Deadly Unrest Threatens Governments, Imperils Supply Routes in Afghan War.
A brazen attack by Islamist militants who killed at least 23 Tajikistan soldiers on Sunday is stoking concerns that the war in Afghanistan is spilling across the border into former Soviet Central Asia, destabilizing the already fragile governments there and endangering key coalition supply routes.
Tajikistan, an impoverished former Soviet republic that was ravaged by a civil war between a secular regime and the Islamist opposition in the 1990s, is particularly vulnerable. Tajikistan shares a long, porous border with northern Afghan provinces that have become Taliban strongholds over the past year, and has experienced a spate of smaller attacks in recent months.
Combined with ethnic unrest in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, the emergence of Islamist rebels in Tajikistan imperils the stability of the entire Central Asian region—including its most populous country, Uzbekistan, whose repressive government has so far been able to keep Islamist militancy in check. The U.S. military in Afghanistan receives most of its fuel and about 30% of its ground supplies through Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
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"If there is a major upsurge of insurgency in Tajikistan, both the Russians and the Americans are going to be scared," says Paul Quinn-Judge, Central Asia projects director for the International Crisis Group, a conflict-resolution organization. "It's not what the Americans need with Afghanistan going the way it is. And the Russians are very nervous about the way insurgency could metastasize through Central Asia in their direction."
On Sunday, a Tajikistan military column was ambushed in a mountain gorge in the Rasht district some 50 kilometers, or about 30 miles, from the Afghan border, said Faridun Makhmadaliev, head of the Tajikistan defense ministry press service. In addition to the 23 killed servicemen, several others sustained serious injuries, Mr. Makhmadaliev said. He declined to confirm Tajikistan media reports that many other soldiers had been captured by the rebels. Tajikistan military reinforcements were pursuing the attackers, he said.
The heavy losses in Rasht show the insurgents are highly experienced, skilled fighters, more than a match for Tajikistan's weak army, says Semyon Bagdasarov, a member of the international-affairs committee of the Russian parliament and an expert on the region. "There's a very high probability that this will lead to a revival of the civil war in Tajikistan," he said. "Either we stop this or what happens in Central Asia will be even worse than Afghanistan." Russia maintains a large military base and some 7,000 troops in Tajikistan.
The Tajikistan government blamed Sunday's attack on the "terrorist group" of Mullah Abdullo Rahimov, an Islamist rebel commander during the 1990s civil war who—unlike most other opposition leaders—rejected the peace agreement that ended that conflict in 1997 and fled to Afghanistan. Mr. Rahimov reportedly returned from Afghanistan last year, heading a force of some 100 militants that included Tajiks, Uzbeks, Pakistanis and Chechens.
In the weeks before Sunday's attack, Tajikistan militants orchestrated the jailbreak of several Islamist radicals from a prison in the nation's capital city Dushanbe, sent a suicide bomber to attack a regional police station, and bombed a popular Dushanbe disco. The Rasht valley was a stronghold of the Islamist opposition through the civil war.
While the 1997 peace agreement called for power-sharing between President Emomali Rakhmon and the rebels, the government has been steadily pushing the former insurgents out of positions of influence, fueling discontent. Still, Hojja Akbar Turajonzoda, a spiritual leader of the rebels during the 1990s war, condemned Sunday's killings in Rasht as "a horrible crime," Tajikistan's Asia-Plus news agency reported.
The Taliban spokesman in Afghanistan, Zabihullah Mujahed, denied any involvement in the Tajikistan ambush. "The policy of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is not to interfere in neighboring countries," he said in an interview. "This is Tajikistan's domestic issue."
But Waheed Muzhda, a Kabul-based political analyst who served in the Taliban foreign ministry before 2001 and maintains contacts with Taliban leaders, said Taliban-affiliated rebels are intensifying their operations in Central Asia because they seek to disrupt the U.S.-led coalition's logistics routes.
"They want to put pressure on the Tajik regime now that [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] forces supply through Tajikistan to Afghanistan," he said. "Tajikistan has a weak government and its people are tired of it. If these groups establish themselves there, they will try to spread their ideology to the entire Central Asia."
The group behind Sunday's attack, Mr. Muzhda said, was linked with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an al Qaeda-affiliated organization that includes ethnic Tajiks in addition to Uzbeks and other Central Asian nationalities.
The Taliban regime in Kabul allowed the IMU to maintain camps in Afghanistan; Central Asian fighters, led by Tahir Yuldash, fled to the Pakistani tribal area of Waziristan following the U.S. invasion of 2001. Mr. Rahimov, the commander blamed by Tajikistan for Sunday's ambush, also spent time in Waziristan, according to some reports.
Recently, however, many IMU fighters were pushed out of their shelters in Waziristan by the Pakistani military offensives, and by an unrelated conflict that emerged between the Central Asians and the local Taliban tribal leader, Mullah Nazir.
An Afghan Taliban commander, reached by telephone in North Waziristan, said the number of Tajik and Uzbek jihadis from the IMU increased there in late 2008 and early 2009, with most of them young trainee fighters. He said he saw an outflow of the Central Asians in late 2009, with many of them going to fight alongside the Afghan Taliban in the northern Afghan provinces of Kunduz and Baghlan.
"The Taliban is not a movement separate from al Qaeda, and their ambition is not limited to Afghanistan alone. They have plenty of fighters from Central Asia who are fighting their own struggle," said Haroun Mir, the director of the Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy.
The recent movement of Central Asian militants to the northern Afghan provinces—where they can blend in among Afghanistan's ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks and Turkmen—is one of the reasons behind the spike in insurgent activities in that part of the country, U.S. officials said.
In more remote districts of the north along the Tajikistan and Uzbekistan borders, Taliban-affiliated insurgents have been allowed to operate with impunity because the U.S.-led coalition concentrated its resources on the traditional Taliban heartland in the ethnic Pashtun areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan, such as Kandahar and Helmand.
While U.S. Special Operations Forces have staged an aggressive campaign to wipe out insurgent leaders in Afghanistan's north, some officials said this has only served to drive the militants into safe havens in the sparsely patrolled marshy borderlands along the Panj River, which separates Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
The U.S. hardly used the Central Asian supply route until two years ago, and turned to the northern alternative only after allied convoys started coming under regular attack while passing through Pakistan in late 2008. Uzbekistan is currently the most important Central Asian conduit for supplies into Afghanistan, and the Uzbek state railway company recently built a spur over the border that is extending to the vicinity of the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
Editors Note: Habib Totakhil in Kabul and Gregory L. White and Richard Boudreaux in Moscow contributed to this article.
The Wall Street Journal