by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.On 29 July 2018, Tajikistan experienced its worst terrorist attack in the 17 years since it gained independence from the Soviet Union. In that attack, five militants, who had sworn allegiance in a video to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), struck a group of international cyclists with a car and then proceeded to stab the survivors with knives, before local police arrived on the scene, killing four of the militants and arresting one. As a result of the attack, two Americans, one Swiss citizen, and one Dutch citizen were killed, while three others – one Swiss, one Dutch, and one French – were injured. The attack was carried out in Danghara District, near the hometown of Emomali Rahmon, who has been President of Tajikistan since 1992.
Whether the location was important to the planners of the attack is not known, though the authorities have been quick to blame the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) for this targeting of tourists, portraying it as an effort to undermine President Rahmon’s international credibility. The IRPT was one of the parties which formed the United Tajik Opposition during the Tajik Civil War, a conflict waged between 1992 and 1997 amid regional and ethnic rivalries and in protest against the perceived authoritarianism of President Rahmon. The conflict resulted in the deaths of 25,000 to 100,000 people, mainly from Tajikistan but also Taliban fighters from neighbouring Afghanistan, before peace talks in Moscow led to the cessation of hostilities and the legalization of the IRPT, which soon came to be the second largest political party in the country. The IRPT continued to participate in Tajikistan’s democratic process until, amid a campaign of harassment from the authorities, the party was abruptly banned in 2015 from all future elections and was designated as a terrorist organization.
In this context, it is doubtful that the IRPT was somehow involved in the attack and so the claim of responsibility by ISIS should be accepted as the most plausible explanation for the targeting of these cyclists. This presents some concerns for the integrity of the Tajik state, as the Afghan affiliate of ISIS, which refers to itself as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province (ISIS-KP), has come under increased pressure from both the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and the Taliban. A rash of bombings and other attacks across northern Afghanistan indicate that ISIS-KP is worried about potential peace talks amid the other Afghan factions and the resulting isolation this would create for the terrorist organization. Were ISIS to find itself locked out of a political solution to the more than 17-year conflict in Afghanistan, its few thousand fighters could be displaced to Tajikistan, from where it could launch further attacks or attempt to seize power in that country.
The attack on July 30th demonstrates how ill-prepared Tajikistan is to combat ISIS. The Tajik National Army is poorly trained and equipped, comprised largely of former militias that fought on both sides of the 1992-1997 Civil War. United States National Guard units, particularly from Virginia, have conducted joint training exercises with the Tajik National Army for several years in an effort to develop a competent roster of non-commissioned officers in Tajikistan, but this is an endeavour which will take many more years to reach fruition, as command structures in the Tajik military remain highly centralized. Furthermore, Tajikistan’s Border Service is poorly equipped and rife with corruption, as documented by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), allowing for the trafficking of substantial quantities of narcotics and firearms across the border with Afghanistan. A concerted effort by ISIS fighters to infiltrate Tajikistan would clearly not encounter much resistance.
Neighbouring countries, however, appear keenly aware of Tajikistan’s fragility. In October, Tajikistan will play host to joint exercises by rapid reaction forces from the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, organized under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) approximately 15 kilometres from the Tajik-Afghan border. Two weeks prior to the aforementioned ISIS attack, Russian and Tajik troops also held exercises explicitly intended to help prepare Tajikistan for the detection and interdiction of militants attempting to cross into the country from Afghanistan. China, however, has been largely missing from the effort to develop Tajik capabilities. In October 2016, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) held large-scale counter-terrorism exercises with the Tajik National Army, involving more than 10,000 troops from the two sides, near the border with Afghanistan. But China seems unwilling, or unable, to assist in the sustained work of developing a modern, professional military force to defend Tajikistan.This is surprising as China shares a 414-kilometre border with the Central Asian state, and the collapse of state institutions in Tajikistan would inevitably have a destabilizing effect on China’s Xinjiang province. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which seeks to establish an independent Islamic state concentrated on Xinjiang, would have greater maneuverability in its operations were it to find sanctuary in a Tajik state governed by a like-minded party, though it might not find much in terms of shared resources with ISIS-KP, given that ETIM’s focus would be on Tajikistan’s eastern border with China while ISIS-KP would remain concentrated on the southern border with Afghanistan. But there is certainly a precedent for such a “live and let live” partnership, such as the Taliban’s decision to host and offer sanctuary in Afghanistan to al-Qaeda in the mid-1990s.
China’s relative lack of engagement in Tajikistan may simply be due to suspicion of President Rahmon’s strategic intentions. In 2011, Tajikistan ratified a deal, originally negotiated in 1999, which ceded 1,000 square kilometres of territory in the Pamir mountain range to China and demarcated much of the border. With a competently trained and well-equipped military, perhaps China worries, President Rahmon could just as well attempt to reclaim this ceded territory and fuel instability in nearby Xinjiang as he could combat ISIS and drug traffickers. The Chinese leadership may have assessed the current situation and determined that the least risk would be in allowing other regional partners to bolster Tajikistan’s security and then only intervene militarily if ISIS-KP does in fact establish sufficient presence to formally seize Tajik territory.
Regardless, the brazen attack on foreign tourists in Danghara is a worrying development in a volatile region. More will need to be done by the international community to ensure that the ISIS threat is contained as that group seeks purchase elsewhere.