Alarm bells are sounding about the danger of another shaky state in Central Asia.
Tajikistan is rarely in the news, but the former Soviet republic has several features that have led to trouble elsewhere: an autocratic ruler, an Islamist insurgency, a sputtering economy and unstable neighbors.
The U.S. and Russia are both concerned about the possibility that Tajikistan could add to the chaos in the region.
The International Crisis Group has issued an "early warning" report that Tajikistan, on the border with Afghanistan, "is under dangerous pressure both internally and externally."
Islamist rebels and local police are clashing in Tajikistan's southern provinces. The government is imposing controls on religious expression and political opposition, moves that appear to be sewing resentment of the regime.
The latest violence recalls Tajikistan's civil war in the 1990s, which broke out shortly after the country received independence in the Soviet breakup. That fighting pitted Islamic and democratic-oriented groups against the national government of President Emomali Rahmon. The five-year war concluded with a power sharing agreement — but left Rahmon in charge.
Almost 20 years later, Rahmon is still in control, but faces increased opposition.
"Rahmon is cracking down. The main opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, was banned and declared a terrorist organization," said Paul Stronski, a senior associate with the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The IRPT was the only moderate Islamic party in the former Soviet space that was allowed to exist, and now it's gone."
Forcibly Shaving Beards
The crackdown on dissent, particularly from Islamic organizations, underscores the government's desire to maintain what it calls the secular character of Tajikistan, a country whose population is 98 percent Muslim.
"There's an attempt, in a very Soviet way, to have Islam exist only in certain parameters," Stronski said.
Police in Tajikistan's southwestern Khatlon region, on the border with Afghanistan, announced in January they had shaved the beards of some 13,000 men as part of the country's fight against "foreign influences."
More than 160 shops selling Muslim clothing have been shut down. Minors have been barred from entering mosques, and the parliament recently voted to ban "Arabic-sounding" names.
The situation could be worsened by Tajikistan's ailing economy, analysts say.
According to World Bank data, remittances from Tajik workers in Russia make up some 50 percent of the country's GDP. With Russia's economy reeling amid a collapse in oil prices, many migrant Tajik workers have returned home.
"A major safety valve in Tajikistan is opening," said Joshua Kucera, a contributor to EurasiaNet who covers Tajik affairs. "Until recently, all of the young men who could have possibly caused political instability had left Tajikistan."
Many of the people returning home live in Tajikistan's southern provinces, Kucera said – heightening the threat of a spillover from the nearby Taliban insurgency in northern Afghanistan.
The Afghan Border
"The border is porous. In many places, it's just a shallow river you could easily walk across," Kucera said. "There have been incidents where Tajik border guards were kidnapped by the Taliban, and it took several months to get them released."
Tajikistan shares a nearly 900-mile frontier with Afghanistan. Unrest in the country could spill into Afghanistan, analysts say, as the Taliban continues to threaten the American-backed government in Kabul.
The situation on the southern side of the border is already difficult. Taliban fighters have renewed attacks against Afghan and American troops in the northern city of Kunduz, the scene of bloody fighting last year.
The International Crisis Group says recent events have "pushed foreign fighters, including Tajiks, into Afghanistan's Badakhshan province, where they have launched attacks against the Afghan army."
Dozens of Tajiks have been arrested over the past year for alleged ties with Jamaat Ansarullah, a militant group believed to have links to al-Qaida and the Taliban.
It isn't clear how real those ties are, but Tajik authorities have used these allegations to punish what they call religious extremists. Tajikistan has long been a target for militant organizations; hundreds of Tajiks have joined ISIS in Iraq and Syria, with others joining militant groups in northern Afghanistan.
The Afghan-Tajik border is also a major conduit in the Afghan drug trade.
According to a January report from the International Crisis Group, efforts by the Tajik government to curb drug trafficking have worsened in recent years – despite border control investments by the United States and the European Union.
"A lot of the border and drug assistance being given to Tajikistan by foreign powers is wasted," Carnegie's Stronski says. "Money is either being misspent, or siphoned off to cronies and political elites."
All the same, despite accusations of corruption and crackdowns on religious freedom, the U.S. and its allies have been hesitant to cut off financial and military aid to the Tajik government.
The U.S. has formally designated Tajikistan as a "country of particular concern" with respect to religious freedom, as part of the U.S. Commission on International Religious freedom annual report.
State Department Spokesperson John Kirby was quick to note, however, that the U.S. would waive any potential sanctions involved with that designation because Tajikistan is of "important national interest" to the United States.
"Stability and economic growth in Tajikistan are critical to achieving overall regional stability and to strengthening economic integration," the State Department said in a statement to NPR.
That focus on "stability," Kucera argued, plays directly into Rahmon's strategy of using the Islamic extremist threat as an excuse to crack down on internal enemies and gain international support.
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