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  • Writer's pictureThe Red Line

Tajikistan and Regional Command Structures - The Armed Forces of Central Asia

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In the inaugural episode of our new mini-series, we dive deep into the military landscape of Central Asia, starting with a spotlight on Tajikistan. This first episode uncovers the region's convoluted command structures and the unique challenges faced by the national armed forces operating here. Why does the Tajik army operate the way it does? What hidden factors influence their command, doctrines, and equipment? Our expert panel will unravel these complexities, providing captivating insights into the evolving dynamics of Tajikistan's military and its increasingly pivotal role in Central Asian politics. Don't miss this deep dive into the heart of Central Asian defence strategies.




PART I: Geography and History - (02:26)

with Bruce Pannier and Steve Swerdlow

  1. Strategic Complexity and Geopolitical Importance: Central Asia, specifically Tajikistan, is a region of significant geopolitical complexity. It hosts military bases and outposts from major powers such as Russia, China, India, the US, and the EU, and serves as a testing ground for new security and surveillance programs. This highlights the region's strategic importance and the intricate balance required in its defense policies.

  2. Aging Military Infrastructure: Tajikistan's military infrastructure is notably outdated, with much of its equipment dating back to the Soviet era. The country's reliance on old technology, such as T-55 tanks, reflects its limited military budget and overall economic constraints, positioning it as the weakest among the Central Asian republics in terms of military capability.

  3. Economic Dependency and Vulnerability: The Tajik economy is heavily reliant on remittances from workers abroad, particularly in Russia. This dependency creates significant vulnerabilities, as any changes in Russian immigration policies could drastically impact Tajikistan's economy and, consequently, its defense capabilities and strategic decisions.

  4. Geographical and Infrastructural Challenges: Tajikistan's mountainous terrain and lack of infrastructure pose significant challenges to its defense and economic development. The country is divided into distinct regions with varying degrees of accessibility and development, complicating efforts to create a cohesive national strategy and infrastructure network.

  5. Regional Tensions and Security Concerns: Tajikistan's borders with Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, and China present ongoing security challenges. Tensions with Kyrgyzstan have led to recent conflicts, while the border with Afghanistan is a source of instability due to issues such as drug trafficking and insurgencies. These factors necessitate a delicate balancing act in Tajikistan's defense and foreign policy to manage relations with neighboring countries and global powers.

(Map of Tajikistan: Courtesy of The Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs)

PART II: Command Structures and Branches - (13:04)

with Katie Putz, Bruce Pannier, Derek Bissacio, and Edward Lemon

  1. Centralised Command Structure: Tajikistan's military operates under a highly centralised command structure, with the President having ultimate control over all defense and security decisions. This structure is designed to mitigate risks of insurrections and maintain tight control over military and security forces.

  2. Security Council's Role: The Security Council, comprising only nine of the President's closest advisors, plays a critical role in providing strategic counsel and managing military budgets. This fosters a competitive environment among the branches, incentivizing them to align closely with the President's directives.

  3. Ministry of Defense and General Staff: The Ministry of Defense oversees the General Staff, which commands the ground forces, air and air defense forces, and mobile forces. This setup ensures a hierarchical flow of orders, with the Ministry directing peacetime operations and the General Staff taking command during wartime.

  4. Outdated Equipment and Morale Issues: Tajikistan's military, particularly the ground forces, relies heavily on outdated Soviet-era equipment, with many assets operating beyond their intended service life. Forced conscription and poor morale are prevalent, with new recruits often facing harsh treatment and being stationed far from their home regions.

  5. Mobile Forces' Strategic Importance: The Tajik mobile forces, modeled on Russia's airborne troops, are the best-trained and most versatile units, tasked with rapid response to various threats. They are strategically deployed near the capital for quick defense and internal security, ensuring loyalty and effectiveness in critical situations.

  6. Internal and National Guard Forces: The Internal Troops and the National Guard serve crucial roles in maintaining internal security and protecting the President, respectively. The Internal Troops, under the Ministry of Interior Affairs, focus on public order and domestic defense, while the well-equipped National Guard answers directly to the President, acting as his personal security force.

  7. Border Forces and Corruption: The Border Forces, under the State Committee for National Security, are pivotal in defending against external threats and managing border conflicts. Despite resource limitations, these forces are sought after due to the lucrative opportunities from the drug trade, highlighting a significant state-crime nexus. The border with Afghanistan is particularly challenging, with frequent drug trafficking and occasional militant incursions.

PART III: Foreign Deployments with Tajikistan - (40:23)

with Katie Putz, Derek Bissacio, and Bruce Pannier

  1. Strategic Presence of Foreign Forces: Tajikistan hosts military facilities from both India and China, highlighting its strategic significance. India operates a non-intrusive medical unit and refurbished runway in Farkhor, originally considered for a major airbase but ultimately downscaled and handed to Russia. China, on the other hand, has bases in eastern Tajikistan, near the Wakhan Corridor, focused on security interests related to Xinjiang and the broader Turkestan region, though these bases remain austere compared to Russian facilities.

  2. Comparative Deployment and Equipment: Chinese bases are geographically positioned closer to potential conflict zones like Khorog in Gorno-Badakhshan but lack substantial military hardware and airfields. The Chinese presence is more about maintaining a strategic foothold and monitoring regional stability rather than projecting power, contrasting with the more established and better-equipped Russian bases in Dushanbe and Qurghonteppa.

  3. Internal Unrest and Government Crackdowns: Gorno-Badakhshan remains a hotspot for unrest and government crackdowns. The Tajik government has aggressively suppressed protests and insurgent activities in the region, leading to significant casualties and mass arrests. The heavy-handed approach underscores the region's ongoing volatility and the government's determination to maintain control, despite the complex interplay with foreign military interests and local ethnic dynamics.

PART IV: Wargaming Results and Findings - (47:35)

with Derek Bissacio, Bruce Pannier, Katie Putz, and Steve Swerdlow

  1. Geographical Challenges and Insurgent Threats: The rugged and jagged geography of Gorno-Badakhshan, poses significant logistical challenges for defense operations. Wargame scenarios revealed that even small insurgent groups could leverage this terrain to delay or disrupt Tajik and Russian reinforcements, highlighting the country's vulnerabilities to border incursions from Afghanistan.

  2. Logistical Constraints on Military Response: The Tajik military's ability to rapidly respond to threats is severely hampered by inadequate infrastructure. Key military assets and reinforcements take days to reach remote areas due to poor road conditions and the lack of local airstrips capable of supporting supply and reinforcement operations, severely limiting operational effectiveness.

  3. Russian Influence and Potential Coup Scenarios: While current political dynamics suggest a stable relationship between Tajikistan and Russia, any succession crisis or political instability, particularly regarding President Rahmon's favored successor, could lead to Russian intervention. The likelihood of a coup backed by local garrisons or Russian forces remains a critical consideration for regional stability.

  4. Feasibility of Offensive Operations Against Kyrgyzstan: Tajikistan's military infrastructure and logistical capabilities are insufficient to support sustained offensive operations against neighboring Kyrgyzstan. The rail network is not designed for military logistics, and road transport is unreliable, making any large-scale movement of troops and equipment highly visible and easily countered.

  5. Dependence on Russian and Foreign Support: Tajikistan's military heavily relies on Russian support for aerial operations and advanced weaponry. However, the distance from Russian bases and limited local facilities undermine the effectiveness of this support, particularly in protracted conflicts or insurgent engagements.

  6. Economic Vulnerabilities and Strategic Leverage: Tajikistan's economic dependence on remittances from migrant workers in Russia provides significant leverage for Moscow. Any disruption in remittance flows or the forced repatriation of workers could destabilize the Tajik economy and increase internal unrest, providing Russia with a potent tool for influencing Tajik policy.

  7. Internal Security and Local Tensions: Forward-deploying troops to remote regions like Gorno-Badakhshan often exacerbates tensions with local populations, leading to protests and unrest. Balancing internal security with the need to reinforce strategic locations remains a complex challenge, as military presence can provoke rather than prevent conflict.


On the Panel this Week:

Bruce Pannier

- Host of Radio Liberty’s "Majlis Podcast"

- Prolific Central Asia Journalist

Derek Bisaccio

- Lead Analyst at Forecast International

- Defence and Security Specialist for Russia and Central Asia

Edward Lemon

- President of the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs

- Professor at Texas A&M

Katie Putz

- Managing Editor for The Diplomat

- Co-Host of the "Asia Geopolitics Podcast"

Steve Swerdlow

- Ass. Prof of the Practice of Political Science and Human Rights

- Snr Central Asia Researcher at Human Rights Watch

The Armed Forces of Central Asia (Part 1): Tajikistan and Regional Command Structures (Released May 16th)



I: Sinostan: China's Inadvertent Empire

- By Alexandros Peterson and Raffaello Pantucci

II: The Russian Way of War

- By Charles Bartles and Lester W. Grau

III: The Military and the State in Central Asia: From Red Army to Independence

- By Erica Marat


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