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Wednesday 6 November 2019

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The reported shoot-out near the Uzbek and Afghan borders will concern Russia and China as well.

A deadly attack on a Tajik border post reported early on November 6 is disturbing for many reasons, including the fact Tajik officials are blaming the so-called Islamic State (IS) militant group for the assault that authorities say left at least two security servicemen and 15 militants dead.

The alleged attack has raised alarms across the southern parts of Central Asia and will no doubt be duly noted by the Kremlin, where officials have long warned of such a possibility. Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, is also sure to take notice.

Tajik security officials have given few details about the attack -- just a few kilometers from Uzbekistan and 60 kilometers west of Dushanbe -- but said in a quickly released statement by the Border Guard Service that 20 people crossed from the Qala-e Zal district in Afghanistan's northern Kunduz Province on November 3 into Tajikistan's Qubodiyon district.

The group -- which reportedly included at least one woman, according to the Interior Ministry -- apparently acquired four vehicles and drove to the Ishkobod border post in the Rudaki region. Some of the attackers are said to have acquired five weapons before they were surrounded after a chase and 15 of them were killed. Five others were allegedly caught a few kilometers away after fleeing and were detained, the statement said.

Photos released by Tajik officials showed several severely burned bodies surrounding two badly damaged vehicles, one completely burnt-out. The pictures -- which included what appeared to be a deceased attacker with his hands bound by plastic handcuffs -- were deleted later on November 6 from the Interior Ministry's website.

Until now there has been no evidence of militants having crossed from Afghanistan into a Central Asian country. It is also noteworthy that the northeastern part of Afghanistan bordering the area near where the attack occurred is known to be under the control of the Taliban, not IS.

Several observers have also pointed to the scant details of the attack and question why the militants would raid a border post to seize weapons when arms are so plentiful in Afghanistan.

Officials in Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Defense and Foreign ministries have said for several years that the IS presence in Afghanistan is growing and could threaten Central Asia.

Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev made such points during a two-day visit to Dushanbe and Tashkent on October 30-31, warning of "challenges and threats to security" in the region.

Russian officials have estimated there are thousands of IS militants in northern Afghanistan near Central Asia.

But before this attack there was no evidence of an incursion into Central Asia by Islamic militants from Afghanistan, though there was a deadly assault on foreign bicyclists near the town of Danghara in July 2018.

In Dushanbe, a funeral ceremony is held for a Tajik border officer killed in the attack.
In Dushanbe, a funeral ceremony is held for a Tajik border officer killed in the attack.

A small group of men who had recently sworn allegiance to IS used a car to ram into the bicyclists and then attack them with axes and knives, killing four. Security forces killed four of the assailants and captured a few others, all of whom had been living in Tajikistan.

Watchful Eyes On The Frontier

The identities of those involved in this latest attack have not been revealed by Tajik authorities but the assertion they came from Afghanistan heightens security concerns not only on the Tajik-Afghan border, but also along Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan's borders with war-torn Afghanistan.

Neither of those latter countries is a member of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, where Russian officials have been ringing the alarm bell about IS in northern Afghanistan for several years.

Coincidentally, there was a meeting on November 6 in Tashkent involving officials from the Russia-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) discussing how best to combat terrorism.

Russian officials have increasingly referred to Central Asia's border with Afghanistan as the "CIS southern border" and chided Turkmenistan for not cooperating with the organization's security efforts.

SCO member China has also helped Tajikistan shore up security in its sparsely inhabited, eastern mountainous regions to prevent militants in Afghanistan from penetrating Tajikistan and crossing into China.

Beijing will likely follow the progress of Dushanbe's investigation into the November 6 attack with great interest.

The day of the attack is also notable as it comes on Tajikistan's Constitution Day, with November 6 being the day, 25 years ago, when Tajiks approved a new constitution and Emomali Rahmon was elected president for the first time.

Whatever the motive for the reported attack and whomever the alleged attackers were, the problem is that IS is being blamed for an attack in Central Asia that was carried out by people who allegedly came from Afghanistan.

If no compelling evidence surfaces to refute the Tajik government's version of events, then the Central Asian countries, Russia, and China may have to reformulate their strategies based on real -- not hypothetical -- threats in Central Asia.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
Zoyir Mirzaev emerged politically clean himself after forcing six men to stand in a muddy ditch.

The name Zoyir Mirzaev probably means little or nothing to most people. But the newly appointed governor of Uzbekistan's southern Kashkadarya Province is clearly someone President Shavkat Mirziyoev wants in his government.

The 51-year-old Mirzaev has experience: He was governor of Samarkand Province from 2010 to 2016.

But just a year ago, he was being called a major embarrassment to the Uzbek government. Images had been posted on social networks of six dejected-looking men standing knee-deep in an irrigation ditch. Their tormentor was none other than Mirzaev, a former minister of agriculture and water management who at that time was a deputy prime minister.

In Mirzaev’s view, the six men were responsible for a poor harvest. “If you cannot water the wheat, then I’ll water you,” he reportedly told them.

The six were said to have stood in the muddy water for half an hour.

Mirziyoev has spoken out repeatedly against the labor practices of the past, when Uzbekistan’s late first president, Islam Karimov, was still in power. Under Karimov, forced labor was used to harvest cotton, and it was often women and children who were sent into the fields. Farmers who failed to meet their targets could expect to be punished, and this sometimes meant being beaten by local officials.

Although as prime minister from 2003 to 2016 he played a key role in that system, Mirziyoev has been vowing to stop such abuse since taking over the presidency in late 2016.

The incident made a splash in international media, including RFE/RL and BBC reports.

Mirziyoev sacked Mirzaev on October 29, 2018, for "serious shortcomings" and said the government would not tolerate “forced labor” or any “violations of the law on agricultural work.”

It was a blow to the Mirziyoev government's work toward portraying Uzbekistan as a country changing for the better, and one might have thought it would be the end of Mirzaev’s career.

As it turned out, Mirzaev was out of work for barely a week. On November 7, 2018, he was named head of the Sharaf Rashidov district in Uzbekistan’s Jizzakh Province. It was a demotion, to be sure, but arguably a soft landing in light of the bad publicity.

Jizzakh Province is Mirziyoev's birthplace (specifically the Zaamin district) and also where the future Uzbek president served as provincial chief from 1996 to 2001.

Mirziyoev had sent Mirzaev somewhere safe while the controversy died down.

The two surely knew each other for two decades at least, since Mirzaev headed the financial department for Samarkand Province from 2001 to 2003, which is approximately the same time Mirziyoev was Samarkand's governor.

It is unclear what connects Mirziyoev and Mirzaev. But it seems a fair bet that Mirzaev's name will continue to crop up in Uzbekistan so long as Mirziyoev is leader.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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