The Potential Spillover Effect of the Taliban Insurgency in Tajikistan
Filipe Neves, Liam Tormey, CENTCOM
May 2, 2021
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon and Former U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman, 2011
The Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan has been at the heart of several counterterrorism policies of neighboring Tajikistan, but the announced removal of NATO troops from Afghanistan and the apparent resilience of the Taliban could inspire Tajik militants to conduct a similar operation in Tajikistan. This is likely to challenge the preparedness of a government that has been frequently accused of human rights violations in an attempt to silence dissent and prevent terrorism. Notwithstanding the efforts made by Tajikistan to reduce its vulnerabilities to terrorism, as long as it fails to address the grievances of the Tajik people, there is a strong likelihood that Tajik Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTF) will exploit those grievances to attract people to their ranks and gain support in the country. Under such circumstances, a spillover of the Taliban insurgency is likely to take place and seriously damage Tajikistan’s national security. The Tajik government needs to maintain some of its current counterterrorism policies but also increase people’s trust in the state through political, economic, and social reforms that respond to their particular concerns.
Terrorism in Tajikistan
Tajikistan has, thus far, managed to contain the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. President Emomali Rahmon, who has ruled the country since 1992, has placed countless limitations on religious freedom, including controlling all mosques and imams, to counter extremism which he believes is idealized by religious institutions. This, however, has been largely done at the cost of civil liberties, with heavy restrictions on political opposition and social unrest, suggesting that counterterrorism measures have ultimately been used as an excuse to reinforce the President’s power and prevent any dissent that threatens that power. On the other hand, these political and social limitations coupled with economic hardships have also created a generation of disgruntled Tajiks who have become increasingly wary of the government. Such a situation is in itself the reason hundreds of Tajiks have joined terrorist groups in recent years, especially the Taliban and Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), which raises the question of how effective Tajikistan’s strategy to deal with extremism is if it fails to address the concerns of disenfranchised Tajiks. It seems President Emomali Rahmon finds himself in a difficult position as he strives to shut down any form of dissent and have total control over governmental institutions while also acknowledging that the repressive environment he created is in itself a factor in extremism growth.
Up until now, terrorism has had little expression in Tajikistan. However, the Taliban insurgency, currently being conducted in Afghanistan, has been a major concern for Tajik authorities and is likely to become gradually problematic in the next few months and years. Tajikistan shares a border with Afghanistan; therefore, there is a fear among Tajiks that the situation in Afghanistan could spill over to Tajikistan. The terrain at the border is incredibly mountainous, making it difficult for Tajik troops to control any potential infiltrations coming from Afghanistan, and the fight between the Taliban and the Afghan Army has increasingly moved closer to Tajik territory. Furthermore, the Taliban’s activity in Pakistan is a testament to the valid concerns of the Tajik government. Much like Tajikistan, Pakistan shares a mountainous border with Afghanistan. This region, known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, has very little control by the Pakistani government and became a hotbed of terrorism. Pakistan’s weak rule of law allowed the Taliban and other terrorist groups to establish themselves in the country, and the terrain made it easier for those groups to evade Pakistani forces and maintain their presence. This demonstrates that the Taliban’s mission is not confined to Afghanistan and that Tajikistan may deal with a similar outcome considering their comparable situation.
Another concern that must be considered is the border clashes that broke out on April 28, 2021, between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Approximately 30,000 people in total were evacuated, and at least 40 people have died. Since then, the two countries have reached a ceasefire, which thus far has not been violated, but this incident reveals that the region is highly volatile and that terrorist groups could easily exploit any future incidents to grow their presence in both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Were this incident to escalate into a full-scale conflict between the two countries, it could hamper Tajikistan’s ability to prioritize counterterrorism policies as the need to allocate additional resources for the war grew. Tajikistan would have to deal with a threat in the north and a threat in the south, and as an overall fragile country that struggles economically and depends on restrictive measures to maintain internal security and stability, this would likely prove to be an overly complex situation to manage. As such, it is likely that the Taliban insurgency would spill over to the Central Asian nation.
Yet, the factor that is most likely to complicate the situation in Tajikistan is the recent announcement by the Biden administration to withdraw all US troops stationed in Afghanistan by September 11, 2021. The day after the US announcement, NATO allies agreed they would leave Afghanistan along with the United States. Despite Biden’s decision to defy the plan reached with the Trump administration to remove all troops by May 1, 2021, it still ensures that the Taliban remain a major player in Afghan matters. Afghan officials state that there are currently around 200 Tajiks fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan, though this number could be much higher. These militants have thus far been unable to bring jihad home, but the removal of NATO troops from Afghanistan could prove to be damaging to Tajikistan’s national security by sending a message to Tajik militants that the Taliban insurgency was relatively successful in Afghanistan and that a similar operation could be conducted in Tajikistan. Considering Tajikistan’s political, social, and economic fragility, these latest developments are bound to challenge the country’s resilience and preparedness to contain extremism and Islamic fundamentalism threats.
Implications of a Tajikistan Insurgency
While it has been documented that most Tajik FTFs are currently fighting in Afghanistan alongside the Taliban and IS-K, there is a precedent of Islamist insurgency in Tajikistan. Amriddin Tabarov founded Jamaat Ansarullah in 2010 with the core objective of overthrowing the Tajikistan government and implementing Sharia Law throughout the country. On September 3, 2010, the group conducted a major suicide bombing on a police station in Khujand, Sughd Province, killing two police officers and injuring at least 28 others. Tajik authorities labeled Jamaat Ansarullah as a terrorist organization and sought to eliminate or detain all of its members from this attack. This likely forced the majority of members to flee the country, likely into Afghanistan. As the Western forces begin to withdraw from Afghanistan, the uncertainty of the country’s future increases - there is a significant fear amongst the Afghan population and surrounding countries that the Taliban forces will quickly overwhelm the Afghan National Army (ANA) and National Directorate of Security (NDS) forces. This success would likely prompt Tajik FTFs to return home and attempt to continue the insurgent movement in their country.
As the specific number of Jamaat Ansarullah supporters and Tajik FTFs is unknown, their potential readmittance into the country would pose a significant threat to the overall security of Tajikistan as they would likely use familial, or tribal, connections to establish a strong force and would likely exploit the religious and political suppression against the Muslim in the country. Jamaat Ansarullah was formed in the tribal region of Isfara District in the Ferghana Valley of the Sughd District. This region is extremely volatile as inter-tribal and inter-regional conflicts have occurred since the early 1990s during the Civil War. However, it is significant that Jamaat Ansarullah was formed because it demonstrates that the tribal conflicts were most likely reconciled to pursue a shared objective of opposing the government.
Should the FTFs decide to return to Tajikistan and enter the country without detection, it is very likely that they will return to their communities and begin recruiting for the insurgency, as this will provide them with popular support. Additionally, the returning FTFs will likely attempt to exploit the Tajikistan government’s suppression of the political and religious freedoms of the Muslim population throughout the country. The Muslim population is the majority demographic as it accounts for around 96% of the Tajik population - 90.4% are Sunni, 5.6% are Shia. The Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) was the most notable Islamic political party that attempted to gain influence in the government; however, the IRPT was classified as a terrorist organization following an alleged anti-government coup by a military General and the arrests of around 10 IRPT leaders - the Tajik government presented no evidence and held secret, closed-door trials. The Tajik government has also banned Muslim women from wearing a hijab, banned Muslim men from growing their beards as this is perceived to reflect Salafism, and the government heavily vets all Imams and monitors all sermons held at mosques. According to the Tajik Constitution, all citizens are obliged to protect the values of the national culture, which includes language and national dress, and according to customary interpretation, the hijab is not included in the national dress. The returning FTFs will likely use all of these shortcomings and violations against the Muslim population to fuel their insurgency and gain popular support. Since the Tajik FTFs have been integrated with the Taliban and IS-K forces, it is very likely that they would employ the same tactics used in Afghanistan against Tajik security personnel, including VBIED, IED, assassinations, and light weapons assaults. These tactics were already seen in Jamaat Ansarullah’s debut attack on the police force, and it is likely that the FTF will target military, security, and government personnel as opposed to targeting civilians. However, the Tajik government has identified these risks and has made significant efforts to fortify its borders and prepare its defense forces to conduct an effective counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign.
In recent years, Tajikistan has attempted to make the necessary changes to its policies in the hope of managing the growing terrorist threat. For instance, in 2016, it approved its “National Strategy on Countering Extremism and Terrorism of the Republic of Tajikistan for 2016-2020,” which sought to streamline the work of the state organizations tasked with combatting terrorism. Also, in 2019, it signed a cooperative agreement with other Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to enhance joint counterterrorism operations. Overall, these measures seem to effectively tackle some of the main issues in previous Tajik counterterrorism policies, namely the lack of information sharing between different agencies and the need to enhance cooperation ties with neighboring countries considering the transnational aspect of terrorism and recruitment strategies. However, they fail to address the most important one: the repressive nature of the Tajik government, which has significantly reduced personal liberties, including religious freedom, and its apparent inability to address the economic struggles of the Tajik people. Recent data indicates that 29.5 percent of the population lives in poverty and 14 percent in extreme poverty, and terrorist recruitment tactics tend to capitalize on these issues to attract people to their organizations. Considering the number of Tajiks who have joined terrorist groups in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries, it is clear that a segment of the Tajik population feels drawn to extremist messages and that the potential for terrorism to grow is certainly there. An authoritarian approach can only go so far if distrust towards the government reaches a breaking point.
Despite the Tajik government increasing border patrolling to prevent and deter potential infiltrations by militants and encouraging trilateral discussions with Afghanistan and the United States to improve regional security, its proactive approach to terrorism will likely prove to be incomplete when considering the ever-growing adaptability and influence of terrorist groups. For its approach to cover all dimensions of the terrorist threat, it also needs to consider the overall satisfaction of the Tajik people towards state institutions and their potential vulnerability to extremist propaganda. Otherwise, it will likely prove to be ineffective in protecting the country and maintaining Tajikistan’s status quo and stability. Considering the political and social fragility of Tajikistan, the Tajik government must change its approach by involving civil society in decision-making and opening the country to different political ideologies. While the authoritarian regime imposed by the President has been able to suppress terrorism, this is not a long-term solution as it alienates more Tajiks and makes them more vulnerable to extremist messages. A potential way to address extremism would be to provide an outlet for people to express their ideas without fear of persecution by the government. This could be critical in increasing trust towards governmental institutions, which would improve social and political stability. Government accountability and transparency would also be an effective way to strengthen people’s trust in the state and make them more resilient to propaganda.
From an economic standpoint, which is equally vital to reinforce the country’s security, enhancing trade with neighboring partners could be a way to encourage economic development and create new job opportunities. Additionally, Tajikistan must apply the structural reforms needed to increase private investment. According to the World Bank, many issues in the financial sector have not been resolved, ultimately hindering the development of the private sector due to excessive bureaucracy. The country must also continue betting on tourism as an additional source of income. Several measures have been put in place to open up the country and make it a desirable tourist destination, including simplifying the visa process for tourists outside CIS. However, there is still much to be done, such as improving existing infrastructure and connectivity to Tajikistan and making information more easily and widely accessible online. Tourism growth can be fundamental in boosting the economy and reducing unemployment and poverty rates through job creation. This would address the economic challenges of many Tajiks and potentially reduce discontent towards the government. Despite tourism being one of the sectors most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, as more people are vaccinated, tourism can be decisive in kick-starting the Tajik economy and help it return to and grow past pre-pandemic levels.
Lastly, despite the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan, the Afghan government and the Taliban have yet to reach a peace agreement, which means attacks are likely to continue in the foreseeable future. Since some of the fightings have occurred near Tajik territory, we recommend that Tajikistan reinforces its security measures to prevent terrorist attacks close to its border and detect terrorist infiltrations. In addition, the Tajik government must support peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government since a more stable Afghanistan increases regional stability. Deepening cooperation ties with the Afghan government itself is equally important since it could increase information sharing between the two countries and facilitate counterterrorism operations, including detection and prevention of terrorism and deterrence of terrorists. Additionally, the United States might be an important player as a promoter in this Tajikistan-Afghanistan security partnership. Finally, we also suggest that Tajikistan uses diplomatic channels to resolve its border disputes with its neighbors and encourage them to do the same as instability in this region could severely affect security and contribute to terrorism expansion.
The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) will continue to monitor the geopolitical developments in both Tajikistan and Afghanistan. The CENTCOM Team will closely monitor the Taliban’s activities and those of Tajik militants, especially when taking place close to the border with Tajikistan. CTG will also continue to monitor the clashes between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan that erupted on April 28, 2021, considering the potential implications on Tajikistan’s stability and national security. Were a war to start between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan could find itself in a complex position as it would be forced to navigate the line between allocating more resources for the conflict while maintaining its current counterterrorism efforts. Seeing that Tajikistan is geographically close to Afghanistan and Tajik militants are currently part of the Taliban, we could see the Taliban insurgency spilling over to Tajikistan. CTG will also continue to monitor the social, political, and economic situation in Tajikistan.
________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)
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 Filipe Neves via Google Maps
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