3 Sep 2010

Is Tajikistan the next Afghanistan?

The suicide bombing in Tajikistan has wider implications for the volatile, repressed and impoverished region of Central Asia, writes Nick Paton Walsh.

Today a suicide bomber blew himself up in Khujand, northern Tajikistan. One person died and others were wounded. His target: a police station, near the border with Uzbekistan. After reading that, you could be forgiven if you did not read on. But this is a rare occurrence in an extremely important place.

Central Asia. We’re talking about one of the most repressed, impoverished and volatile regions on earth.

Tajikistan itself is the messiest of the five republics. It’s on the border with Afghanistan, where many ethnic Tajiks (although Afghan in nationality) are involved in the fighting.

It has often been a resting place for militants during the last 30 years of war. Last month, in the town of Khujand, ten followed of a banned Islamic group, were jailed for three to 15 years.

It’s not clear what happened here yet, but it is clearer what it means.

If you consider the turmoil hitting Pakistan as the continuation of something that started a while back, then what happened today in Tajikistan may herald the long-term impact of America’s war in Afghanistan.

Central Asia has long been the world’s most unreported mess. Islamic groups – Hizb-ut-Tahir, even the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan – have, many say, had a comparatively easy time in the lawlessness of Tajikistan.

But this attack occurred where they have been oppressed hardest – near the border with Uzbekistan. The Uzbeks have long had a very forthright way of dealing with Islamic groups – well, any group that they disapprove of that is not aligned with the government. Some cases in the past have involved the alleged rape of family members in front of suspects, one notable case involved someone being boiled alive.

As a result the movement has been quietened there – the flourish of popular and Islamic rebellion violently expressed and then suppressed in Andijan, 2005, the last time this became international news.

The extremism or dissent simply went elsewhere in the region – where ethnicities or tribes and not state boundaries are greater signifiers of identity.

Kazakhstan is the regional power – where the economy remains in reasonable, hydrocarbon bolstered shape. But Kyrgyzstan is the obvious sick kid: its south still riven with ethnic hatred after the killing of hundreds earlier this year in a flare-up of violence against ethnic Uzbeks in Osh. The government remains in a near-state of collapse, and outside help is far away.