The rumblings of a Western campaign are audible that the «international community» should pay greater attention to force the Tajik leadership to urgently undertake «reform». A report by the western think tank International Crisis Group said: «The secular, Soviet-rained leadership that emerged from the civil war now finds itself dealing with a society increasingly drawn to observant Islam. The regime’s response to this is as inept. Officials allege that the main opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party, is becoming increasingly radicalized. Clumsy policies may make this a self-fulfilling prophecy».
The ICG report warns, «President Rakhmon denies that the North African scenario of popular unrest and revolt could happen in Tajikistan. Despite the different circumstances, such confidence is questionable. Tajikistan is so vulnerable that a small, localized problem could quickly spiral into a threat to the regime’s existence».
This line of argument when taken to its logical conclusion may seem a contrived attempt to build up the case that the unrest in Gorno-Badakhshan is a concern not only for Rakhmon but also for the global security in general. But this is not entirely the stuff of Western propaganda, either.
Indeed, the authoritarian regimes in Central Asia might get overthrown in a tsunami of people’s anger and frustration. It seems increasingly a matter of time, given the lack of any signs of genuine reform. And if or when that happens, the high probability is that the Islamists will take advantage of the upheaval. The Islamists in Central Asia have organized themselves well over the years and they do enjoy a significant level of popular support at least in three countries – Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Ferghana Valley, which has a dismal record of poverty, unemployment and repression, is a veritable breeding ground of Islamist radicals threatening regional stability.
There are several Islamist movements operating in the Central Asian region at present apart from Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is the most important – Akromiya, Hizb un-Nusrut, Tablighi Jamaat, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Islamic Jihad Movement, United Opposition of Tajikistan, etc. They all prioritize the overthrow of the current regimes although they may have different programs and different methods. There is bound to be outside influence on these Islamist groups.
This external dimension is manifestly at work in similar theatres in the «Greater Middle East» such as Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Syria. Thus, the ongoing discourse between the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the United States is of profound interest to the future politics of Central Asia. Equally, a distinction needs to be drawn between the US and its Persian Gulf allies – Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in particular.
The Saudis have never been comfortable with the Muslim Brotherhood, whereas the US has committed resources on the movement and believes that it will be the dominant movement of the future in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is extremely wary of the threat posed by the Brotherhood’s agenda of the «Islamic Caliphate» to the regime. A prominent Saudi editor and establishment commentator, Mshari Al-Zaydi recently wrote,
«The dream of establishing the Islamic Caliphate is a dream that has been in the blood of the Muslim Brotherhood from the beginning, and it is the ‘sacred spear’, which they raise against their opponents, and via which they attract supporters who are moved by such imperial dream. This is precisely the way that dreams of the Third Reich moved Hitler’s supporters, or the Roman dreams of Il Duce Mussolini moved the public in Italy… We are facing an epic revolutionary trend that is haunted by historical delusions… Thus, let those good people who chant innocently about democracy and civil society, and those who subscribe to the policy of ‘wait and see’, have mercy on us! The issue is far more dangerous and complicated than the fleeting understanding of the situation».
In the Central Asian context, therefore, the spectre that is haunting the regimes is not so much the Afghan Taliban as the phenomenal rise of the Hizb ut-Tahrir in the recent years. The Hizb e-Tahrir is, roughly speaking, the equivalent of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood in the political milieu of the Central Asian region. Significantly, the US has so far drawn a careful line of distinction that there is nothing to show Hizb e-Tahrir having links with international terrorism – although the movement is proscribed in over a dozen countries in Europe and Eurasia, Pakistan and the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Interestingly, the movement’s main base happens to be Western Europe, especially Britain.
This is where geopolitics comes in. At the end of the day, a major expansion of the US influence in Central Asia cannot take place as long as the current regimes remain in power. With the present regimes, the US has to be satisfied with maintaining only transactional relationships, which will fall far short of exercising dominant influence. On the other hand, the experience of Tunisia and Egypt shows the potential for «regime change» through Islamist parties that are open to US influence.
Considering the absence of any form of democratic opposition in the Central Asian political landscape (with the noble exception of Kyrgyzstan, perhaps), US will view the Islamist groups – Hizb e-Tahrir in particular – as the vehicles of change. The Russian commentators who ponder over the post-2014 scenario for Central Asia will be needlessly tying themselves in knots by focusing on the old paradigm of a civil war erupting in Afghanistan and that country’s ethnic fault lines widening or the of Afghanistan’s neighboring countries such as Tajikistan, Russia, Iran or India preparing to sponsor a proxy war in Afghanistan.
Right side of history
No regional power will risk a confrontation with the US, which a proxy war in Afghanistan will entail. However, what is likely to unfold in the post-2014 period could be of far greater consequence for the Muslim majority areas all across the Eurasian heartland from Azerbaijan in the west to Xinjiang in the east than a mere spillover from Afghanistan. The real strategic challenge for the major regional powers, therefore, is to position themselves somehow on the «right side of history» or at the every least not to vacate that space and leave it to the US to monopolize. In other words, what is needed is a holistic strategy on the part of Russia, which has special interests to protect and a high responsibility to safeguard regional stability, as well as on the part of China before the genie of democratic reforms escapes from the bottle in Central Asia. Currently, the narrative is that Shanghai Cooperation Organization ensures regional stability in Central Asia.
To be sure, the US already visualizes the paradigm shift in the post-2014 period. Earlier in the month of July, «one of the largest Congressional delegations ever to Central Asia» set out from Washington. As the US assistant secretary of state Robert Blake put it during a hearing at the US House Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington last week, «Central Asia is an increasingly important region to the United States… The countries of Central Asia are an important part of our vision of a secure and stable Afghanistan integrated into a stable, secure, and prosperous region… 2014 makes our engagement with Central Asia even more critical». With regard to Tajikistan, Blake added,
«The United States is concerned about Tajikistan’s continuing efforts to limit human rights, including religious freedom and media freedoms. While we recognize the government’s desire to promote security and prevent violent extremism, long-term peace and stability are only possible when accompanied by respect for human rights, the rule of law, the fostering of transparent and democratic governmental and civic institutions, and an open and unrestricted media environment. We continue to encourage Tajikistan to protect religious freedom, and to respect media freedom and refrain from interference in the media sector».
Without doubt, the US has been paying focused attention to the internal situation in Tajikistan, estimating that it is going to be the pivotal country. The US commentators do not buy the thesis that Tajikistan faces an existential threat from Islamist militancy. In a lengthy dispatch recently, New York Times wrote, «Possible militant incursions into Tajikistan have put the government here [in Dushanbe] increasingly on edge… In the past year, Tajik forces have raided the craggy mountain hideouts of suspected militant leaders, arresting or killing several. Yet, the extent of the militant threat is unclear. The authoritarian governments of Central Asia have long used the specter of Islamic radicalism to justify crackdowns on dissent. Despite the fears… movement by Afghan militants into Tajikistan is still rare. Rather, much of the violence that spills across the border is associated with the thriving trade in drugs, mostly heroin».
Actually, there are no serious takers in the western opinion that the current events in Gorno-Badakhshan have much to do with militancy. The common view is that the murdered security official and his alleged killer were more likely to have been competitors in drug smuggling. But then, Ayombekov also happens to be the younger brother of Abdulamon («Lyosha the Hunchback») who is a famous Pamiri warlord with links to Afghan militants. The Ferghana news agency reported that Afghan Ismaili fighters in the Badakhshan region have volunteered to help their co-religionists in the Tajik Pamirs to counter the government forces. There are rumors that Aymbekov himself may have crossed the border and taken refuge in Afghanistan.
Rakhmon met the Afghan interior minister and intelligence chief last Thursday and he also discussed the situation in Gorno-Badakhshan with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Evidently, the 1300- kilometer long Tajik-Afghan border is today practically open and Tajikistan’s (or Afghanistan’s) border control cannot do much about it. There is great urgency to amicably conclude the negotiations over the future of the Russian military bases in Tajikistan.
In sum, everything points toward a highly complex security matrix. On the one hand, western experts say Moscow is merely crying «wolf» to frighten Dushanbe, whereas, there is no real militant threat or spillover from Afghanistan. On the other hand, they say, Dushanbe also has learnt from Moscow’s bag of tricks and is raising an Islamist bogey in order to deflect attention from its failings.
The western experts finger point at the Tajik regime for being repressive and insensitive and responsible for the instability. At the same time, the US has also been hoping to establish military bases or «lily pads» in Tajikistan and to create depots for storing weapons for use in any crisis by secretly bargaining with the very same allegedly decrepit regime.
In the highly competitive strategic environment, the US has been systematically undercutting Russia’s own attempts at regional integration within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. And all this while tens of thousands of US troops, including combat troops, are preparing for open-ended stay in Afghanistan and the NATO’s shadows are steadily lengthening in the Central Asian steppes. The Gorno-Badakhshan events couldn’t have had a more cataclysmic regional backdrop.