The shocking progresses put in place by the Islamic State and the deadly terrorist attacks carried out by extremist jihadists in the West, especially the latest demonstration in Paris, have contributed to making the public eye’s attention almost exclusively focus on the Middle East. If, on one hand, this is a logical consequence of spread fear, on the other this is happening at the expense of other regions of the world that, despite the general ignorance, could put fuel on the fire and soon degenerate into uncontrollable phenomena.
The region I am talking about is Central Asia. The more I read about this part of the world, the more I am convinced that this region will soon erupt into a major problem for the planet. For that reason, I will be keeping my attention of the doings within it, looking for the event that will be the event I am predicting.
I already wrote about an article about “linchpin scenarios” for Legationes some weeks ago. Even if my original analysis seems to me still valid, the main body of Central Asia has become a tipping point in the last year. These countries, which are known as “the ‘Stans” because of the suffix, include Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Consisting of five Soviet successor states, the Central Asian region lies at the very heart of the Eurasian landmass, as major trade routes running through the region bring with them new ideas, religions, and peoples back and forth from Europe and Asia.
During the Soviet period, Central Asia was essentially isolated from the rest of the world. Since independence, however, each of the region’s new governments have sought to re-engage the world in unique ways. Untapped natural resources like oil, gas, and precious metals, as well as the region’s importance to international security as Afghanistan’s northern neighbors, have attracted the attention of major powers and international organizations.
The resources are the key to this region, the ones that the rest of the world covet highly: uranium, gas, oil, heavy metals, etc. The main problem is that Central Asia has so many players that one post will not get the job done as far as explaining the situation on the ground.
The Central Asian countries are fertile fields for the self-styled Islamic State and the rest of Islamic extremism, and the United States has seen their value and has provided aid and training in these republics.
I will begin my informative series on the ‘Stans’ with the (presidential) Republic of Tajikistan. The reason for such a choice is that there are situations in the country which are definitely not good news for the White House and the rest of the international community. What’s more, in my younger days I visited the country’s capital, Dushanbe (“Monday” in the Tajik language), a beautiful city with lots of history and culture.
The Tajik people came under Russian rule in the 1860s and 1870s, but Russia’s hold on Central Asia weakened following the Revolution of 1917. Bands of indigenous guerrillas (called “basmachi”) fiercely contested Bolshevik control of the area, which was not fully reestablished until 1925. Tajikistan was first created as an autonomous republic within Uzbekistan in 1924, but the USSR designated Tajikistan as a separate republic in 1929 and transferred to it much of present-day Sughd province (ethnic Uzbeks form a substantial minority in Tajikistan). Tajikistan became independent in 1991 following the breakup of the Soviet Union, and experienced a civil war between regional factions from 1992 to 1997. The country endured several domestic security incidents during 2010-12, including armed conflict between government forces and local strongmen in the Rasht Valley, and between government forces and criminal groups in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast.
Tajikistan became a member of the World Trade Organization in March, 2013. However, it remains the poorest in the former Soviet sphere and its economy continues to face major challenges, including dependence on remittances from Tajikistanis working in Russia, pervasive corruption, and the major role narcotrafficking plays in the country’s informal economy.
I recently wrote a story on the situation in Tajikistan and the US involvement in their military. The head of the country’s anti-terror police, who had been trained in the United States, has now become a member of the ISIS branch in Central Asia, meaning that all the programs and intelligence that he had been provided with is now at the mercy of IS-related groups. I am sure that since the Tajik program was compromised, changes have been made, but I would bet that the core training is still there.
Recently, there has been an attack on Tajik police, allegedly by Daesh-related group. Tajikistan’s leader said that Sunday attacks on police forces had been staged by militants sharing the views of the al-Baghdadi-led Islamic State and aiming to undermine the president’s rule of the Muslim nation, local media reported. Nine policemen were killed in gun attacks in the capital Dushanbe and the nearby city of Vahdat on Friday, police said.
At the center of the latest crisis is General Abdukhalim Nazarzoda, a former rebel and the country’s deputy defense minister, when gunmen loyal to him clashed with government forces in circumstances that have not been fully explained. Nine police officers and 13 rebels died in the clashes, the police said. Rakhmon sacked Nazarzoda after the violence, accusing him of committing an unspecified crime. The authorities later accused Nazarzoda of belonging to the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), the country’s major Islamist political party. He is yet another Tajik governmental insider with especial intelligence that can only help the cause of ISIS in Central Asia.
While I was in the process of writing this op-ed news broke that pertains to what I am saying:
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.
The death of a person that had enough intelligence to punch a considerable hole in D.C.’s strategy solved one of Washington’s problems. Then the question is: how much of that strategy did he pass on to the ISIL-related group in Central Asia?
The country’s governance further exacerbates the trend toward radicalization. President Emomali Rakhmon has ruled for more than two decades, and shown no signs of stepping down. According to Stephen Blank, an expert on Russian foreign policy at the American Foreign Policy Council, the countries of Central Asia are marked by “illegitimate governance,” which is a prime contributor to internal instability. The Tajik government has targeted men with beards and women who dress more conservatively, as well as Islamic studies in school and even the call to prayer. The majority of Tajikistan’s citizens are Sufis, which is a moderate form of Islam. However, the government’s repressive policies inevitably boomerang against it, and actually promote radicalism rather than containing it. As a result, some Tajiks respond by joining militants.
How can the threat of militancy in Tajikistan be contained? One thing the Western countries could do is to pressure the Rakhmon government to ease up on its repressive policies toward Islam. Human rights discussions are never well received by authoritarian governments, therefore every effort must be made to help the Rakhmon government understand the link between repression and militancy.
Central Asia, all of Central Asia, is quickly becoming a hotbed of recruiting for the Islamic radicals. If the governments are not successful in their attempts to neutralize fundamentalism, it will be only a matter of time before this becomes the hotbed of Islamic radicalism. Possibly, to rival Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria…