Thursday, August 9, 2012

Tajikistan and Its Strategic Relevance

Several days ago, The Economist posted an article highlighting some of the recent fighting taking place in Khorog, the provincial capital to the east of the national capital of Tajikistan, Dushanbe. Forty-two people were killed, with many others most likely wounded; this number alone is not so astounding if one considers the tragedy unfolding in Syria which has left thousands dead, but it highlights an important ongoing issue that most have moved on from by now: many nations in the region are still mimicking the "Arab Spring" revolutions from last year and continue to fight for greater freedom.

Muslim Tajik children in traditional dress. Photo by Mikhail Romaniuk.

Tajikistan is often overlooked by the global media; in fact, many people have never even heard of the small, landlocked state with a population of less than seven million. However, Tajikistan has several interesting characteristics that make it of certain strategic importance, not just in its immediate region but in the Middle East and Eurasia overall. It borders South and East Asia as well as Eastern Europe, making it a vital corridor and buffer state. Conflict in the country is nothing new, either: the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 marked the inception of Tajikistan as an independent state, but by 1994 its ethnic fighting had claimed the lives of 100,000, and additionally displaced more than one million. This was not unlike similar conflicts spread throughout the former Soviet Union, but Tajikistan's centralized location put it in the spotlight.

Today, Tajikistan has a modestly growing economy, a stable (albeit corrupt) government, and a good quality of living. It has enjoyed several years of peace, and has successfully moved on from its former Soviet influences. The recent fighting is threatening to disrupt all of this progress, and it is unclear how far-reaching the consequences of a violent uprising would be. Such an uprising may be inevitable given the current political trends. Since early 2011, the authoritarian government led by President Emomali Rakhmon has cracked down on religious freedom in an attempt to curb the ever-increasing Islamic presence in the country. In June of last year, the law on "parental responsibility for education and raising children" was introduced, effectively banning those younger than 18 from attending religious services at mosques. This type of religious restriction has been met by animosity from those being persecuted, culminating in last week's events.

This is significant for reasons outside of Tajik national security. Tajikistan is interestingly situated - it shares its largest border of over 700 miles with Afghanistan, while also sharing a significant border with China. The border with Afghanistan has remained a hotspot for combat between Tajiks and the Taliban, but the U.S. has also used the region to deploy troops and materials. Without this crucial border, access and occupation of the northern region of Afghanistan will be virtually non-existant, as this mountainous, rural region is populated by Taliban insurgents with enough knowledge of the surrounding area to execute devastating guerilla attacks on U.S. soldiers.

Additionally, there are Islamic populations in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and many of the other nations making up the former Soviet bloc. The Arab Spring had ripple effects large enough that now, eighteen months later, Syria is still mired in a bloody uprising that will likely claim many more lives before its conclusion. The fighting may seem irrelevant with few casualties so far, but that could not be farther from the truth. With volatility threatening to dismantle the ongoing efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the negotiations taking place with Iran and Syria, more tension in the region could have devastating effects. The timing is even worse considering that NATO forces will be leaving Tajikistan in the upcoming months.

Tajikistan cannot afford another civil war. The young country barely survived the first one a decade ago. The current situation may not be grave, but it is certainly worth the attention and concern of the Western world. Because if - and I strongly emphasize that word - greater conflict erupts in Tajikistan, the insouciance we seem to have towards the region will be regretted, and quickly replaced with an alarm so severe that we will be quickly forced to seriously re-evaluate our strategy for the entire region.

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