Tajikistan: The Most Failed State You Know Least About

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Of the five Central Asian “stans” straddling the crossroads between China and the Middle East, Russia and South Asia, Tajikistan seems easy to overlook. It doesn’t have Uzbekistan’s large population and historic cities, nor Kyrgyzstan’s jumble of U.S. and Russian military bases, nor Kazakhstan’s vast reserves of natural gas. But Tajikistan does have a 1,400 km border with Afghanistan, a (relatively) long history of Islamist insurgency and an inept, kleptocratic government that, say some observers, barely knows what’s going on within its borders.

An excellent report published this week by the International Crisis Group, a global non-profit that seeks to prevent and resolve conflicts, illustrates the depths of the dysfunction in a country “with ever shifting skeins of loyalties and interests.” From the organization’s press release:

“Tajikistan is increasingly incapable of providing basic services to its population”, says Paul Quinn-Judge, Crisis Group Central Asia Project Director [and a former Moscow bureau chief for TIME]. “Corruption remains at a breathtaking level; and recent unsuccessful military operations in the east of the country against warlords and a small group of young insurgents underline its inability to handle even a modest security threat.”

At the eye of the storm is Emomali Rahmon, the Soviet-style strongman who has been Tajikistan’s President since 1992. He withstood a five-year bloody civil war with Islamists that ended in 1997 and has retained power through the region’s usual authoritarian bag of tricks: a band of crony-apparatchiks, censorship of both the country’s media and mosques, and by cutting cynical, flimsy deals with erstwhile enemies. A 2010 U.S. diplomatic cable sums up Tajikistan’s endemic graft:

From the President down to the policeman on the street, government is characterized by cronyism and corruption. Rahmon and his family control the country’s major businesses, including the largest bank, and they play hardball to protect their business interests, no matter the cost to the economy writ large. As one foreign ambassador summed up, President Rahmon prefers to control 90% of a ten-dollar pie rather than 30% of a hundred-dollar pie.

The consequence is a country where reliable information is often impossible to come by, where foreign development aid often gets siphoned away from vital projects, and where soldiers bribe their officers to not have to report to duty. It’s a country that’s ever teetering on the brink of failure. And the ICG report now raises the specter of a resurgent, volatile Islamist insurgency, bubbling through the cracks in this collapsing state.

Large tracts of this mountainous nation of 8 million are barely controlled by Rahmon’s regime. In the strategic Rasht valley and other corners of Tajikistan, old rebel Islamists and newer insurgent factions have been existing outside of the government’s orbit for quite some time. These possibly include the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an al-Qaeda linked organization, which despite its name, now operates mostly in the border regions of Afghanistan. I wrote in 2009 of the troubles then, as Tajikistan faced not only an influx of Taliban-sympathetic fighters (some IMU) fleeing a crackdown in Pakistan, but also a flood of unemployed laborers, returning in the wake of the Great Recession:

 The recession has badly hit the region, with shrinking job markets in richer nations like Russia and Kazakhstan sending thousands of migrant workers home to poorer ones, such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. What promises to be a very bleak year for many Central Asian households has only amplified questions over the stability of the region as a whole.

Some analysts suggest social unrest may mix with the turmoil of Taliban insurgencies further south… Since May, the Tajik government has locked down the country’s Rasht Valley, ostensibly as part of an anti-drugs operation, but also, say experts, in a bid to crack down on local Islamist-leaning warlords. In some parts of Central Asia, the ruling autocratic regimes exercise only a frail reach beyond their capitals. “You get outside Dushanbe,” says Eric McGlinchey, a Central Asia specialist at George Mason University in Virginia, “and anything goes.”

What’s anything? How about drug smuggling. Tajikistan’s porous border with Afghanistan now provides a major conduit for narcotics trafficked to the West — this includes an estimated 95 metric tons of heroin a year, one quarter of Afghanistan’s output. Moreover, the ICG report suggests that elements within Rahmon’s regime have been profiting from the smuggling, deliberately making Tajik vigilance along the border — which was never that great — even weaker.

The ICG recommends that the U.S., China, and Russia, three powers who have a host of interests in the country ranging from the strategic to the economic (Tajikistan’s rivers are to be the site of a number of mega hydro-projects), help with border security and intelligence gathering. All three countries have let the ghost of Islamist militancy in Central Asia shape their strategy of supporting authoritarian regimes in the region. But in Tajikistan, as in elsewhere, it’s the heavy-handedness of the country’s ex-Soviet, secular leadership in suppressing perceived political and religious dissent that drives some people into the arms of extremist groups. The ICG’s Quinn-Judge pictures the roots of a deepening crisis:

Tajikistan is so vulnerable that a small, localised problem could quickly spiral into a threat to the regime’s existence. The speed with which the popular mood can move from passivity to anger has been demonstrated not just in the Middle East, but much closer to home, in Kyrgyzstan last year. Tajikistan is not immune.