Some media outlets -- including a few respected ones -- are jumping on an obscure diplomatic cable as proof that Tajikistan knew the location of Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani hideaway in 2009. These blogs and articles seem to be crediting Tajikistan with providing intelligence that helped Washington find bin Laden—a dubious assertion.
While it’s easy to pluck out a detail from one leaked cable, in the grander scheme of things it could be dangerous to praise Tajikistan for contributing something it didn’t. Central Asian officials often exaggerate the threat of terrorism -- to get international funding? -- and then domestically do battle with local Muslims in such a heavy-handed and indiscriminate way that it’s highly likely they are doing more to bolster terrorism than to battle it.
In the cable, released by WikiLeaks this February, a Tajik counterterrorism official from the State Committee on National Security (GKNB), General Abdullo Sadulloevich Nazarov, told an American Embassy official that Osama bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan. Speaking of terrorist groups in general -- of which Tajikistan claims to have many, while offering limited proof -- the American official paraphrased Nazarov as saying:
“For instance, in Pakistan Osama Bin Laden wasn't an invisible man, and many knew his whereabouts in North Waziristan, but whenever security forces attempted a raid on his hideouts, the enemy received warning of their approach from sources in the security forces.”
Authorities in Tajikistan now agree: Military operations in Rasht this week killed Tajikistan’s most wanted man, Mullo Abdullo. (See an earlier post here.)
Blamed for an attack on a military convoy last September that left at least 25 dead, Abdullo was a top commander during Tajikistan’s 1992-1997 civil war. He never accepted the peace treaty and reportedly fled to Afghanistan. In 2009, a few reports surfaced that he had returned to Tajikistan and was living a bin Laden-like existence hiding in the hills around the conservative Rasht District.
That he was alive may shock some.
Tajikistan’s Interior Ministry chief of staff Tokhir Normatov told the Associated Press on April 16 that Abdullo and 14 other militants were killed in an assault using armored vehicles and aircraft. Images of his body were reportedly shown on state television. It is unclear if any civilians or soldiers died in the campaign.
Asia-Plus reports the three-day operation attacked Abdullo and his comrades in a “specially equipped camp where they had been hiding for some time.”
Tajik authorities say they have killed at least 10 Islamic militants in the restive Rasht Valley.
Local press report the haul includes Tajikistan’s most wanted man, Abdullo Rakhimov, often known by his nom de guerre, Mullo Abdullo. But an Interior Ministry official told the Associated Press he could not confirm the operation, carried out with armored vehicles and air support, felled the elusive Abdullo. Media speculation on “training exercises” in Rasht, which began on April 14, led to a flurry of conflicting reports (examples here and here) on Friday about the number of dead, and whether Abdullo was among them.
Abdullo, a United Tajik Opposition fighter who never accepted the peace treaty that ended Tajikistan’s 1992-1997 civil war, is wanted for an attack last September on a government convoy that left at least 25 troops dead.
Kyrgyzstan’s leaders are saying all the right things, if the Kremlin were voting in this fall’s presidential election.
On the heels of Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev’s recent Moscow visit, First Deputy PM Omurbek Babanov is now there to discuss economic cooperation. To ease his expedition, Atambayev has pushed for Kyrgyzstan to join the Russia-led Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, which is often described as Russia's bid to reassert economic dominance in the former Soviet Union and stanch rising Chinese influence.
But Babanov is a divisive figure in Bishkek. The largest party in the legislature, Ata-Jurt, has actively used corruption allegations to seek his resignation. Ata-Jurt leaders also fear the Atambayev-Babanov tandem will employ government resources to make a bid for the presidency.
Though Ata-Jurt is in the ruling coalition with Atambayev’s Social Democrats (SDPK) and Babanov’s Respublika, party leaders have repeatedly threatened (at one point employing fists and maybe packing guns) to withdraw and upset the ruling equilibrium just as the presidential campaign enters full swing.
Moscow is deploying its fine-tuned instrument of influence over the poorest and most dependent Central Asian states, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. For the second year in a row, the Kremlin has slapped fuel duties on one of the countries in spring, just before the planting season when farmers need to top up their tractors. The move, cruel though it may be, has proven effective in bending the region’s recalcitrant despots to Moscow’s will or even, as in the case of Kyrgyzstan, helped oust ex-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
A week ago, Moscow suspended tariffs on fuel deliveries to Kyrgyzstan after Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev kowtowed at the Kremlin and promised to cut American middleman out of fuel deliveries to the American base at Manas Airport.
Tajikistan received duty-free Russian light refined fuels (gasoline, kerosene and aviation fuel) until mid-2010. The sudden introduction of tariffs then pushed prices at the pump (or the rusting tin funnel, as is often the case in Tajikistan) up 30 percent and fomented fears Russia was playing the same game it honed with Bakiyev. In December, however, officials from both sides announced they had almost worked out a deal to resume duty-free imports. Now, those tariffs are not disappearing, but increasing by an extra 5.3 percent.
International concern over what’s passing through Tajikistan’s sieve-like borders continues to grow: drugs? guns? Islamic militants? This week, several foreign officials rushed to Dushanbe to sound the alarm, anticipating the dreaded NATO drawdown in neighboring Afghanistan. But while the Americans, the Russians and even the Europeans simultaneously bemoaned the challenges of keeping illicit goods and bad people from crossing into ex-Soviet Central Asia, their conspicuous lack of joint meetings suggested that cooperation -- official statements notwithstanding -- is not a priority.
Moscow, which patrolled Tajikistan’s 1,300-kilometer border with Afghanistan from tsarist times until 2005, is signaling it would like to lead an international coalition there – but without the West’s help, thank you very much. At a conference in Dushanbe, Nikolai Bordyuzha, the secretary general of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, said CSTO members should tackle the threat together “because problems which emerge on this border then echo on the territory of the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and other CSTO member states," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported.
NATO, he suggested, should finish what it started in Afghanistan and keep the situation there from poisoning neighboring countries.
Nikolai Bordyuzha has said what we’ve all been thinking.
The chief of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the region’s dithering, would-be NATO, has said that members of deposed President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s court were trafficking narcotics through southern Kyrgyzstan. That part of the country was Bakiyev’s home base and, after his bloody ouster last spring, the epicenter of ethnic violence that left hundreds dead and thousands wounded.
"A year ago, before the events in Kirgizia, some security forces, controlled by President Bakiyev among others, controlled drug traffic through the south of Kirgizia," Bordyuzha, referring to the country by its Soviet-era moniker, said in comments carried by RIA Novosti on February 21.
Whether Bakiyev was complicit, or, as many suspect, profiting directly from the drug trade, Bordyuzha didn’t elaborate. But he made a comment about Kyrgyzstan’s current security forces, or “siloviki” -- a term referring collectively to agencies with the legitimate right to use force, including police, army, intelligence services and others -- that left journalists guessing about his meaning:
"Over the last month, several caravans of drugs have been intercepted and, moreover, this transfer was made possible by security forces," he said, adding that the new Kyrgyz authorities could use some help in the fight against drugs.
Was Bordyuzha referring to the transfer of troops that stopped the drug shipments? Or was he suggesting, as interpreted by Lenta.ru, that some members of the security forces continue to smuggle drugs?
Authorities in Tajikistan seem bent on a confrontation with followers of Islam.
President Imomali Rakhmon has said his country has too many unregistered mosques. They are “propagating extremism” with foreign funding, “attracting youth to radical groups” and should be closed, he said at a February 10 meeting of his Security Council.
The comments came days after the spokesman of the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), Hikmatulloh Saifullohzoda, was brutally beaten outside his Dushanbe home. In response to the high-profile attack, the embattled party slammed Rakhmon for presiding over an authoritarian, corrupt regime and said someone had tried to assassinate Saifullohzoda.
Following a violent attack on its spokesman, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, the country’s only real opposition party, has lashed out at the government of Imomali Rakhmon. Without specifying who is to blame, the IRPT has called Monday’s “assassination attempt” on Hikmatulloh Saifullohzoda a provocation, a sign of increasing authoritarianism, and a “threat to national security.”
The unusually combative IRPT statement accuses authorities of self-destructive behavior: “The authorities have chosen the way of confrontation instead of the way of dialogue, cooperation and mutual understanding and this may lead to [an] ailing atmosphere in society.”
"False rumors have been circulated in society recently and a deviation from principles of peace and accord have evoked serious concerns among experts and society itself,” the statement adds.
A 1997 peace agreement between Rakhmon and the IRPT, which has come under increasing pressure in recent months, ended the country’s civil war. Tens of thousands died between 1992-1997.
Suhrob Sharipov is something like President Imomali Rakhmon’s mouth. While he may sometimes speak without thinking, what he says -- as head of the Center for Strategic Studies Under the President of Tajikistan -- comes from the top.
So when he says journalists spend too much time talking to Tajikistan’s brutalized opposition -- the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT) -- we can’t help but wonder if he is foreshadowing another crackdown on the media, the opposition, or both.
"Constantly contacting representatives of this party and creating hullabaloo around it, journalists forget about other parties,” Sharipov lamented in comments carried by Dushanbe’s Asia-Plus news agency. “This is wrong and unfair.”
What other parties?
Maybe journalists speak with the affable and articulate heads of the IRPT more than with the leaders of the ruling party because they are accessible and actually have something interesting to say.
The IRPT was set up as the political wing of the armed opposition after Tajikistan’s 1990s civil war. In exchange for laying down arms, members took one-third of government positions. Since then, the president has slowly whittled down the party’s power, stealing seats and rendering its influence negligible.
Still, the IRPT represents the only real opposition voice to Rakhmon’s People's Democratic Party of Tajikistan (PDPT). There are several other mock-opposition groups such as the Agrarian Party and the Communists, though their love for the PDPT makes any sober observer realize they are no more than democratic window dressing.