Dushanbe (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The army’s defeat by rebels in the Rasht Valley on 19 September has laid bare Tajikistan’s fragility and the weakness of its president. Above all, it has shaken public confidence in the government and its policies. This raises questions about US and NATO strategy of establishing partnerships in the region and stabilising the situation in Afghanistan.
Official sources report that on 19 September a Tajik military column was attacked in the Komarob Gorge, Rasht Valley. Some 28 soldiers were killed and another 25 were injured. The attackers were led by Alovuddin Davlatov (aka Ali Bedak), a former field commander during the civil war of the nineties, and included Islamic radicals and local clans marginalised by the government in recent years.
Such a union is very dangerous because these groups are in control of a large area of the Rasht Valley, and have significant following in the local population. Since the end of the civil war in 1997, the valley has largely been a no-go area for the government and a transit route for narcotics.
Stung by the attack, the army mounted a counteroffensive on 22-24 September, claiming eight dead among the rebels.
For a long time, the Rasht Valley has been a safe haven for anti-government forces. However, in May 2009, the army moved into the area (with perhaps 2,000 troops) and since then clashes have followed on a regular basis with dozens of dead and arrests, including Ali Bedak’s brother, a prominent leader in the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan.
Now, civil war veterans who refused to accept the 1997 peace agreement are tempted to join local leaders, al-Qaeda-connected radical Islamists and Chechen rebels against the government.
An escalation of the armed conflict is a major threat to the army, which might not be able to control the situation, the more so considering that the government of President Rahmon must cope with a worsening economic crisis and a growing number of hungry people as well as accusations that it is excessively authoritarian. All this encourages the development of a radical Muslim opposition.
The country’s international position does not help either since it borders Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan, both of which have their own domestic troubles, and has bad relations with Uzbekistan and a very difficult relationship with Russia.
Under the circumstances, problems in remote parts of the Rasht Valley could explode and engulf the whole country in another civil war.
Both the United States and NATO have logistical bases in Tajikistan and in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, which serve as transits point to Afghanistan. Growing instability would threaten their strategy of using these bases as safe havens and resupply centres for their forces in Afghanistan.
Washington offered to set up an anti-terrorist training centre in the country to increase US presence and ensure greater stability. Russia is opposed in order to maintain its privileged relations with the former Soviet republic and remain the paramount power in former Soviet Central Asia.
Moreover, Russia but also Tajikistan as well as the other Central Asian nations and China, are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). For Moscow, closer military co-operation in SCO is a priority.
The country’s growing instability and the weakening of Tajikistan’s pro-western President Rahmon could help Moscow strengthen its role as guarantor of stability, and justify a greater Russian military presence at the expense of NATO and the United States.
However, a number of observers are sceptical about Russia’s capacity since it has failed so far to contain, let alone beat, Islamic radicalism within its own borders. Instead, a weaker Tajik government could open the way for a military victory by local groups, with unpredictable results for the entire region.