Badakhshan-Tajikistan Clashes Risk Sparking Insurgency

The response by the Tajik government to the murder of a security official last week — sending troops into the capital of Gorno-Badakhshan — may cause more harm than they anticipated.

Major General Abdullo Nazarov, the head of the regional branch of the State Committee on National Security (formerly the KGB) was apparently stabbed to death on July 22. Two days later, Tajik troops marched into Khorugh, nominally seeking to arrest Tolib Ayombekov, the head of a border post on the Afghan-Tajik frontier and an opposition commander during Tajikistan’s 1992-1997 civil war, who has been accused of the general’s murder.

Last Wednesday, a ceasefire was declared but the two sides remain at an impasse. Ayombekov’s forces refuse to surrender their weapons or their leader while the Tajik government, headed by autocratic President Emomalii Rahmon, is not perceivably ready to “save face by collecting some weapons and withdrawing.”

Andrei Grozin, head of the Central Asia Department at the CIS Institute in Moscow, was quoted as saying that “any campaign that does not end quickly risks getting bogged down in the harsh mountain winter.”

A letter confirmed accurate by sources close to EurasiaNet paints a grim picture in Khorugh, effectively held hostage by the cease fire.

99 percent of local people support these commanders. It’s a small town. Everyone is related. Everyone is family, friends. There is not a specific group the government is fighting: All local men are involved.

Reports on casualties are varied. Government figures estimate seventeen troops, thirty militants and one civilian while other estimates are higher — particularly concerning civilian deaths. Opposition sources cite two hundred overall casualties.

The most recent reports out of the region are inconsistent. Reuters reported that some rebels have begun to surrender after government threats to resume their assault but the report has not been picked up or corroborated by other news sources and only cites Tajik government officials. The situation remains tense in any event.

The shutting off of Internet, mobile and telephone services to the region makes it all the more difficult to decipher precisely what is happening. Early in the conflict, authorities severed access to YouTube in particular and as of Sunday, the websites of at least one Russian television channel and the BBC were blocked. Read more “Badakhshan-Tajikistan Clashes Risk Sparking Insurgency”

Russian-Tajikistan Base Deal Revealed Prematurely

Russian Ground Forces commander Vladimir Chirkin said recently that Russia and Tajikistan will soon achieve “results that will be advantageous for both sides” from the protracted talks between the two on the fate of Russia’s military base near the capital of Dushanbe.

Chirkin went on to claim that the draft agreement allows for Russian retention of the base for 49 years, rent free, as it has been for the past decade.

The Tajik Foreign Ministry, however, stated that General Chirkin’s claims were “premature” and “groundless,” stressing that negotiations continue behind closed doors.

Tajik foreign minister Khamorokhon Zarifi indicated in a statement on Monday that the negotiations were progressing. He was disparaging about Russian defense officials revealing details of the talks to the public, saying that “in a normal, law governed state, there is a specific responsibility for these actions, as this is disclosure of state secrets and important information.” Read more “Russian-Tajikistan Base Deal Revealed Prematurely”

Uzbekistan Turns Into American Ally in Central Asia

Two successful visits from State Secretary Hillary Clinton and a visit of the Uzbek parliamentary delegation to the United States point to an establishment of increasingly close ties between the two states.

The United States seek to cement their relationship with Uzbekistan, a valuable strategic ally in the region, in order to reopen a transit point on Uzbek territory. The United States aim to keep some military personnel and equipment in Central Asia after the anticipated withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan and, as such, Washington is conducting bilateral talks with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. All three are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, with headquarters in Moscow. The United States’ bilateral strategic cooperation with either of these states would require the consent of the CSTO. Read more “Uzbekistan Turns Into American Ally in Central Asia”

Turkey Deepens Imprint in Central Asia

By adding Turkey as a partner and Afghanistan as an observer, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization pushed forward with its initiative to strengthen the regional powers’ ability to combat terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking.

Turkey has been a major factor in Central Asia’s development in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse and has expressed interest in creating even stronger ties with the region.

Turkey and Afghanistan will be an asset for Central Asia as it struggles to overcome and destroy the expansive drug trade that is undermining national institutions. By increasing aspects of cooperation, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization hopes that regional interdependence will grow and the region will be able to modernize.

Although much of its involvement in Afghanistan has been as a part of the largely Western coalition operating in the country, Turkey has taken a leadership role in many aspects of NATO operations and has stated that it will pursue independent, close political ties with Afghanistan even after the rest of the coalition packs up and heads home.

As a new SCO dialogue partner, Turkey has expressed particular concern about curtailing international terrorism in the region, as well as crimes such as human and drug trafficking. Read more “Turkey Deepens Imprint in Central Asia”

Turkmenistan Finally Puts the “T” in TAPI

On Wednesday Turkmenistan finally signed agreements with India and Pakistan’s state energy companies to clear the way for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline.

TAPI was conceptualized in the 1990s and has been beset with a multitude of problems since. Wednesday’s announcement removes a major obstacle for the TAPI project but many more remain.

The pipeline would begin in Turkmenistan’s vast gasfields. Initial TAPI plans called for the source to be the Dauletabad field in southern Turkmenistan. More recent plans indicate that a portion of TAPI would come from the yet to be developed South Yolotan field near the Afghan border. Read more “Turkmenistan Finally Puts the “T” in TAPI”

No Good Ways Out of Afghanistan

Western forces looking to exit Afghanistan over the next two years are playing a game of roulette, looking for the luckiest and cheapest way out of the warzone. Central Asian countries are scrambling to be the most attractive bet. Difficult and still closed, the road through Pakistan remains the preferred route.

Afghanistan’s neighbors stand to make huge profits as NATO countries move to withdraw their troops and equipment. Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan will remain under American control until the war is over but the base cannot handle all of the equipment which NATO forces must remove from the region. Land routes are numerous but difficult for a variety of reasons and Central Asia is poised to cash in on the scramble to depart.

Additionally, Central Asian states are more submissive to Russia than America. Russia and the United States have recently begun to negotiate a “retrograde transit” agreement to use the Northern Distribution Network but the Kremlin may well seek to exploit the deal in order to achieve its aims elsewhere.

There are numerous options for getting into and alternatively out of Afghanistan but none are perfect bets.

The Pakistan route is the easiest and the cheapest but unreliable. In late November 2011, Pakistan closed the border to NATO traffic in protest after an American airstrike killed nearly thirty Pakistani soldiers by accident. The border is still closed and Pakistan obstinate about reopening it without an American apology.

The Northern Distribution Network was developed by the Americans as an alternative to the Pakistan route but there are signs that its gatekeeper Uzbekistan will seek to raise transit fees. While Uzbekistan has by far the best road and railroad network among Afghanistan’s neighbors, its price gouging will prompt NATO powers to seek additional alternate routes.

The trouble is that difficult and pernicious as Pakistan and Uzbekistan can be, alternative land routes through Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are even more troublesome. Bad roads and bad winters are only where the problems begin.

There is discussion of selling some equipment to the Central Asian republics and thus removing the need to transport such equipment out of the region on NATO’s dime. In February, British armed forces minister Nick Harvey suggested trading military equipment for favorable transit fees. He alluded to the unspecified equipment as being potentially useful in Central Asia’s battle with narcotics and terrorism.

The United States have been more circumspect about leaving military equipment in the hands of Central Asian autocrats. Robert Blake, the American assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs said that arms transfers to countries along the Northern Distribution Network would be subject to the same restrictions that apply to regular arms transfers. Thus far, the Americans have been unwilling to sell any weapons to Uzbekistan, which has a less than pristine human rights record.

The bottom line is that Pakistan holds the lucky numbers. The average shipping cost of a container, as reported by Radio Free Europe, from Afghanistan to Karachi is $7,200. By northern routes shipping the same container would cost $17,500. When Pakistan decides to reopen the road to NATO convoys, it is likely to be at a higher price but still able to undercut the Central Asian route.

Money, power and politics all play a part in this game of supply route roulette. Money is on Pakistan and it is doubtful that by 2014 NATO powers will be interested in taking the longer, more expensive road through authoritarian Central Asia and into Russia’s arms. Islamabad will eventually reopen the border and happily usher the West out of its backyard.

Tajikistan: Between a Rock, a Hard Place and Iran

The head of United States Central Command, General James Mattis, held talks with Tajik president Emomalii Rahmon last Saturday to enlist commitments of continued support for American and NATO operations in neighboring Afghanistan.

Rahmon told Mattis that “Tajikistan would like to see further strengthening of the development of ties with the United States in the sphere of security and the establishment of peace and stability in the region.”

On Monday, Rahmon met with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad who came bearing promises of pipelines and railways during the fifth annual Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan.

Ahmedinijad came away from the talks pleased, telling reporters that Tajikistan and Iran are culturally “parts of the same body.”

Caught between the Americans, a thousand kilometer border with Afghanistan, and a cultural connection to Iran, Tajikistan is indeed stuck economically and politically between conflicting interests and allies.

Tajikistan is landlocked, mountainous, and the one of Central Asia’s poorest states. Its government is nominally a republic. In reality, Emomalii Rahmon has been ruling the one party dominant state since 1992.

A political survivor, Rahmon held on to power throughout the Tajik civil war of the 1990s and secured a third term in an election in 2006.

The country is dependent on Russia and Uzbekistan for energy. Its main sources of income are the aluminum industry, cotton growing and remittances from Tajiks working abroad.

Uzbekistan recently announced that it will be stopping the flow of gas into Tajikistan, reportedly in order to meet commitments to larger buyers such as China. Regional analysts believe there is more politics to the stoppage than practicality. Tajikistan’s gas demand annually equals about what Uzbekistan produces in a single day.

The Tajiks are looking for ways to diversify their energy sources and the Iranian promises sound tempting.

Iran and Tajikistan share a cultural and linguistic history but little else. Ideologically and politically they diverge and economically, neither can quite afford to pay for the Iranian promises.

Both countries are predominantly Muslim but Iran is a bombastic Shia bastion and Tajikistan mostly Sunni of the Central Asian persuasion.

Tajikistan is politically secular, as is the norm in Central Asia. Political secularism in the region derives from the Soviet system and is also influenced by Sufism and pre-Islamic regional history. The 2006 election was boycotted by “mainline” opposition parties such as the Islamic Renaissance Party, which receives moral support from Iran and is the only legal Islamic political party in Tajikistan.

To further illustrate the ideological divide, Tajikistan has been criticized by Iranian representatives for imposing “Islamaphobic rules on the population” such as banning the hijab and preventing underage children from attending mosque.

Ideological differences are complicating factors not deal breakers but Iran’s promises remain pipedreams because of economics and security.

Rahmon and Ahmedinijad, joined by Afghan president Hamid Karzai released a statement after talks in the Tajik capital city of Dushanbe which read that the three had “reached an understanding on how to cooperate more productively to accelerate construction of a railway from Iran to Tajikistan through Afghanistan.” They also announced plans to build an “energy line” across the three countries.

Delegations from Dushanbe and Kabul are scheduled to meet in Tehran in two months to discuss the implementation of the projects, according to the same statement from President Rahmon’s office.

The reality is that Tajikistan cannot afford the projects. The technical and security challenges of building a pipeline or railway across Afghanistan are unlikely to be easily surmounted. Iran, the target of multiple international sanctions because of its nuclear program, is also unlikely to be able to fund its promises or attract many investors for the risky venture.

Tajikistan is in a tight spot. Uzbekistan, reportedly irked by Tajik hydropower projects upstream, is squeezing the state by cutting off the gas supply.

Iran is under siege and scrounging for allies. It hopes to exploit the cultural connection with Tajikistan by offering promises which the Tajik government must realize are pipedreams.

The war in Afghanistan goes on and while the Americans plot their exit by 2014, they have made efforts to reenlist Central Asian support for the cause.

Medvedev Predicts Eurasian Union by 2015

Outgoing Russian president Dmitri Medvedev has given impetus to the Eurasian Union by declaring that it will be up and running in three years.

An idea that has been around the block several times, the union would encompass Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and have as observer countries Armenia, Moldova and Ukraine. The union would be one of a myriad of regional initiatives set up in the post-Soviet space. Whether there will be meaningful integration remains doubtful. Read more “Medvedev Predicts Eurasian Union by 2015”

China-Russia Rivalry Will Destroy SCO

Remember the Shanghai Cooperation Organization? The prime ministers of the North Asian countries united in this platform met in Saint Petersburg last week to discuss regional integration but as is becoming the norm at their summits, they agreed on nothing important.

David Cohen sums up the predicament of the SCO at The Diplomat.

Russia used the meeting to push for the accession of India and Iran to the regional organization while China talked economic integration and free trade with Central Asia — both pet initiatives that would dilute the other party’s power in the group and which have been stalled for years.

Chinese and Russian interests are increasingly divergent. In Central Asia, they will soon be competitors for access to oil and natural gas. Their relations with India are completely asymmetrical while their desire for an American presence in Eurasia is ambiguous.

China doesn’t mind that American troops are permanently stationed in Europe where the United States are also constructing a missile shield which will dilute Russia’s nuclear menace. The Russians, on the other hand, will not object to America’s burgeoning military presence in East Asia which serves as a balance against Chinese expansionism.

The two great powers do share a concern for separatism and terrorism in their respective backyards. Central Asia is home to a score of ethnicities that could reasonably be defined as “nations” except the states which they live in hardly reflect their ambitions. China and Russia would rather keep the political constellation as it is there lest separatist violence incite similar uprisings in the Caucasus, Tibet and Xinjiang.

Because of their different security concerns elsewhere, the two cannot very well cooperate in this regard as part of the SCO however. China hopes to use the organization as a vehicle for economic integration instead but this contradicts Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s hopes for an “Eurasian Union” that is led from Moscow.

If India or Iran were admitted, it could wreck the SCO completely, writes Cohen. Add a billion people democracy to the mix and “the group is unlikely ever to be able to agree on anything.” Add Iran and the SCO could be turned into a gigantic rival to NATO except China has no desire to assume responsibility for another rogue, potentially nuclear state.

So the SCO’s future looks grim. Without committed participation on the part of the Russians and the Chinese, there’s very little reason for the other member states to continue to keep up appearances. Their leaders will meet together ever now and then as they would otherwise meet bilaterally but in terms of global significance, the SCO will soon peter out.

India Opens the Afghanistan Gambit

While internally, India is caught up in civil unrest that could jeopardize the stability of its government, the country’s neighbors increasingly regard a powerful Indian presence in the region as in their own interest.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s state visit to India this month signaled a paradigm shift in Indo-Afghan relations. After nearly a decade of balancing relations with India and Pakistan, traditional rivals in South Asia, Kabul opted for a strategic partnership with New Delhi. The choice and its timing were largely inspired by the imminent withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.

The United States are planning to withdraw up to 30,000 soldiers from Afghanistan by the autumn of next year. In December, the first 10,000 are expected home. After the winding down of the Afghan surge, a supportive military presence will remain in Afghanistan up to 2014. But what after that?

India has shown itself a partner for regional stability by investing $1.2 billion in development projects in Afghanistan and facilitating the necessary nation building in the wartorn country. India paid a price for its help. Diplomats and aid personnel were killed in Afghanistan in attacks for which New Delhi has held Pakistan’s spy agency responsible. Pakistani intelligence is known to entertain relations with Afghan insurgents and wary of an Indian presence on both of its borders.

Despite the unpredictability and violence, India maintained its presence because it has a stake in a stable, democratic Afghanistan, unlike Islamabad. Pakistan would rather have a divided country, ruled by Islamists, to achieve “strategic depth” there.

Other regional actors, including Central Asian states and Iran, as well as the United States want to keep the Taliban out of power. This convergence of interests has served India well. Its relationships with Iran and the United States are both stable if not improving. The question now is what role New Delhi sees for itself in a postwar Afghanistan? The answer may be found in its “Look West” policy which aims to improve cooperation with countries across West Asia. Afghanistan could be a launchpad from which to boost India’s diplomatic and commercial relations with the Central Asian republics.

So far, India’s “Look West” policy hasn’t been as coordinated and successful as its “Look East” policy because New Delhi is restrained from pursuing relations across Central Asia and the Middle East by Pakistan. Similarly, its relations with the United States, though positive, haven’t developed significantly because the Americans need Pakistan’s support in their War on Terror.

American-Pakistani relations are deteriorating however as Washington is growing tired of the Afghan campaign and as revelations about the intrigues of Pakistan’s spy agency stir anti-Pakistan sentiments in the United States.

As Pakistan’s influence is eroding, there is a chance for India to jump into the vacuum that is Afghanistan and facilitate a comprehensive reconstruction effort, one that is supported by the neighboring states that have most at stake in the country, including Iran, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

The longer term aim for India could be to deny other great powers, notably China, a leadership position in Central Asia. Here, again, it finds itself at odds with Pakistan which is a Chinese client state.

The region north of Afghanistan will prove to be pivotal to the energy security of continental Asian powers soon. India can’t afford to slumber as usual but must design a strategy now.