Sunday’s attack was one of the deadliest clashes between militants and the Tajik government since the Central Asian country’s civil war ended in 1997. The last comparable attack was in 1998, when militants ambushed a battalion of Interior Ministry troops just outside Dushanbe, killing 20 and kidnapping 110. Sunday’s incident was preceded by a Sept. 3 attack on a police station that involved a suicide operative and a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) in the northwest Tajik city of Khujand that killed four police officers. Suicide attacks are rare in Tajikistan, and VBIEDs even more so. The Khujand attack also stands out as it occurred outside militant territory. Khujand, Tajikistan’s second-largest city after the capital, is located at the mouth of the Fergana Valley, the largest population center in Central Asia.
This represents a noticeable increase in the number and professionalism of militant operations in Tajikistan. Regardless of whether the September attacks can be directly linked to the Aug. 24 jailbreak in Dushanbe, the sudden re-emergence of attacks in Tajikistan after a decade of quiet in Central Asia deserves our attention. In short, something is percolating in the valleys of Central Asia that has reawakened militant groups more or less dormant for a decade. This unrest will likely continue and possibly grow if Tajik security forces can’t get control of the situation.
…The past has shown that violence in one country can quickly spread to its neighbors. Thus, while Uzbekistan has largely mitigated the militant threat through strict security measures, it remains vulnerable due to its proximity to the chaotic countries of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and the geographically distorted borders around the Fergana Valley.
The Afghan question also looms large. With the United States and NATO set to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in less than a year, Central Asian countries will face a much less restrained Taliban in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s relative weakness in northern Afghanistan will mitigate this threat, but the region will nonetheless be in limbo after NATO withdraws. For their part, Central Asia’s militants hope the Western withdrawal and the hoped-for Taliban rise to power will restore Afghanistan as a militant safe haven from which to pursue their home-country ambitions. And this prospect, of course, makes Central Asian governments quite uneasy.
Complicating matters, Russia is moving to protect its interests in Central Asia by moving up to 25,000 troops to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to increase security at its military installations there. Central Asian states are looking to balance their security needs in light of a destabilizing Afghanistan by accepting more Russian troops.
Between increasing militant activity in Tajikistan after years of relative quiet, the impending Western withdrawal from Afghanistan and a resurgent Russia, Central Asia faces challenging times ahead.