base, but this week the Tajikistan's Ministry of Defense issued a statement clarifying that they owned the base and were merely allowing Russia to use it.)
With the neutralization of General Abduhalim Nazarzoda complete, Tajikistan is on the search for a replacement deputy defense minister.
Asia-Plus website has revealed a likely possible candidate whose name will come as a surprise to scholars of the country’s recent history: Bakhtiyor Langariyev.
On October 6, the website reported that Langariyev — whose brother Suhrob was sentenced to life in prison in 2009 on charges of drugs and arms trafficking — had returned to Tajikistan after a seven-year absence.
Around the time of his departure, which coincided with the period of Suhrob’s arrest in the city of Kulyab, Bakhtiyor Langariyev was head of the Dushanbe anti-organized crime department .
Another unnamed source cited by Asia-Plus suggests that yet another Langariyev brother, Faizali, could be named deputy defense minister and that Bakhtiyor could take up a position as head of a defense ministry special battalion. The website cites people close to 44-year old Bakhtiyor Langariyev as saying he is currently doing business in other former Soviet states and in the United Arab Emirates.
The appointments would mark a remarkable return to the fold for a family that, although once staunch loyalists of President Emomali Rahmon, eventually fell foul of the ruling regime.
Another of the four Langariyev brothers, Langari Langariyev, served as a leading field commander during the civil war in the pro-Rahmon Popular Front and was killed in combat in October 1992.
The criminal activities of Suhrob Langariyev appear to have precipitated the family’s demise, but as always in Tajikistan, there is more to matters than meets the eye.
The United States has broken its silence over Tajikistan’s obliteration of the Islamic Renaissance Party with an expression of anxiety at the “blanket persecution of all opposition.”
The U.S. Embassy in Dushanbe said in an emailed statement to EurasiaNet.org on September 30 that it is concerned that the government is “limiting the activities” of the IRPT and says it is monitoring the unfolding criminal case against party members.
Authorities have been moving fast against the IRPT – the last credible opposition force left in the country.
The pretext for the final crackdown on IRPT was provided by unrest in early September that the government attributed to an alleged armed uprising by a rebellious former deputy defense minister, Abduhalim Nazarzoda.
Prosecutors have said Nazarzoda acted in collusion with the IRPT. Those accusations were followed by the arrest of 13 members of the IRPT political council on September 13.
On September 29, the Supreme Court ruled to designate the party a terrorist organization at the request of the Prosecutor General’s Office. That decision will force the closure of the IRPT’s official newspaper, Najot, and stands to criminalize thousands of party members.
“Naming [IRPT] a terrorist organization now threatens its 40,000 members across the country with imprisonment," Freedom House executive vice president Daniel Calingaert said in a statement.
In its statement, the U.S. Embassy said it was vitally important to distinguish between peaceful political opposition parties and violent extremists.
In providing updates to its would-be insurgency and smears of the opposition almost daily, Tajikistan’s government has succeeded mostly in undermining its own credibility.
A dispatch circulated by Khovar state news agency on September 26 reaches new heights of implausibility. The story contends that the alleged renegade deputy defense minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda had plotted his uprising since 2010 in collusion with the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT).
From 2005 onward, Nazarzoda occupied numerous high-ranking positions in the security establishment. Between then and 2007, he served as first deputy commander of the ground forces, and from 2007 to 2014, he headed the Defense Ministry’s military security services. His elevation to deputy defense minister came in January 2014.
Allegations that plotting should have been happening for so long at the highest level is at best an astonishing admission of incompetence by Tajikistan’s security structures. Alternatively, Dushanbe is spinning a yarn in full confidence that nobody within the country, including all the diplomatic stations based there, will dare to question its narrative.
Some details in the latest account are recycled versions of earlier, barely credible, accusations, but there are some new aspects.
Khovar cites prosecutors as saying Nazarzoda teamed up with IRPT leader Mukhiddin Kabiri to create 20 organized crime groups comprising a total of 300 members, who were paid $100 or more each monthly with funds of unknown provenance.
Tajikistan's defense minister has said that the country will conscript only "educated and healthy" young men into the army, which would be a remarkable turnaround for a military notorious for its violent press ganging of recruits.
The annual military recruitment season in Tajikistan is scheduled to start October 1, and Defense Minister Sherali Mirzo addressed MoD officials who are preparing for it, reported the newspaper Asia Plus. In his remarks, Mirzo saidthe number of conscripts exceeds "by many times" the needs of the armed forces, and "that allows us to conscript into the ranks only educated and healthy conscripts."
Selectivity has not been the hallmark of Tajikistan's military recruitment practices in the past. The country is notorious for press ganging recruits, violently kidnapping young men in order to fill the ranks of the underfunded military where conscripts serve two years in miserable conditions and subject to the extreme bullying endemic to the post-Soviet world.
The MoD press secretary, Faridun Makhmadaliyev, alluded to some "violations" in past conscription campaigns and said they aren't to be repeated. "It has been noted, that in previous conscription campaigns it was documented that some recruits were not correctly identified, some had unreliable medical examinations, there were corruption crimes." Recruiters, Makhmadaliyev added, were to "organize the coming fall conscription lawfully."
Russian President Vladimir Putin watches the final stage of the Center-2015 military exercise in Orenburg. (photo: Mod Russia)
Nearly 100,000 Russian soldiers have wrapped up the country's biggest military exercise of the year, practicing to "contain" a conflict in Central Asia.
The scenario of the exercise, said Colonel-General Vladimir Rudnitskiy, the commander of Russia's Central Military District, was the "containment of an international armed conflict in the Central Asian strategic direction."
But for an exercise supposedly oriented toward Central Asia, it included very little participation by Russia's Central Asian allies. The Russian Ministry of Defense, in its account of the exercise, repeatedly referred to the participants as "the armed forces of the member states of the Collective Security Treaty Organization," but the vast majority of the 95,000 soldiers who took part were Russian; the only other participant was Kazakhstan, which sent a handful of units. (The CSTO is a Russia-led military alliance also including Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.)
The exercise was called Center-2015, and the Center name has been in the past used for joint CSTO exercises; it's not clear why no other Central Asian states were involved this time.
In one evocative touch, Russian President Vladimir Putin watched the final stage of the exercise from Orenburg. Orenburg is best known as the garrison town from which the Russian empire conquered Central Asia in the 19th century.
Prosecutors in Tajikistan have accused the leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party of instigating the recent unrest that culminated in dozens of deaths between government troops and loyalists of a former deputy defense minister accused of mounting a rebellion.
It is a dismal epilogue to the political career of Mukhiddin Kabiri, who pursued a liberal and accommodating line in relations with the government, drawing the criticism of those who believed he should have taken more hardline positions.
The Prosecutor General’s office said on September 17 that Kabiri headed 20 small-scale criminal groups and directly supervised their activities. Former defense minister and major-general Abduhalim Nazarzoda, a former member of the armed United Tajik Opposition, was taking his instructions directly from Kabiri, prosecutors said.
“The decision about the armed attack was taken in August 2015 and so for this purpose a large amount of money was funneled through so-called charitable organizations based in a number of countries,” prosecutors said in a statement.
The criminal gang being described by the government faces criminal charges including theft of weapons, ammunition and explosives, murder, hostage-taking, terrorism, threatening law enforcement officers and military personnel, and abuse of official positions.
No Western governments have to date issued any comment on the events unfolding in Tajikistan.
The U.S. State Department released only messages for American citizens warning them to take precautionary measures in the days following September 4. That appeared to serve as tacit confirmation of the official narrative, which has been supported by little actual evidence.
A freeze has been placed on all property belonging to Kabiri and the alleged leaders of the September 4 unrest.
Tajikistan's authorities say they have killed the fugitive general who mutinied two weeks ago. In the fight, however, the commander of the most elite special forces unit in the country, the Alfas, was killed as well.
The former general, Abduhalim Nazarzoda, was killed on September 16 at 14:00 local time after a day-and-a-half-long battle in the Romit Gorge at an altitude of 3,700 meters above sea level, Tajikistan's Interior Ministry and State Committee on National Security said in a joint statement.
During the fighting, the chief of the Alfas, Colonel Rustam Khamakiyev, and three other officers of the Alfas and OMON (a special forces unit of the Interior Ministry) were killed, the statement added.
There were earlier reports (though never officially confirmed) that Nazarzoda had been killed last week; and officials vowed that they would get him by the end of the summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Dushanbe, which wrapped up September 15.
Foreign ministers, defense ministers and heads of security councils of CSTO member nations pose for a photograph ahead of a summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on September 15, 2015. (Photo: EurasiaNet.org)
As expected, anxieties about the claimed threat posed to Central Asia by the Islamic State group and other extremist outfits dominated talk at the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) summit in Dushanbe on September 15.
Host president Emomali Rahmon set the tone with his remarks.
“Tajikistan has drawn the attention of colleagues to the current situation in the region as a whole and in Afghanistan in particular,” he said. “The specter of emergencies and security threats in the region is not diminishing, and could even grow.”
It was Russian leader Vladimir Putin that made the point about Islamic State most forcefully.
“The risk of terrorist and extremist organizations making incursions into countries neighboring Afghanistan has increased. Moreover, this threat is made worse by the fact that along with the organizations known to be active in Afghanistan, the so-called Islamic State too has increased its influence,” he said during a heads of states meeting at the summit.
Out of the three former Soviet Central Asian states that border Afghanistan, only Tajikistan is a CSTO member. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have spurned the Moscow-led alliance.
Ahead of the summit, Russian newspaper Kommersant cited an unnamed CSTO official as saying the fight against the Islamic State has led member states to consider proposals on alliance contingents being deployed outside the organization’s borders to take part in an international coalition operating under the auspices of the United Nations.
Putin appeared to be alluding to such a possibility in his remarks.
“Basic common sense and responsibility for global and regional security demands that the global community unites in the face of these threats,” he said.
The government in Tajikistan has banned its only viable opposition, driven its leader into exile and linked it to recent violent unrest, thereby leaving it open to grave criminal charges.
With the bulk of its work done in dismantling the Islamic Renaissance Party, the authorities are now busying themselves expropriating the party’s property and goods.
IRPT told EurasiaNet.org that police entered their offices on September 14 and demanded that the safe be opened. Police proceeded to seize 7,000 somoni ($1,100) and the party’s computer archives, an IRPT representative said.
The offices had been sealed and inaccessible to IRPT staff since August 24, when it ordered shut by a Dushanbe court ruling.
The building belonged to Nematullo Saidov, the son of Said Abdulloh Nuri, who founded the IRPT. Prosecutors have said, however, that the property, which was bought by Saidov from a company called Tijorat, was originally acquired by illegal means.
To compound matters, the prosecutor’s office is measuring the premises in what IRPT representatives believe could be the prelude to fresh accusations of the illegal snatching of a few meters of land.
Authorities are also going after property linked to exiled IRPT leader Mukhiddin Kabiri.
Prosecutors and anticorruption officials over the weekend sealed real estate belonging to Kabiri’s relatives. No explanation has been provided for that action.
Other property targeted included the offices of a construction firm belonging to Kabiri’s brother and a paper napkin and toilet paper factory.
“They confiscated a whole array of production equipment, but because these were fastened down, they were unable to carry them away,” an IRPT representative told EurasiaNet.org.