What Role Did The U.S. Play In This Summer's Violence In Tajikistan?

A Tajikistan border guard, during a 2007 training program with the U.S. Army.

In all of the news coverage of the fighting that rocked eastern Tajikistan this summer, one angle that was rarely (if ever) discussed was the U.S. involvement in training and equipping the government security forces that conducted the the operations there. While everyone has been paying a lot of attention to the U.S.'s growing ties with Uzbekistan as a result of the war in Afghanistan, the aid that Washington gives Tajikistan has flown under the radar. But the aid to Tajikistan has been pretty substantial, including a good amount of lethal military aid, and the conduct of the Tajikistan security forces this summer should be raising questions in Washington about whether this sort of aid is appropriate.

It's difficult to find out exactly what military aid the U.S. gives to Tajikistan. An increasing amount of the aid is given not through State Department programs (like Foreign Military Financing) but through Defense Department counterterrorism and counterdrug programs. And the latter tend not to have as rigorous requirements as to what information has to be reported to the public or to Congress. So, although much of the information isn't classified, it's not easy to find. As part of a report on U.S. security assistance to Central Asia that will be released soon, I tried to dig up all I could to figure out what sort of aid the U.S. was giving. And one of the surprising findings was how extensive the aid to Tajikistan has been.

In fiscal year 2012, the United States was planning to spend $9 million on special forces in the border guards and counterterror and counternarcotics units, according to briefing slides describing U.S.-Tajikistan security assistance. These activities were part of a counternarcotics aid package totaling over $24 million, which also included the construction of a national guard training facility at Qaratogh and an “interagency communications” program. The fiscal year 2011 plan included $5 million for “counternarcotics special unit equipment” and $2 million for training of counternarcotics forces by U.S. special forces. The equipping has included giving weapons to OMON and GKNB units, in the latter case, AK-74s rifles and Makarov 9mm pistols. Fiscal year 2010 saw $4 million in special forces equipment and $2 million for special forces training.

Some Wikileaked diplomatic cables give some detail about the training that has taken place. According to a cable from January 2009:

The Defense Department completed four Counter-narcoterrorism training (CNT) events in 2008. One of the units trained, the Border Guard special force group, afterwards conducted three successful operational missions resulting in drug seizures. We developed counterterrorism capacity within the Ministry of Internal Affairs OMON unit used for SWAT and other emergency response operations. The MVD's elite Militia Detachment for Special Purposes (OMON) drill at the Embassy demonstrated an improved anti-terrorist response and confirmed OMON's capacity after a change in leadership.

Another cable, from October 2008, describes the curriculum of the special forces training exercises:

Critical training tasks that the Tajik National Guard, Border Guards, and OMON squads have requested include the following: staff organization and planning, orders production, mission analysis and the military decision making process, intelligence preparation of the battlefield (IPB), direct action (raids and ambushes), special reconnaissance, close quarters combat/battle (CQC/B), sniper/observe operations, military operations in urban terrain (MOUT), Counter-Improvised Explosive Device (C-IED), Sensitive Site Exploitation (SSE), tactical communications and basic combat lifesaving.”

The United States appeared to want to get more heavily involved in organizing Tajikistan’s special forces. One diplomatic cable from February 2010 said that forces from the U.S. Special Operations Command Central were planning an assessment and then would be “organizing these groups into special units” and then “sustain an increase in capabilities” via training with U.S. special forces. “Security cooperation remains a strong point in our relationship with Tajikistan,” the cable said.

This summer's government operation took place because a local GKNB commander was assassinated. That would seem to call for a law enforcement, not military response, which many local observers, like President of the Academy of Sciences of Tajikistan Mamadsho Ilolov, pointed out:

“Of course, a criminal must be brought to justice. The law enforcement authorities, however, failed to cope with the task on detention of the criminals. As a result, a military operation was launched,” said Ilolov. “I think that there was no necessity to carry out military operation. It is inexpedient to carry out the military operation in the city with population of at least 30,000. They should have studied this issue thoroughly and found other methods to detain the criminals.”

But the government operation instead was carried out by pretty much all the special forces units that Tajikistan has -- exactly the groups that the U.S. has been training and equipping.

The ostensible purpose of the U.S. aid is to combat drug trafficking and terrorism that might spill over from Afghanistan -- a legitimate worry. And sure enough, the Tajikistan government framed the conflict this summer in exactly those terms. But most impartial observers saw it in different terms, as essentially two groups of drug traffickers -- those affiliated with the government, and those not -- fighting a turf war. Tajikistan scholar Christian Bleuer, for example, wrote of the operation: "The government doesn’t like the independent mafia figures because it doesn’t like competition." Another scholar, Navruz Nekbakhtshoev, who was in the region at the time of the fighting, reported the reactions of local people he talked to:

While they didn’t known who was really responsible for the killing of Nazarov, they were aware that it must have been done to permanently stop him from passing onto Tolib Ayombekov the burden of sharing with officials in Dushanbe the profit from the illicit cigarette business and keep the share of the profit that he was supposed to pass upward all to himself. People I talked to generally agreed that government’s use of force was excessive and inhumane and that the problem could have been solved through careful investigation.

And the Wall Street Journal reported:

Many Tajiks and Western officials describe the latest campaign as driven, at least in part, by a desire of criminal networks allied with Mr. Rakhmon and hailing from his hometown of Kulyab to muscle in on Mr. Ayombekov's lucrative turf.

"This was about economic control, and a dispute between the center and local structures over the region's business, legal and illegal," says Parviz Mullojanov, a political analyst in Dushanbe.

To what extent did U.S. aid abet the use of these special forces to carry out a turf war? One which resulted in a substantial number of civilian casualties? At this point, it's hard to say. But it's safe to assume the question is being asked in the State Department and the Pentagon. Stay tuned.

What Role Did The U.S. Play In This Summer's Violence In Tajikistan?

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