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Tajikistan’s Security Chief Has Gone Over to ISIS. Now What?


Washington must convince the corrupt and repressive Tajik government to change its ways, lest extremists gain a Central Asian foothold.

The April disappearance of Gumurod Halimov, the American-trained head of Tajikistan’s elite security force, sent shudders through Dushanbe, the capital of Afghanistan’s impoverished northern neighbor. His May reappearance in an ISIS video shocked not just Tajikistan, but all of Central Asia. It was also a wakeup call for Washington. Halimov’s venomous propaganda videos, in which he cites his counterterrorism training with U.S. special operators and Blackwater in the United States, underscore the danger of providing unrestricted U.S. security assistance to failing states.

Central Asia has long defied predictions that it might soon harbor violent extremism, but the defection of a senior security official to ISIS points to a crisis in Tajikistan’s governing structures. Before the U.S. considers any more security or military assistance to the area, we should take heed of the main causes of instability in Eurasia: poor governance, pervasive corruption, and repression. The U.S. must set more stringent conditions on security assistance — specifically, require these states to improve governance — lest it prove wasteful and counterproductive.

We know little about Halimov’s path to ISIS or the extent of the group’s reach into Central Asia, so distant from its main battleground in Syria. But we know that Halimov participated in U.S.-sponsored counterterrorism training programs with U.S. special operations forces on five occasions either in Tajikistan or the United States. He reportedly received U.S. instruction on a broad array of topics: tactical leadership, terrorism crisis response, and counterterrorism preparations for large events. We also know that Tajikistan’s government is weak and corrupt, and that Halimov’s superiors, who kept sending him for more foreign training, apparently were unaware anything was amiss.

It appears that Tajikistan has learned no lessons from his defection. Although Dushanbe quickly designated ISIS a terrorist organization and revoked the citizenship of Tajiks fighting for militant organizations overseas, these are largely symbolic efforts to show the population and the world—especially Russia and the United States, its most important security partners—that it is doing something. The Tajik government has been silent about what sort of internal investigation it is conducting into the defection, and has not called for reforming the security services or the processes by which they vet their own.


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