Tajikistan’s military leadership has expressed public concern over the country’s recent trend toward closer involvement with the NATO Alliance as a mechanism through which Dushanbe will gain enhanced military and security capabilities. The apparent turn in the direction of Tajikistan’s stated aims in this sphere sends a worrying signal throughout the region at a difficult time for the evolving and dynamic relationship formed between the Alliance and the Central Asian militaries. However, the weak Tajik armed forces are desperately in need of multiple sources of foreign assistance and thus seek to diversify these sources beyond traditional security partners to include Pakistan.
Colonel-General Sherali Khayrulloyev, Tajikistan’s defense minister, explained in Dushanbe on March 29 that he still considers Russia to be Tajikistan’s most reliable military and security partner. “The Tajik armed forces have been set up thanks to Russia’s assistance and contribution. Military-technical cooperation between our countries is at a very high level today.” Khayrulloyev pointed to Tajikistan sending 300 to 400 servicemen annually to Russian military academies since 1994. These courses of study use a full training curriculum lasting three to five years. In contrast, programs sending servicemen to other countries, such as China, India, and the United States, provide only short-term courses lasting from one to six months, mainly because of the necessity to teach the servicemen a foreign language. Most surprisingly, Khayrulloyev weighed the opportunity of forming closer links with NATO against more typical arrangements with Moscow, concluding, “Soviet standards are no worse.” Such attitudes are unsurprising in many ways, given the continued residue of Soviet-trained servicemen within these structures; as such thinking is endemic within the Ministry of Defense itself. Indeed, Tajikistan was slow to join the NATO Partnership for Peace (PfP) program, which it finally did in 2000, and a combination of factors has made difficult its relationship within the PfP process. (Interfax, Moscow, March 29).
Of course, Russian and Tajik servicemen are regularly engaged in joint combat training. A joint exercise of the 92nd Motorized Rifle Regiment, part of the 201st Russian Motorized Rifle Division based in Dushanbe, and cadets from the Tajik Ministry of Defense military institute will commence exercises at the Lohur training ground on April 4. The focus will be battalion-level defensive actions, and will be Russian led, funded, and instill Russian military-thinking practices on Tajik counterparts. Tajik brigades and Russian motorized rifle regiments have just concluded a joint exercise at the Mumirak and Sumbula training grounds in late March.
Joint training is cost effective and the preferred option for the weak Tajik military, especially when its high-profile exercises with Russia can project a positive image for its beleaguered armed forces. Nonetheless, Dushanbe does want to conduct its own training, though often to advertise its need for additional foreign assistance. A recent one-day drill was conducted at the Sumbula military range (Khuroson District of the southern Khatlon Region), codenamed Masnad-2006 (Position-2006). It involved divisions from the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Emergency Situations, State Border Protection Committee, and the Interior Ministry’s Directorate for the Khatlon Region. Carried out in three stages with more than 3,000 servicemen and officers from the relevant agencies participating, the exercise was intended to display competence in the face of a theoretical terrorist threat. The scenario rehearsed a response to an international terrorist group attacking two detachments’ border troops and taking hostages. The Tajik Ministry of Defense said it expected to hold similar drills with the involvement of the Chinese armed forces in Mountainous Badakhshon Autonomous Region in the summer (Asia-Plus News, March 28).
In addition to looking toward China for extra help with its armed forces, Dushanbe also envisages closer links with Pakistan. A Pakistani military delegation led by General Shahid Tirmizey, a committee chair from the Pakistani Armed Forces General Staff, made a two-day fact-finding visit to Tajikistan on March 28-29. The delegation saw the Fakhrobod firing range, where a demonstration exercise was held. The delegation also held meetings with Salohiddin Nasriddinov, deputy Tajik minister of foreign affairs, as well as the leadership of the State Border Protection Committee and the Ministry of Defense (Avesta, March 28; Itar-Tass, March 29).
Khayrulloyev’s overtly pro-Russian remarks must be seen in context. On March 28 President Emomali Rahmonov endorsed a single blueprint for combating terrorism and extremism, aimed at raising the effectiveness of the fight against modern threats in accordance with Tajikistan’s international commitments. The blueprint itself therefore aims to ensure the closest possible collaboration among the power-wielding and law-enforcement agencies and Tajik state structures responsible for financial control with their counterparts from regional countries and other international anti-terrorist organizations in the fight against terrorism.
If this venture is to avoid being purely another paper effort to prove that the authorities are attempting to do something about the possible terrorist threat to the country, then Dushanbe will need help from a variety of sources. Khayrulloyev, in his efforts to deliver success in this area, fully understands the risks involved in closer integration with NATO and the upheaval to the weak Tajik armed forces that could ensue. He may, in this context alone, want to signal greater readiness to rely on Russian help, while looking to China and Pakistan for support that will not prove over-burdening, which some in the Tajik Ministry of Defense believe NATO’s help would prove in the long term.