A year after controversial operation, U.S. military aid to Tajikistan under review

On July 24, 2012, Tajikistan’s military undertook an operation in the small town of Khorog. Ostensibly the operation was directed at the killers of a local security official, a murder that the central government blamed on several local informal leaders, or “commanders” as they’re most commonly known in Khorog. But the scale of the operation, which included helicopters, mortars and snipers posted on the slopes that envelop the mountain town, made it clear that this was not simply a manhunt, that the government had a larger agenda.

The local leaders in Khorog had authority in the region that the central government in the capital of Dushanbe found threatening; in particular, it controlled trade routes of both legal and illicit goods from Afghanistan, just across a narrow river from Khorog. The local leaders’ power was a vestige of the civil war that wracked Tajikistan in the 1990s; as part of the peace deal ending the war, local commanders were given substantial authority. But as the central government gained strength over the past several years, it has tried to rein in the recalcitrant commanders. After successful operations in the Sughd and Rasht regions, Khorog was the last remaining holdout, and one which everyone expected Dushanbe to try to deal with eventually.

Khorog is the capital of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province. The people there, known as Pamiris, speak a different language from other Tajiks, and follow Shia Ismaili Islam, as opposed to the Sunni Islam that predominates in the rest of Tajikistan. While these cultural differences had little political salience before, the massive operation ignited fears of cultural domination by Dushanbe. And the resistance to the government’s attack, while begun by fighters loyal to the commanders, quickly took on a popular character. In particular, the fact that the snipers on the mountains fired indiscriminately at residents, killing an estimated 20 or so civilians, outraged the people of Khorog.

On the one-year anniversary of the attack, residents of Khorog held a march commemorating the events, and human rights groups presented a draft of a report on the events to the government, which they eventually plan to release to the public. The preliminary findings of the report, however, emphasize how difficult it has been to determine what exactly happened in Khorog.

One element in particular that remains unclear is the role of the United States. The forces that carried out the attack had had substantial training and equipping from the U.S. Over the past several years, U.S. military aid to Tajikistan has focused on border security, “counternarcotics,” and “counterterrorism,” and heavily weighted toward special forces’ operations. Up-to-date figures are not available but 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 equipping has included giving weapons to special police units, known as OMON, and the internal security service, the GKNB  in the latter case, AK-74s rifles and Makarov 9mm pistols.

U.S. diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks give some sense of the priorities of the U.S. in dealing with Tajikistan’s security forces over the last several years. According to a cable from January 2009: “The Defense Department completed four counter-narcoterrorism training 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 [MVD] 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 U.S. embassy in Dushanbe appeared to be aware of the lack of oversight of the units it was training. One cable from 2007 noted that Tajikistan’s National Guard “is primarily designed to protect the Rahmon regime and respond to him personally. Essentially, they are President Rahmon’s own Praetorian Guard and they clearly receive the priority of fill and perks within the Tajik defense establishment. 

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. 

Although the U.S. rarely talks about its security assistance to Tajikistan, people in Khorog were aware of it. “If the U.S. gives money to our army and law enforcement agencies, they need to control where these funds go,” Manuchehr Kholiqnazarov, a human rights lawyer in Khorog, told The Atlantic. “The Americans should ask why their money is being used to attack civilians instead of attacking terrorists and drug traffickers.”

The U.S. has said little about how its security assistance policies may be changing as a result of the events of a year ago in Khorog. “The United States regularly reviews the full range of our bilateral aid programs to Tajikistan, including our security assistance,” Emily Horne, a State Department spokeswoman, told The Atlantic. “As with all countries, this ongoing review is part of our efforts to ensure our assistance dollars are being appropriately and effectively used. Because such reviews are ongoing, I’m not going to speculate on possible next steps.”

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