News / Asia

Increasing Tajikistan Violence Worries Neighbors

James Brooke

A deadly ambush in a remote Tajikistan valley in Central Asia is sending shock waves all the way to Moscow.  

Helicopter gun ships thundered up valleys of the Pamir mountains looking for Islamic guerrillas who ambushed a military convoy, killing 25 soldiers and wounding another 20.  But this military search and destroy operation was not in Afghanistan, it was in its normally quiet northern neighbor, Tajikistan.

Observers worry that Afghanistan's deadly mix of Islamic fundamentalism and drug trading is spilling into Tajikistan, the poorest of the five Central Asian nations that once were Soviet republics.

Professor Kevin Jones has traveled extensively through Tajikistan:

"These are still incredibly porous borders, and there are numerous places where it is quite easy for groups, organizations, individuals, to cross," said Kevin Jones. "So the ability to move from northern Afghanistan to parts of eastern Tajikistan, to parts of southern Tajikistan is quite easy."

India, Russia and the United States have large military aid missions in Tajikistan, a mountainous nation of seven-million people long seen as a quiet backwater compared to Afghanistan.  But Tajikistan has seen its most violent month of terrorism since a civil war ended in 1997.

On August 22, 25 militants linked to al-Qaida killed six prison guards and broke out of jail in Dushanbe, the capital.  With the violence taking place down the street from the presidential palace, Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon reacted by purging the entire leadership of his security forces.

Within days, a suicide bomber killed two policemen and wounded 25 at a police station in Northern Tajikistan and a bomb in a Dushanbe night club, wounded six patrons.

Behind the attacks appears to be a loose coalition of old commanders from Tajikstan's civil war - and a new generation.  

International Crisis Group Central Asia analyst Paul Quinn Judge watches from neighboring Kyrgyzstan .

"There is a new generation of Islamists," said Paul Quinn Judge. "People who do not see that the state is offering them any role in life in Tajikistan, and who are looking at what is happening in Afghanistan, and I suspect in the North Caucasus, and seeing that as the real model for them."

For Russia, the former colonial power, the mix of poverty and fundamentalism is seen as increasingly dangerous.

Since Tajikistan became independent almost 20 years ago, the Russian population has dropped by 90 percent, Russian has been dropped as an official language, the construction of mosques has boomed, and the use of sharia, or religious law, has spread.  Saudi money in Dushanbe is financing construction of the largest mosque in Central Asia.  

Russian observers warn the total "Islamization of Tajik society" will have echoes in Russia, home to one million Tajik migrant workers.  

The head of research at the Russian Foreign Ministry's Diplomatic Academy, Yevgeny Bazhanov, warns Islamic radicalism could spread through Central Asia into Russia.

"If they prevail in Tajikistan and other areas, those countries are our close neighbors," said Yevgeny Bazhanov. "There are a lot of Russians, ethnic Russians, living  there.  We have huge economic interests there.  We have security interests there.  Not only because they are close the Russian borders, and we to have trade with those countries, trade with China through that countries, we have trade with India.  But it is a security challenge, because some of those groups have clear religious purpose to spread extreme religious Islam from Central Asia to various parts of Russia."

In a view increasingly voiced in Moscow, this top-ranking Russian diplomat said Russia, the United States, and China should work together to prevent Islamic extremism from spreading north from Afghanistan.   

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