Twenty years after a destructive civil war, Tajikistan is potentially facing renewed conflict. The country's military is reportedly deploying troops to the eastern city of Khorugh in preparation for a special operation there, according to opposition sources in Tajikistan. During a meeting with local officials in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region — the capital of which is Khorugh — on Sept. 15, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon criticized local leaders for their failure to crack down on criminal and drug-trafficking groups in the region, giving them a one-month deadline to "establish order." Rahmon also reportedly replaced many of the top regional posts during his visit, including four deputy regional governors, the head of the regional police department and the head of the regional court.
In its 2018 Annual Forecast, Stratfor wrote that Central Asia would be vulnerable to militancy because of the region's internal security concerns and its proximity to Afghanistan and Syria, noting that Russia and China would step up their security efforts in the region as a result. Recent attacks in Tajikistan and a potential military operation in the country confirm this forecast.
The developments come as opposition activist Sharofiddin Gadoev warned on Sept. 17 that the Tajik government was planning a military operation in the area that would include 3,500 national troops and 200 "foreign servicemen." Another Tajik opposition figure, Alim Sherzamonov, also said a "security crackdown" was occurring across the region. Though unconfirmed, such opposition sources have proved to be credible in the past in regards to military movements and security crackdowns — incidents that the government and state-run media have, unsurprisingly, an interest in keeping under wraps. And if the rumblings of operations are true, the ensuing conflict could very well draw in Tajikistan's bigger neighbors, Russia and China.
Why It Matters
The Gorno-Badakhshan is a strategic region, both due to its proximity to Afghanistan and because it has been a hotbed of government opposition since Tajikistan's civil war from 1992 to 1997. The region, which accounts for 45 percent of Tajikistan's land area but just 3 percent of its population, is a remote and mountainous area with little formal economic activity, yet it is also a key area for drug and weapons smuggling because of its long and porous border with Afghanistan. (Khorugh, in fact, abuts the border with Afghanistan's own Badakhshan province.) As a result, the town's smuggling channels and opposition to central rule have traditionally created tension between the government in Dushanbe, the capital, and the local population.
Indeed, the population of the autonomous region largely supported the United Tajik Opposition, which lost to the Rahmon-led Popular Front in the war, and Gorno-Badakhshan has never fully aligned with Dushanbe since hostilities ended. Tensions between the region and the government have occasionally boiled over into violence, such as when Tajik security forces conducted a military operation in the area in 2012 after the assassination of a provincial leader. The resulting clashes between security forces and the local Pamiri population led to the deaths of nearly 50 people. Accordingly, the reports of another large Tajik troop deployment in the region, as well as the replacement of many local political and security officials, could be a harbinger of another flare-up in the coming weeks.
The Region's Giants Enter the Fray
The Gorno-Badakhshan region has also gained greater importance because of the growing attention of Russia and China in the broader Tajik-Afghan border region. The recent appearance of more Islamic State militants and Taliban forces in northern Afghanistan has raised concerns that militancy could soon spread elsewhere in the region. Indeed, the Islamic State claimed a recent attack against foreign cyclists in Tajikistan, while the Taliban and Tajik security forces have also fought several border clashes in recent months.
Because Russia and China alike have no desire to see militancy from Gorno-Badakhshan spill over onto their own soil or overlapping spheres of influence in Central Asia, the two countries have increased their security involvement in the region. Russia, which has stationed 7,000 soldiers in Tajikistan at the 201st military base, has conducted military exercises with Tajik forces along the Tajik-Afghan border and even conducted helicopter airstrikes in one frontier clash against militants (something that Moscow has officially denied). In the meantime, China has also begun training Tajik troops while Afghanistan has confirmed that Beijing is helping Kabul construct a military base somewhere in Badakhshan province, close to the border with Tajikistan. (China, nevertheless, has also officially denied the report.) Although it is difficult to confirm the veracity of the reports on the base at present, China has conducted patrols in Afghanistan's Badakhshan region close to the Tajik border since at least 2016.
A potential flare-up in Gorno-Badakhshan could, therefore, affect both Russia and China's position in the region. Security operations could trigger a wider conflict and intensify militant activity that would undermine the interests of both countries and their counterterrorism efforts in Central Asia. From a political perspective, however, a potential flare-up could lay the foundation for greater collaboration between Moscow and Beijing in the region. Indeed, the two regional giants have already established a de facto division of labor in Central Asia in which Russia largely exercises military power while China mostly wields economic power; both countries, in turn, collaborate on counterterrorism.
As Tajikistan sits on the threshold of renewed violence, it can take comfort that it is likely to escape any return to civil war, as Moscow and Beijing are certain to back Dushanbe's efforts to quell any major disturbance in Gorno-Badakhshan. Nevertheless, another flare-up in the autonomous region could come with much higher stakes than in 2012 — especially as such a conflict would draw two of Eurasia's strongest powers into the region even further.
What to Watch For
In the coming weeks, the following factors will be key to determining whether the military buildup in Gorno-Badakhshan presages a quiet security crackdown or ignites larger clashes in the region:
- Tajik military movements and security sweeps in the region, as well as clashes with local Pamiri forces in Khorugh and surrounding areas.
- Any militant attacks in Gorno-Badakhshan or other parts of Tajikistan against government/security forces.
- Any confirmation or elaboration on the "foreign servicemen" who are expected to take part in the security operation. Such soldiers are likely to be Russian, as there are no other foreign troops currently based in Tajikistan.
- Any Russian troop deployments to the region. Russian motorized infantry units are currently conducting a counterterrorism exercise in Tajikistan at the Lyaur training ground in Khatlon province. The exercise is running from Sept. 24 to Sept. 28 with the participation of 600 troops and 80 pieces of military hardware.
- While unlikely, any potential movement of Chinese troops, who have been reported to transit through Tajikistan to Afghanistan.
- Any official comments from Russia and China on Tajikistan's military operations and foreign involvement. So far, both Moscow and Beijing have remained silent on the issue.