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Does Eastern Tajikistan Fighting Have Wider Implications?

By John MacLeod

Tajik government forces this week continued to search for armed militants who killed 25 soldiers in one attack in September.

IWPR Senior Editor John MacLeod explains why recent clashes between armed locals and Tajikistan’s security forces are a lot more than an obscure local conflict.

Tajikistan has seemed pretty quiet over recent years, so why this sudden outbreak of fighting?

It started when the Tajik government sent troops deep into the eastern mountains to track down a group of 25 men who escaped from a high-security prison in August. A convoy of vehicles was driving through a mountain gorge when it was hit by what seems to have been a fairly coordinated ambush on September 19.

The attackers seem to be men from this area, followers of powerful local figures who used to command guerrilla forces that fought against the government in a five-year civil war in the 1990s.

After the conflict ended in 1997, the opposition guerrillas were mostly disarmed and a lot of their leaders were given official jobs as part of the deal. One of the men alleged to have been behind the recent attack, for example, was working as a local police chief until a couple of years ago. But they seem to have become alienated from central government over recent years, and motivated enough by this anger to regroup and arm some of the ex-combatants around them. 

There was a similar stand-off with government security forces last year, and although that settled down, this renewed fighting shows there’s serious potential for instability here.

The complicating factor is that the civil-era opposition has a strongly Islamist colouring to it, and there are suspicions this resurgence in violence is being encouraged or assisted by radical groups outside the country. 

Afghanistan is situated close by – is there any connection?

Almost certainly. The prime suspect is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, which despite its name has operated in Tajikistan, then Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s sometimes dismissed as a bit of a myth, a bugbear created by governments in Central Asia as a way of justifying repressive policies. But it does appear to still exist as a cohesive militant force, with close ties to both the Afghan and Pakistani Taleban. And over the past year or so, numbers of IMU men have been spotted in north-east Afghanistan, right on the border with Tajikistan. 

That’s a porous frontier and – for someone who knows this rough terrain – a short hop to the parts of eastern Tajikistan we’re talking about.

Now, a spokesman for the IMU has said it played a key part in the ambush of Tajik soldiers. That might be a bit of self-promotion, but it seems more than possible that the local Tajik commanders involved in these clashes have been in some kind of contact with the IMU. There’s a common history here – during the Tajik civil war, a group of Uzbek Islamists were fighting on the opposition side, and they went on to become the IMU.

Should we be worried that Tajikistan will relapse into civil war?

Not immediately. But if the IMU connection is proved, we should be concerned that the group may be seeking to find local allies and exacerbate frictions with the government as a way of re-inserting itself into Central Asia, where it mounted armed raids on Uzbekistan and southern Kyrgyzstan in 1999 and 2000. And given the IMU’s Taleban connections, and the fact that Tajikistan has been supportive of the international military operation in Afghanistan, that would begin to look like a deliberate insurgent strategy of spreading the conflict northwards.

There’s also the situation in Kyrgyzstan to consider. The south of the country – a region which again is quite close to these Tajik mountain regions – has a big Uzbek community which was involved in a brief but brutal conflict with the ethnic Kyrgyz there over the summer. 

There is a strong Islamic tradition in southern Kyrgyzstan, so although the ethnic clashes had no sectarian overtones, the climate of fear and mistrust and the sense of a vacuum of governance there could provide fertile ground for a radical group seeking to establish a foothold in the Fergana valley, at the heart of Central Asia where Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan meet.

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