Conflict in Khorog – Links to various sources and analysis on recent events in Tajikistan

Conflict in Khorog - Links to various sources and analysis on recent fatal events in TajikistanThe Aga Khan’s tightrope walk in Tajikistan
The Pamiri spiritual leader risks state alienation as tension over regional autonomy rumbles on. 31 Aug 2013 oshua Kucera is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC.

Are Outside Forces Conspiring To Create “Great Badakhshan”? August 4, 2013 – 2:50pm, by Joshua Kucera
In Khorog, Bracing For Another Attack, Published July 27, 2013, JOSHUA KUCERA, FOR THE PULITZER CENTER
The Tajiks Who Fight Their Own Government, Last year, U.S.-trained forces in Tajikistan attacked the town of Khorog. But townspeople fought back, and they’re ready to do it again. JOSHUA KUCERAJUN 28 2013
Q&A with Man Nistam: What really happened in Gorno-Badakhshan? – Written by Kanal PIK on Tuesday, 18 September 2012
Local Heroes vs Central Government in Tajik East – Death of high-profile leader in Badakhshan deepens distrust of formal authorities. 7 Sep 12
The Dictatorship of Civil Society in Tajikistan – by Faisal Devji – November 27, 2012.
Explaining the Conflict in Eastern Tajikistan By Alexander Sodiqov (09/05/2012 issue of the CACI Analyst)
Deep Dive: The Aga Khan In Tajikistan
Institute for War and Peace Reporting: Another Blow to Fragile Stability in Tajik East
Khorog demonstrators leave square
Politics dies in the Pamirs, by Faisal Devji, OXFORD DIARY | PUBLICATION DATE: August 24, 2012
Tajik troops to leave Khorog under pressure from protesters
Tajik troops to leave border region after protests
Another Blow to Fragile Stability in Tajik East
Tajikistan: Thousands Demand Government Troops Out of Restive East
Stop the Military Action in Khorog
From the youth of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, Tajikistan

Peace agreement broken in Tajikistan
Witnesses: Tajik troops open fire on protesters
A new destabilization in Gorno-Badakhshan: Khorog residents attacked administrative buildings
A clip in which Mawlana Hazar Imam is mentioned several times by the speaker, possibly urging the people on behalf of the Imam to surrender their weapons and observe the peace agreement
All government forces’ checkpoints removed in the Tajik city of Khorog
Surrendered Tajik Opposition Commander: ‘We Don’t Want To Fight. We Want Peace.’
The Spectre of Civil War
The View From Ishkashim
Voluntary surrender of weapons starts after address by the Aga Khan
Western Tourists Are Caught in Tajik Drama
Framing the Conflict in Khorog: This is a guest post from Zohra Ismail Beben, an anthropology PhD student at Indiana University who specializes in Tajikistan. –
Explainer: Violence In Tajikistan’s Badakhshan Province A Legacy Of The Civil War –
Unprecedented Clashes in Southeast Tajikistan –
Tajik authorities acknowledged the deaths of 42 people during a RAID in the Pamir –
Tajikistan: Will Ceasefire End Deadly Conflict in Gorno-Badakhshan? –
Government Ends Operations In Eastern Tajikistan –
The strongman cometh –

The Aga Khan’s tightrope walk in Tajikistan
The Pamiri spiritual leader risks state alienation as tension over regional autonomy rumbles on. 31 Aug 2013 oshua Kucera is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC.

To much of the world, the Aga Khan is famous as a celebrity royal, with a jetsetting lifestyle, a personal fortune estimated by Forbes at about $800m – including a $150m yacht – and Rita Hayworth as a stepmother.

But to the small Pamiri minority of Tajikistan, he is their spiritual leader and a direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammed. And when fighting broke out last year in the Pamiris’ biggest town, it thrust the Aga Khan into an awkward political dispute: between his benighted followers in Tajikistan who feel that the government treats them all as enemies, and Tajikistan’s autocratic president on whose permission the Aga Khan depends to remain in contact with his flock.

The Pamiris of Tajikistan are among the world’s 15 million Ismailis, a sect of Shia Islam that also has a large numbers of adherents in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan have been a centre of Ismailism for at least a millennium, and today residents of eastern Tajikistan are overwhelmingly Ismailis. During the Soviet era they were cut off from the world Ismaili community, but the Aga Khan’s first visit in 1995 to a rapturous reception was one of the landmark events of the region’s history.

In the two decades since Tajikistan gained independence, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) – his aid organisation – has become the dominant force in the economy of the Pamirs, the most remote part of an already remote country. With a staff of 3,500, the foundation is the largest employer in the region and signs of the Aga Khan’s largesse are ubiquitous in the Pamirs: from rural schools and health clinics, to a new university and park in the centre of the main city of Khorog, where neat lawns and tastefully modern wooden playground equipment evoke Scandinavia more than the remote mountains of Central Asia.

Tajikistan’s central government has long had an ambivalent attitude towards the Aga Khan’s presence in the Pamirs. Embarking on independence as the former Soviet Union’s poorest republic, then set further back by a bloody civil war in the 1990s, for most of its independent history, Tajikistan has barely been able to provide services to its people.

So on the one hand, it was relieved to not have to take responsibility for the Pamirs. But as the central government in Dushanbe has slowly consolidated its authority, it has come to resent the effective autonomy that the region – officially known as the Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Region, and commonly referred to by its Russian acronym GBAO – has gained. A 2008 US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks reported that “the Aga Khan Development Network is making GBAO an example of liberal economic development and better education, but struggles continually to get buy-in from a suspicious government most concerned with control”.

The Pamir’s ‘commanders’

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon tried to capitalise on the Aga Khan’s popularity while simultaneously undercutting him: in his political rhetoric to the Pamiris, Rahmon emphasised his role in allowing the Aga Khan to return and operate in the region.

The central government’s worries about control in the Pamirs were compounded by the strong authority of a handful of men known in Khorog simply as “the commanders”. While the Aga Khan and his foundation were fulfilling GBAO’s spiritual and economic needs, the “commanders” were tending to the region’s security. Former civil war leaders who had been given some local authority as a result of the peace agreement that ended the war in 1997, the commanders operated like mafia bosses: leading organised crime operations while also protecting Pamiris from the predations of the central government. As Ismailis, they are followers of the Aga Khan – though they are unaffiliated with him. As with the Aga Khan, as the central government gained power it sought to rein in the commanders’ authority.

This all came to a head on July 24, when a high-ranking security officer was killed near Khorog, and the government – on the pretext of catching the commanders, whom the government charged with the murder – carried out a military operation against the town. The scale of the operation – which used helicopters, mortars and dozens of snipers posted on the steep mountains enveloping the town – made clear that the government’s goal was not just to capture the commanders but also to send a message that it intended to rein in the Pamiris’ autonomy.

But the operation backfired – not only did it fail to capture any of the commanders, but it also quickly turned the town against the government and only strengthened support for the commanders. Many ordinary citizens took up arms and fought the government soldiers.

During the fighting, the Aga Khan and his foundation played a key role in brokering a ceasefire, and it was his moral authority that convinced the aggrieved residents of Khorog to give up the fight. When I visited Khorog earlier this summer, over and over I heard the same refrain from residents: “We only gave up our guns because the Imam asked us to,” they said, using the Aga Khan’s honorific.

And about a month after the ceasefire, one of the commanders was killed under mysterious circumstances. At a rally protesting the death – which townspeople blamed on the government – the local head of the Aga Khan Development Network, Yodgor Faizov, made an uncharacteristically blunt statement criticising the government.

“Imomnazar Imomnazarov [the commander] was a real man who followed the command of the Aga Khan and laid down his arms,” Faizov said. “He died like a real man. He could have rallied people around himself and armed them, but he did not. Today we can be proud that the people of Badakhshan after July 24 did all that was asked of them. We complied with all the authorities’ requirements. From now on, the people have every right to demand that troops be withdrawn; the people will decide their own fate. Our young people will themselves bring order to the city.”

That helped reduce tensions again. But since then, many in Khorog have begun to criticise the Aga Khan and his organisation for becoming co-opted by the government and for being too reluctant to enter politics. Faizov’s apparently forceful statement, they say, was in fact emblematic of a carefully calibrated policy to get the Pamiris to stop protesting while doing nothing to change the conditions underlying the Pamiris’ grievances.

A depoliticised elite

Faisal Devji, probably the world’s most prominent Ismaili intellectual and director of the Asian Studies Centre at St Antony’s College, Oxford University, criticised the Aga Khan Development Network’s role in a much-discussed article published last fall. The organisation, Devji argued, is too dependent on the government for its presence in the country, and has created a depoliticised Pamiri elite that is unable to deal with the serious challenges facing their society.

“[T]his silence by the ‘neutral’ institutions of a foreign-funded civil society works only to prevent a resolution to the problem brought to light by the violence this summer,” he wrote. He also quoted a letter written by a number of Pamiris to the Aga Khan complaining of the “neutral” approach taken by the AKDN in Khorog. “We are confused by their response and are at a loss – whom can we turn to in such a dire situation that affects the lives and securities of all jamati members?”

One fighter in Khorog, when I asked him about the role of the Aga Khan and his organisation in the town’s conflict, paused. “They tried,” he said, clearly reluctant to criticise his spiritual leader. But he went on to point out that, had an organisation such as the United Nations or the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe brokered the ceasefire, then the government would have faced some consequences for breaking the ceasefire (as it seemed to do with the killing of Imomnazarov). But Rahmon, he argued, cannot be intimidated by the Aga Khan. I heard other complaints that the foundation discouraged people from marking the one-year anniversary of the Khorog fighting this summer, trying to sweep it under the rug.

Meanwhile, the sense of cultural estrangement between the Pamiris and the rest of Tajikistan has sharpened. While the cultural differences between Pamiris and other Tajiks had not been previously very salient, in the past year they have taken on new meaning. Pamiris told me they now prefer not to speak Tajik, but rather Russian or their own Pamiri languages (related to, but not mutually intelligible with, Tajik). I heard allegations from intellectuals in Dushanbe that the Aga Khan had ambitions of forming his own state, and a state-run think tank recently accused unnamed “certain forces” of trying to create a “Great Badakhshan” from parts of Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

Both in Dushanbe and Khorog, the expectation is that the government will some day soon try to finish what it started and launch another military operation. Khorog residents have vowed to fight back even harder this time. If fighting starts up again, the expectations of the Aga Khan from his followers will no doubt rise – and silence may no longer be an option.

Are Outside Forces Conspiring To Create “Great Badakhshan”? August 4, 2013 – 2:50pm, by Joshua Kucera

A leader of a governmental think tank in Tajikistan has accused “some countries” and “certain forces” of trying to create an independent Greater Badakhshan from parts of Tajikistan and Afghanistan — but that Russia and China would help prevent that from happening. That’s according to Asia Plus, which reported on a report that deputy director of the Center for Strategic Studies, Sayfullo Safarov, presented in Kazakhstan:

According to [Safarov], currently, there are groups in Afghan Badakhshan that are supported by certain forces. “This indicates that underground geopolitical games are being carried out,” [Safarov]said. He, however, did not specify what forces those groups submit to.

“We cannot say that these plans now pose serious threat to security of Tajikistan, because we are able to defend our part of Badakhshan. Besides, our strategic partners – Russia and China – will help us. However, some countries are hatching such plans we must be vigilant in order to keep stability in this region,” Safarov said.

In a response, also published on Asia Plus, Tajikistan political analyst Parviz Mullojonov noted that Safarov’s comments dovetailed neatly with those of Russian government-affiliated “experts” who like to portray Central Asia as on the brink of chaos so as to justify an increasing role there. He said that the fallout from the controversial Khorog operation last year has forced the government into playing up the seriousness of the threat posed by Badakhshan:

Our official and semi-official political scientists had a hard time – they had to find an acceptable explanation of a military operation in Mountainous Badakhshon Autonomous Region to both Tajik and first of all, international public. International human rights organizations and diplomatic missions asked and have been asking a number of inappropriate questions. Such as for instance: why did they need to conduct a large-scale military operation in the densely populated regional centre and in a quite complex from military and geopolitical point of view border region because of the death of one obviously corrupt generals? Why did they need to involve the army in resolving issues, which are under direct jurisdiction of law-enforcement bodies and the State Committee on National Security? Why the army is dealing with internal political and practically criminal problems in a stable country? To all appearances, they were not able to give answers. This is why our spin doctors, who read a lot of Russian newspapers, raised an old motto from the times of the civil war about a threat of regionalism and separatism.

(Note: the above is from BBC Monitoring; I couldn’t find the original on the Asia Plus site.)

Mullojonov went on to say that the Tajikistan government was “sawing off the branch it’s sitting on” by making itself look vulnerable and weak in international fora.

Anyway, one wonders what “forces” and “countries” Safarov is implying are behind this separatist movement. The Aga Khan is probably one of them; many in Dushanbe seem to believe that the Aga Khan (the London-based spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims, including the people of Badakhshan) harbors some secret political ambition, and his foundation has been very involved in both Tajik and Afghan Badakhshan.

On a recent visit to Badakhshan, I heard separatist sentiments firsthand, and was also told by foreigners who study the region that such ideas have gained popularity, especially in the last year. But 1. those sentiments are still extremely inchoate and not very widely held and 2. more importantly, they appear to be emerging from Badakhshan itself, not as the result of shadowy manipulations by outside forces.

UPDATE: A reader writes in to note that this conspiracy theory has been mooted before in Afghanistan. This is from 2012:

According to the current leader of Afghanistan’s National Congress Party Abdul Latif Pedram, the US and Britain aim to combine Pakistan’s Gilgit and Chitral regions, parts of the historical Badakhshan region in Afghanistan and Tajikistan, and a section of China’s territory to form a new country.

Several members of Afghanistan’s parliament have noted that the US and UK have been trying to establish a new independent nation in the mountainous region of the northeastern Afghanistan and its adjacent parts in Tajikistan.

Afghan MP Fouzia Kofi says subsequent to recent unrest in the Badakhshan provinces of Afghanistan and Tajikistan, certain domestic and foreign political circles are trying to prevent reconstruction of the historical Silk Road which can be the biggest economic highway for Afghanistan.

In Khorog, Bracing For Another Attack, Published July 27, 2013, JOSHUA KUCERA, FOR THE PULITZER CENTER

Khorog, Tajikistan— Along the narrow valley of the Gunt River, the town of Khorog, Tajikistan, is strung several miles long and only about a mile wide, the bluffs rising sharply on each side. The steep mountains look like a fortress, defending the town from the outside. Via a network of aqueducts, springs from the mountains are corralled and piped throughout the city, providing clean drinking water.
But last summer, the mountains proved the town’s enemy. In a military operation ostensibly aimed at capturing four informal leaders/warlords/mafia bosses (depending on your perspective), Tajikistan’s special forces placed snipers halfway up the mountains, sneaking them up in the middle of the night. When the operation began early in the morning, those snipers targeted not only the homes of the “commanders,” as they’re most commonly called here, but also ordinary civilians. As one resident told me: “After that I understood: this wasn’t between those leaders and the government, but between the government and the people.”
What brought Tajikistan’s military to Khorog is a complex story. The trigger was the murder of a local security official, and the central government’s stated desire to bring his killers to justice. But nearly everyone, both in the capital Dushanbe and here in Khorog, believes that the goal was broader: to rein in the local commanders who, in Dushanbe’s view, had become a little too autonomous.
After a brutal civil was in the 1990s, Tajikistan’s government reached an agreement with the rebels giving the latter government positions in exchange for them laying down arms. Those rebel leaders operated without much contact with Dushanbe, and ran their territories like small fiefdoms. Over the past several years, as it’s gained strength, the central government has managed to neutralize most of those ex-rebel regions, and Khorog was to be the last step in the process.
But the attempt backfired. The heavy-handedness of the government’s approach communicated to the people of Khorog that the government was against them, not just the commanders. People in this part of Tajikistan have important cultural differences with the rest of the country: they speak a different language, and are Shia Ismailis rather than Sunni Muslims. Citizens reported government soldiers using ethnic slurs against them during the fighting—likely just isolated cases, but ones which have gotten amplified by social media in the months since.
Visiting Khorog nearly a year after those events, it’s striking the unanimity with which people speak about how they support the “commanders” and oppose the government. The only people who support the government, I was told, are those who work for them. People told me of awkward rifts in families where one member works for the government and no one else does.
Most accounts of last summer’s Khorog events, even those critical of the government, have tended to emphasize that the “commanders” are criminals who are barely more tolerated than the government. And while many people did express reservations about criminal activities that the commanders engage in, including drug smuggling, they still said that the commanders stood up for Khorog and are the town’s best hope for self-protection. Many had stories of neighbors or cousins who were not part of the commanders’ organizations, but who nevertheless took up arms when the government attacked.
One element of the government’s narrative about the events is especially objectionable to people in Khorog: the notion that it was connected to Afghanistan. The government has repeatedly alluded to Afghan ties of the commanders, implying that the Khorog operation was a battle in the war on terror.
But Khorog residents say that the notion that they are in league with terrorists from Afghanistan is absurd. For one, they are Shia Ismailis, seen by Sunnis like the Taliban as heretics. In addition, despite their isolation, they tend to be more cosmopolitan than other Tajikistanis. Pamiris are well known in Tajikistan for their command of English and relatively modern outlook. This has endeared them to expatriates in Tajikistan, and ensured that they get a large share of the lucrative jobs in international agencies (while, in turn, creating some resentment among non-Pamiris).
Now, the main question here is: what next? Nearly everyone expects the government to try some day to finish what it started. Opinion is mixed on what to do about that: While some say they need to lie low and avoid provoking the government, others insist that they need to prepare to be better able to take on the government next time. Fighters loyal to the commanders hint that they have already been collecting weapons, and neighborhood men conduct night patrols around Khorog. They’re making sure government soldiers can’t come and arrest residents in the middle of the night—and they’re also, they say, keeping an eye on the mountains.

The Tajiks Who Fight Their Own Government, Last year, U.S.-trained forces in Tajikistan attacked the town of Khorog. But townspeople fought back, and they’re ready to do it again. JOSHUA KUCERAJUN 28 2013

Just before dawn on July 24 of last year, the government of Tajikistan began a military operation in the small town of Khorog on the Afghanistan border. According to the government, the attack was targeted at four leaders of criminal groups involved in drug smuggling from Afghanistan, who were suspected of killing a local security official. It was the kind of operation the U.S. – worried about instability on Afghanistan’s northern border – has been training and equipping Tajikistan’s special forces units to carry out.

But to the people of Khorog, the operation looked very different. The scale of the attack – using helicopters, mortars, and the country’s most elite soldiers – was clearly far beyond what was necessary to capture four men. Snipers on the mountains that rise steeply above the town shot at civilians. Phone and internet were cut off. One local civil society leader described huddling with his family in an interior room in his apartment; venturing to a window he saw the bodies of three neighbors – and a soldier’s gun pointed at his window. “After that I understood: this wasn’t between those leaders and the government, but between the government and the people,” he recalled.

The operation backfired: Resistance from the town forced the government into a humiliating retreat after failing to capture any of the four men they had sought. And instead of exerting control, the government has alienated people here, who now nearly unanimously say they mistrust and fear the Dushanbe authorities. Groups of men patrol the streets at night, trying to prevent another surprise attack by the government. Men loyal to the leaders – commonly referred to as “commanders” – say they have gathered weapons in preparation for another war.

This comes at an unpropitious time for Tajikistan. In preparation for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan, scheduled to start next year, the U.S., Russia, and other partners have been trying to help Tajikistan’s government bolster its shaky hold on the unstable country. Over the last several years, Dushanbe has managed to wrest control over most of Tajikistan from a variety of local warlords who still held sway as a legacy of the civil war that ravaged Tajikistan from 1992 to 1997. Khorog was to be the last step in that consolidation process. But the failure of last summer’s operation, and the hardening of resistance among the people of Khorog, has instead reversed that momentum.

I spent two weeks in Khorog talking to a wide range of residents: civil society leaders, intellectuals, fighters, expats, and ordinary people. Almost none of them wanted their name published, fearing retribution from the government. I was unable to talk to government officials — exposing myself as a journalist (I was visiting on a tourist visa) would have exposed me to police scrutiny and possibly endangered my sources. But the picture that emerged from the town was clear: while news stories still generally refer to the local combatants as “militants,” people consider the fight last year to have been a people’s uprising in response to an attack on them by the government. And when the government comes back again (something that is widely believed to be inevitable both in Dushanbe and Khorog) the people here say they will form a front more united than before, and fight back harder than before.

Gorno Badakhshan – the region of which Khorog is the capital – is the most mountainous, remote part of an already very mountainous and remote country. Its geography is dominated by the Pamir (from Persian meaning “the roof of the world”) Mountains, part of the same mountain system that includes the Himalayas and Hindu Kush. It is sparsely populated: Badakhshan’s roughly 250,000 people represent 3 percent of Tajikistan’s total population, but the territory occupies almost half of the entire country. The people, known as Pamiris, speak various Iranian languages that are related to, but not mutually comprehensible with, the Tajik spoken in the rest of Tajikistan. And where most of Tajikistan is Sunni Muslim, the Pamiris are Shia Ismailis, part of a worldwide community of 15 million loyal to the London-based Aga Khan.

For most of history, the Pamirs were profoundly isolated, but came under control of the Russian empire in 1895. In 1925, the Soviet Union formally created the Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast and, mindful of its strategic importance near the sensitive borders with China and Afghanistan, took pains to develop the area and strengthen their hold on it. They built a “highway” and established pharmaceutical and textile factories there.

Soon after independence came in 1991, the country fractured on regional lines and Tajikistan broke out in a civil war. The Pamiris eventually lost, but as part of the peace deal that ended the war the Pamiris’ military leaders were given government positions. One, Mamadbokir Mamadbokirov, headed the border post with China and another, Tolib Ayombekov, a post on the Afghanistan border.

Since then, the government in Dushanbe has for the most part neglected the Pamirs. The factories closed, and the role of developing the economy was taken up by the Aga Khan Development Network, the aid group funded by the Pamiris’ spiritual leaders. Pretty much anything that has been built in Badakhshan in the last 20 years has been the product of AKDN largesse, and the group is the region’s largest employer. Politically, the Pamirs were quiet. In a 2008 Wikileaked U.S. diplomatic cable entitled “The Pamirs – Going Their Own Way, Whether They Want To Or Not,” American embassy visitors to Khorog nevertheless found that “all our contacts dismissed regional alienation from Dushanbe as a non-issue.” Still, after the government undertook operations to regain control in other parts of the country it was widely assumed that they would try to do the same in Badakhshan.

On July 21 Abdullo Nazarov, a local head of the State Committee for National Security (known by its Russian initials GKNB, the successor agency to the KGB) was killed in a dispute over a shipment of contraband cigarettes that had come through Ayombekov’s border post. According to a local source who followed the case, Ayombekov’s brother attempted to scare Nazarov by shooting at him, but he accidentally hit and killed him.

This proved to be the pretext the government was looking for. At the time, there were already a large number of soldiers in Badakhshan for a military exercise. Immediately following Nazarov’s killing soldiers began to gather in Khorog, along with units from the Ministry of the Interior, GKNB, and National Guard. On July 23, about 100 residents of Khorog held a protest asking the soldiers to leave the town.

At 4 the next morning, residents awoke to the sound of gunfire. During the night, snipers had climbed up and taken positions on the steep mountains that enclose Khorog. While the exact order of events remains murky, what seems to have happened is that government soldiers initially focused their fire on the homes of the “commanders”. But they faced unexpectedly strong resistance from fighters loyal to the commanders, and in response began to target civilians as well, which in turn prompted ordinary residents to take up whatever arms they had or could find.

As a result, the distinction between “fighters” and “civilians” became blurry. Nevertheless, according to local human rights groups who have tabulated the casualties, the majority of the dead and injured were unarmed people. One 16-year-old boy was killed by sniper fire while on his way to the family’s outdoor toilet, his father said. A 66-year-old was shot and killed while looking out his window. In total, residents say about 20 civilians were killed, and three or four fighters loyal to the commanders.

The number of civilians killed is smaller than initial reports suggested, and one unusual thing about this uprising is that instead of presenting themselves as victims, the people of Khorog crow about their victory over the government. Asked how many people in town were killed, nearly everyone cites the figure of about 25. But asked about government casualties, residents often cite figures of 200 or 300 soldiers killed. (The real figure has been kept quiet by the government, but is believed to be a few dozen.) I heard unverified stories of military trucks filled with bodies retreating to their base dripping with blood. Or of Tajikistan special forces troops privately admitting that the Pamiris beat them soundly.

The forces that carried out the operation had received substantial training and equipping from the U.S. American officials rarely comment on security cooperation with Tajikistan, but according to what information is available, the U.S. had budgeted $9 million for aid to Tajikistan’s various special forces units in 2012, part of a $24 million counter-narcotics aid package. One U.S. diplomatic cable from 2010 said that officers from U.S. Special Operations Command Central were planning an assessment of Tajikistan’s special forces and then would be “organizing these groups into special units” and then “sustain an increase in capabilities” via training with U.S. special forces. U.S. aid has included rifles for the GKNB.

“What happened in Khorog is probably the tip of the iceberg as far as the GKNB’s use of violence against political opponents and apparent involvement in criminal activities,” said Susan Corke, director of Eurasia Programs at Freedom House. “The GKNB is a notoriously corrupt and repressive institution, allegedly involved in drug smuggling and openly engaged in repression of legitimate political dissent.”

It’s not clear how significant the U.S. role’s in training Tajikistan’s special forces was. There is no evidence that the U.S. supported, condoned or even was aware of the attack before it happened. But the U.S. has been put in an awkward position by the operation, and it has neither touted the operation as a success nor condemned it as an overreach. And despite laws that prohibit U.S. training of units that have committed human rights violations, the U.S. has continued its training programs with Tajikistan’s forces. “The United States regularly reviews the full range of our bilateral aid programs to Tajikistan, including our security assistance,” said Emily Horne, a State Department spokeswoman. “As with all countries, this ongoing review is part of our efforts to ensure our assistance dollars are being appropriately and effectively used. Because such reviews are ongoing, I’m not going to speculate on possible next steps.”

One international official in Dushanbe said Tajikistan felt “emboldened” by U.S. military aid to carry out the operation. “If the U.S. gives money to our army and law enforcement agencies, they need to control where these funds go,” said Manuchehr Kholiqnazarov, a human rights lawyer in Khorog. “The Americans should ask why their money is being used to attack civilians instead of attacking terrorists and drug traffickers.” But a fighter loyal to one of the commanders joked to me: “You didn’t train them very well.”

After 17 hours of fighting, a ceasefire was negotiated with the help of the AKDN, but soldiers remained in Khorog. A month later, another local commander was killed under mysterious circumstances, and thousands protested, demanding that the government troops leave, which they did. In the operation’s aftermath, the government tried to tie the events to Afghanistan, claiming that security forces had arrested eight Afghan citizens during the operation and that after Nazarov’s murder Ayombekov had appealed to fighters in Afghanistan for support. No conclusive evidence, however, has emerged tying anything that happened in Khorog to Afghanistan (and the government seems to have dropped those talking points).

While Nazarov’s killing was the pretext for the operation, no one – either supporters or critics – believe it was the real reason. Instead, the broad consensus is that the central government in Dushanbe felt that the “commanders” had become a little too autonomous and needed to be reined in. In particular, command of international trade routes through Badakhshan was likely a factor. The line between legal and illicit trade is blurry in Tajikistan, as even trade that passes through legal border points is deeply corrupt. Nazarov’s killing may have been a pretext, but its circumstances — in a dispute over an illegal shipment of cigarettes through a border crossing controlled by a “commander” — is nevertheless emblematic.

Aside from small-time cigarette smuggling, Tajikistan’s only border crossing with China is in Badakhshan, and since it opened in 2004 trade with China has become increasingly important to Tajikistan. China is now Tajikistan’s largest trading partner, representing about $2 billion a year, roughly a third of the country’s total commerce. That business is threatened by incomplete control of the Tajikistan-China border.

The operation also appeared to target Tajikistan’s legitimate political opposition. The day before the attack, the regional leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party, Sabzali Mamadrizoyev, went missing. His body was found three days later, and a widely circulated YouTube video purports to show government soldiers dragging and kicking Mamadrizoyev’s body. And the day of the operation, the party’s Khorog head, Sherik Karamkhudoyev, was arrested and later sentenced to 14 years in prison on various charges that many see as trumped up.

Spending time in Khorog, it quickly becomes clear that the “commanders” enjoy broad support from most of the population. This was not necessarily the case before last summer’s operation. Like many mafias, they supported locals against a predatory government. (For example, beating up two central government officials who had tried to extort money from a local gasoline dealer.) But they also were rough men involved in drug trafficking and other sorts of smuggling.

But the operation changed people’s perception. “I don’t like them. I respected them for their resistance [in the civil war] but personally I didn’t like them,” said one Khorog resident. “But the events of last year brought people together and created this sentiment of unity. All of a sudden we felt how vulnerable and unprotected we were.” Another man who also had opposed the commanders said that once the fighting started, “I didn’t think twice about which side I was on, these were invaders.”

The consensus both in Dushanbe and Khorog is that the government will eventually try to finish what it started. Most think that another operation won’t happen this year; presidential elections are scheduled for this fall and Rahmon is unlikely to want to do something with such unpredictable, possibly destabilizing, results before then.

Groups of men organized by neighborhood patrol Khorog’s streets at night – “so they can’t come and take people out of their houses in the middle of the night,” one of the patrol’s organizers told me. One man loyal to one of the commanders said that they had already been gathering guns and that the government couldn’t be trusted. “If they know we don’t have weapons they can do anything they want to us.” (He acknowledged that that some in Khorog disagree with that strategy, thinking that people should do whatever possible to avoid provoking another attack.)

One civil society leader noted that last summer, many young people fled to the countryside when the attacks began. “If this happens again, though, they won’t leave, they’ll get a gun,” the person said. Where will they get guns from? “If something happens again, people aren’t worried about guns. Afghanistan has a lot of guns. It’s not a problem to find guns here.”

Q&A with Man Nistam: What really happened in Gorno-Badakhshan?

In late July, the Tajik military sent troops to the semi-autonomous province of Gorno-Badakhshan, claiming it was seeking the arrest of members of a criminal gang responsible for the assassination of Major-General Abdullo Nazarov, the head of the Tajik State National Security Committee (GKNB) in the province. Dozens were killed in the operation, with estimates of casualties as high as 200.

In the following weeks, government forces occupied the region. One of the main leaders of the forces resisting Dushanbe, Tolib Ayombekov, surrendered on Aug. 12. Ten days later, after voluntarily disarming his militia, local leader Imumnazarov was killed, allegedly at the hands of government forces.

Many questions remain about what led to this sudden confrontation, how exactly it went down and what’s next for Tajikistan. Bordering China, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan, the province was the site of furious fighting during Tajikistan’s bloody civil war, and also serves as a major drug-trafficking route. To learn more, I got in touch with an analyst with extensive knowledge of the province and its history, but who, due to the sensitivity of the issue, spoke to me under the alias Man Nistam.

Q: First off, could you give a bit of background on the post-civil war situation in Badakhshan, and what the overall relationship was between the autonomous government and the central authorities?

A: After the civil war, the four main warlords became informal leaders. They had all been key figures during the civil war and all were considered heroes for various reasons. They are important to the locals even if some of them are feared, etc. Also, the importance of His Highness, [Nizari Ismaili Imam] Agha Khan, cannot be overstated. People had been starving and suffering in Gorno-Badakhshan until he sent humanitarian aid and started helping them. Many in the Pamir [Mountains] still talk about an untold genocide that occurred during the civil war and many still want acknowledgement and restitution for this. They have told me about mass graves. Others point out that while many Pamiris died, so did many other groups in Tajikistan that were brutally killed as well, such as the Gharmis. Nevertheless, the OSCE did do some preliminary work and a couple of mass graves near Dushanbe were uncovered. Still, it is unclear. What is clear, is that the raping and killing of Pamiris was bad and even today, I have heard many Tajiks refer to Pamiris in extremely negative terms. So, reconciliation or acceptance of religious and ethnic difference among many groups hasn’t really occurred.

Given these issues, while many in Gorno-Badakhshan, before this raid didn not want to cause problems and wanted peace with the central government, they also did not rely on the central government for much.

Q: Who were the people who resisted the government incursion? Why did they resist and how would you classify them?

A: The people who resisted the government incursion belonged to four main areas in Khorog. They are loyal to local clan leaders or “warlords.” Some of them are drug lords but not all of the war lords are drug lords. These clan leaders provide protection to the locals, they mediate local disputes, and they help their areas (some more than others) financially and emotionally. They are all “heroes” from the civil war. Imumnazarov was brutally assassinated in that he had surrendered all of his weapons and was sick and in a wheel chair. He was the main leader and deeply respected by people in Khorog and he had limited involvement with the Tajik government. Boqir is also a respected leaders and many are scared he is next on the list to be assassinated.

The people supported these leaders and resisted the government because the government does not provide them, for the most part, with security, legal protections, or other forms of institutions that a government should provide. The government often does, however, take a large cut from the drug lords, shake down local businesses, request bribes for many things, and, in the worst case, the police and the GKNB abuse the locals and intimidate them in a number of ways.

The word I would use for the group of people who resisted the government is exactly that — the Resistance. I think calling them “militants” or terrorists or Islamists or whatever lacks a certain understanding of what is really going on. If a government is oppressing a group of people and they find it necessary to find other authorities in a clan-based society who will represent them, what should those people be called?

They aren’t really revolutionaries because they didn’t start anything. They reacted to a raid by 3,000 soldiers.

Q: Many experts have surmised that the conflict was based around a turf battle between drug smuggling organizations loyal to Tajik President Emomali Rahmon and independents that operate in Badakhshan. Do you agree with this theory? What else might have provoked the operation?

A: I agree. It likely was a turf battle with one group or two, doing what I would call a side-hustle – or using an alternative trafficking route. I can only speculate on this one. My speculation is that the General Nazarov, the head of the GKNB for Badakhshan, was killed either by the Tajik government or by a rival group in Ishkashem because of a drunken brawl (but this is just rumor and it is unclear what really happened). Both Ayombekov and General Abdullo Nazarov were Tajik government tools, Ayombekov more so than Nazarov. It has been speculated that these two (or at least Nazarov), was operating an independent trafficking lane but I am not clear about this issue as of yet. Regardless of the details of this issue, I do not believe this operation could have been put together by the current Tajik army in three days — killing/assassination of Nazarov was July 21, raid July 24. In fact, I heard from numerous sources who said that the raid had been planned since the spring. This version coincides with information and mumblings I had heard from people in the spring, but still, it is hard to confirm.

The question is, at least the one that is important to me, what role, if any, did the internationals play in all of this?

Q&A with Man Nistam: What really happened in Gorno-Badakhshan?

Death of high-profile leader in Badakhshan deepens distrust of formal authorities. 7 Sep 12
By Saule Mukhametrakhimova

The killing of an influential local leader in Tajikistan’s southeastern Badakhshan region has shaken the community and compounded the impact of the street battles that preceded it.

Thousands of people joined a protest in the provincial centre Khorog after Imomnazar Imomnazarov was killed in an attack on his home on August 22.

Imomnazarov was an influential figure in Badakhshan who still enjoyed respect as a rebel commander from the days of the 1992-97 civil war. His death came as the region was still tense after gunbattles between government troops and supporters of Talib Ayombekov, a renegade border guards commander who had refused to hand over suspects in the killing of a top regional security official.

The fighting, which left 48 people dead, was ended by a ceasefire negotiated by a mediating team that included representatives of the Aga Khan and the Ismaili branch of Islam that he heads and is practiced in Badakhshan.

IWPR Central Asia Regional Director Abakhon Sultonnazarov explains why there was such a public outflow of anger at the death of Imomnazarov.

Abakhon Sultonnazarov: The scale of the public anger wasn’t surprising. Between 3,000 and 4,000 people from in and around the main provincial town Khorog took part.

For one thing, they were outraged by the murder of a community leader who had been instrumental in making the ceasefire happen. After the Aga Khan called for calm, Imomnazarov’s supporters were the first to lay down their weapons. I’ve heard from contacts in Badakhshan that the process of disarmament got under way only after Imomnazarov addressed community members, who heeded his appeal and turned in their weapons.

More importantly, though, people were furious because they saw his murder as a broader attack on the community, which is held together by informal leaders like Imomnazarov. They also felt betrayed since they had done their best to observe the truce and didn’t expect something like this to happen.

There’s deep-seated mistrust of provincial government officials, as well as of the central authorities. The two are viewed as pretty much the same thing, since the governor and regional departmental heads of ministries are appointed in the capital, and are generally selected for their loyalty to the centre rather than because they’ll represent the interests of people in Badakhshan.

IWPR: The authorities have launched an investigation into Imomnazarov’s death. Has any new information about possible culprits come out?

Sultonnazarov: While local residents maintain that government special forces carried out the attack, officials have denied this. Instead, we are hearing conspiracy theories about some “third force”, presumably abroad, with an interest in destabilising Tajikistan. But even if that were true, people are asking how such an outside force could have staged such an attack just at a time when Khorog was crawling with army and police, and checkpoints were set up on all the approaches to the town.

It’s questionable whether the investigation will really get to the truth.

IWPR: When government troops were sent into the region in July, they encountered stiff armed resistance. How can that be explained?

What I’ve heard from people there is that the bulk of the firearms used by locals in the fighting were in fact seized from inexperienced army soldiers deployed there. Apparently they even got hold of an armoured vehicle.

IWPR: Why do informal leaders like Imomnazarov play such a big role in Badakhshan?

Sultonnazarov: In terms of being able to mobilise people, the ultimate authority lies with these leaders, who wield a lot of influence. It’s partly because this is a close-knit mountainous community in a remote part of the country. Unity and self-reliance have been key to survival, and ensuring this has been the job local leaders have done down the ages.

These leaders emerge from among influential members of the community. This might not be an ideal situation for central government, since it is competing for influence, but it’s a reality that needs to be taken into account when dealing with Badakhshan.

IWPR: Are they like community figures elsewhere, for example the village elders and Muslim clerics of neighbouring Kyrgyzstan?

Sultonnazarov: No, it is different in Badakhshan, where these leaders tend to be men in their fifties rather than elderly. They were originally civil war-era rebel commanders, and acquired their reputations fighting against government forces.

After the conflict was over, they retained their influence, not because people feared them but because they regarded them as integral to the community. They continued to look up to them as informal leaders.

IWPR: What do they do to win such loyalty?

Sultonnazarov: They play a key role as arbitrators defusing conflict within the community. The police here are seen as ineffective and the judiciary as corrupt.

In addition, they often deliver welfare and financial support to people, filling a gap let by inadequate state social services. It is not uncommon to hear stories of people going to the likes of Imomnazarov for help with paying off a bank loan or mortgage when they run into difficulties.

They have the means to do this because of their business interests. Right after the civil war, former rebel commanders were given funding to set up commercial enterprises as part of the process of reconciliation and reintegration. Over time, these companies made money.

IWPR: Imomnazarov may have enjoyed respect in Badakhshan, but the central authorities have accused him and three others including Ayombekov and Mamadbokir Mamadbokirov of running crime operations engaged in drug and tobacco smuggling.

Sultonnazarov: Relations between the government and these former rebel commanders have never been easy, with each side constantly testing its strength. Things tend to get out of hand when one feels that the other has not held up its part of the deal.

These individuals were given government jobs – Ayombekov was commander of the border post at Ishkashim, and Mamadbokirov used to be in charge of a frontier post in Murgab. When the government sensed they presented a challenge, it put them under pressure. In 2008, Mamadbokirov, was involved in an incident in which shots were fired at Khorog’s police station. No one was hurt, and Mamadbokirov and his men turned in their weapons.

Such confrontations used to be resolved when Tajikistan’s president Imomali Rahmon intervened, declaring an amnesty for anyone prepared to return to the fold. Some of the accusations now levelled against these individuals relate to past incidents of this kind.

As for drug trafficking, it has become less of an issue over the last decade or so. Badakhshan, neighbouring on Afghanistan, used to be one of the main trafficking routes, but since the demise of the Soviet Union, the road, which runs via Kyrgyzstan to Russia, has fallen into disuse. In its place, Badakhshan has developed better road communications and for trade with China.

IWPR: Badakhshan used to be regarded as stable. Has this changed?

Sultonnazarov: It’s certainly true that Badakhshan has been stable over the years, unlike other parts of eastern Tajikistan where Sunni Islamic militants were seen as a threat. But there are political, economic and security factors that might have made the authorities think they needed to assert control over the region. The immediate challenge posed by the murder of the regional security chief required a response, but the way that was delivered, with a massive show of force, suggests it offered a convenient pretext for sorting things out.

It is clear that over time, local strongmen were increasingly seen as a threat by central government. In other parts of Tajikistan, the government had already taken action to root them out, but they remained in Badakhshan.

Also, people in Badakhshan are known for their independent spirit. They’re prepared to criticise the government openly, and public protests are not unusual here, in contrast to other parts of the country. And when there is confrontation, the community will side with local informal leaders rather than the states authorities. So if there were ever to be mass protests in Tajikistan, they might well start in Badakhshan.

What is more, Badakhshan’s growing economic role because of China means that these days, it is much more than a troublesome backwater. There is competition to control the lucrative cross-border trade.

It isn’t a straight confrontation of local interest groups vying with powerful figures in Dushanbe who want a slice of the business. It’s more complex than that – local groupings are in competition with others who have connections in the provincial administration, plus outsiders with links to central government. There are competing interests and different agendas.

It would be hugely simplistic to suggest that the recent trouble boils down to a battle for economic control with China. But the interplay of political and business interests, and the struggle to control this lucrative trade is an important factor for understanding what’s been going on behind the scenes.

IWPR: What do these developments mean for the rest of Tajikistan?

Sultonnazarov: Although people in Badakhshan distrust the central authorities, and the murder of Imomnazarov only made things worse, that does not colour their attitude towards the rest of the country. This was also reciprocated, as civil society and media in other parts of Tajikistan expressed indignation at the government’s behaviour in misjudging the situation so that instead of a swift surgical strike there was fierce fighting, resulting in many deaths, and in failing to maintain security in the aftermath.

An article by a Tajik journalist captured this mood, describing her sympathy for those who lost loved ones – both civilians and soldiers. The article’s title was, “We are all Pamiri now”.

Sadly, Tajik state television failed to provide objective coverage of what was going on in Badakhshan. Instead, it carried concerts and news reports on agricultural successes. So anyone wanting to find out what was really happening turned to the internet, in particular social networking sites. This was also where Tajiks expressed their reaction, regardless of their own region of origin. One campaign called for a minute of silence for the victims; another called for a boycott of mobile phone companies which cut connections to Badakhshan, under pressure from the authorities.

In a country that’s often been divided along regional lines, such public expressions of solidarity with the people of Badakhshan are encouraging.


OXFORD DIARY | PUBLICATION DATE: November 27, 2012 at 9:00
by Faisal Devji

The fall of the Soviet Union gave rise to a narrative about the “transition” to democracy, for which the concept of civil society was seen as being foundational. Represented by new-fangled NGOs on the one hand, and on the other by more traditional religious or economic institutions, civil society was meant to establish peace in post-Soviet societies by limiting the reach of the state and indeed politics in general, seen as the source of conflict and violence there. I want to argue here that the reverse is actually the case. Civil society in its post-Cold War incarnation, which is very often funded from abroad, serves both to prevent the establishment of democratic politics, as well as increase the risks of conflict and so the possibility of violence.

What the idea of civil society does in the post-Cold War period is to depoliticize the “people” in whose name it claims to speak. For unlike in its republican conception, the people’s role is no longer revolutionary, to found a new political dispensation. It is meant rather to limit politics either in a libertarian or neoliberal way. Unlike the role it had played from the nineteenth century and late into the twentieth, civil society is not seen in liberal terms today. It is no longer supposed to make politics possible, because this would require the prior constitution of a people in some kind of explicitly political, if not necessarily revolutionary way. In fact the people can only be invoked by or in the name of the state, which also recognizes the presence of conflict and even enmity within it. That the people should be divided and possess enemies is crucial to its existence as a political entity.

What would it mean to be a people without the possibility of conflict and in the absence of a state? Outside this political context the people possesses no meaning, with any claim to represent it as a whole echoing the equally preposterous one made by dictators who rig elections in which they are endorsed by 99% of voters. Without the state and its institutionalization of conflict, in parties and parliaments, violence comes to mark social relations in a way that can lead to civil war. On its own civil society is unable to found a new politics, only to protest against an old one. Whether it is the Occupy movements in Europe and America, or the more successful Arab Spring, civil society activism can at most dislodge governments but never constitute them. And this means that it is condemned eventually to offer up the people to the state in a kind of sacrifice.

I shall take as my example of this sacrifice the recent violence in a region of Tajikistan inhabited by an ethno-religious minority. Previously known after their mountainous homeland as Pamiris, this group is today increasingly identified by the purely sectarian name of “Ismailis”. The change in designation, which disconnects Pamiris from a local and indeed national politics to link them with a transnational and apolitical religious identity, came about as the devastating civil war in Tajikistan was drawing to a close in the late 1990s. At that time the Ismaili spiritual leader – the Aga Khan, based outside Paris – averted a humanitarian catastrophe by having his NGO, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), provide food and other forms of relief in the region where his followers lived.

The role played by the AKDN in Tajikistan’s Badakhshan province represented a victory for the “neutrality” of civil society in a sensitive region, preventing as it did the direct intervention of the UN, NATO or any regional power in a potentially “separatist” area located on the Afghanistan border. But despite its good work during the decade and a half in which it has dominated the area, the AKDN has come no closer to effecting a “transition” to democracy there, let alone in the country as a whole. This is due to the nature of civil society activism itself, more than to the peculiarities of Tajikistan. For the AKDN’s “success” was due entirely to the weakness of Tajikistan’s new government, with the autonomy of its civil society activism compromised with the regime’s stabilization, and especially once Russia and the US started competing for influence and military bases there.

In July this year Tajikistan launched a large-scale and entirely unexpected military incursion into this technically autonomous region. Ostensibly, the move was about arresting former rebels who had been granted amnesty after the civil war, and who were apparently involved in drug trafficking and violence across the Afghan border. Vastly disproportionate to its apparent cause, this deployment resulted in the killing of at least twenty civilians and the assassination of a number of former rebels. Given that the AKDN had taken on the role of a state in its provision of services and employment over the past decade, these events in Badakhshan constituted a direct attack on its influence and left its reputation there in tatters. Indeed it may not be an overstatement to suggest that the AKDN was as much the target of the incursion as were the former rebels. But what could be more predictable than the attempt of a state to regain control of its territory, even if only to secure a share in the trafficking profits that seem to have bypassed Dushanbe?

With a naïve faith in its own resources and international connections, especially in the West, the AKDN had in effect destroyed its own bargaining position with the Tajik regime, not only by urging the disarmament of former rebels, but also by dismantling the structures of local authority in Badakhshan. Tying “development” there to an unrepresentative organization run and funded from abroad, the NGO set itself up as the chief spokesman for the Pamiris with the state, through the Aga Khan’s “Resident Representative” in the capital of Dushanbe. This process of dismantling local authority was also extended to the cultural and religious life of Badakhshan, with arbitrary changes made in leadership, ritual and doctrine. It was all done in the name of efficiency, the same reason given for the AKDN’s unrepresentative model of development. Their poverty has allowed the institutions of Pamiri religious as much as economic authority to be transferred into the hands of strangers in Europe.

The Tajik state no doubt appreciated the truly “efficient” way in which the AKDN, and the Ismaili religious bodies that it informally supported, deployed their political neutrality and resources to depoliticize the Pamiri population and speak on its behalf, purely in the language of development and civil society. Yet the AKDN’s influence and foreign connections would also have worried any government concerned with its sovereignty and territorial integrity. In the process the Pamiris, who had long been a regional majority and a national minority – which is to say a recognizably political entity – were quickly being transformed into a transnational religious movement. And this only allowed them to be attacked as traitors and religious deviants with access to funds and assistance from abroad. And indeed, despite its wholesome reputation for development, the absorption of Pamiris into a non-state organization like the AKDN put them in the same structural position as more sinister movements of transnational militancy, some of which have also adopted a civil society model.

Having helped to save Pamiris from violence, pestilence and famine during the civil war, the AKDN, together with the Ismaili religious organizations that shadow it, ended up making them more vulnerable to attack. This is partly due to their entering into what appears to be an informal pact with the government, in which the latter is allowed to have its way while the AKDN and its religious shadows engage in murky financial and other transactions. A number of the Ismaili religious bodies, for example, seem to have no official existence in Tajikistan, though the funds they receive from abroad appear to be transmitted by the AKDN, even though its role is not meant to include this kind of support. These organizations then hire Pamiris who, in violation of Tajik law, possess no recognized employment status or identification, and can therefore be picked up at any time by the state’s security agencies.

In addition to the uncertain tax implications involved in such arrangements, they guarantee the quiescence and loyalty of Pamiris. Unlike the expatriates who run the AKDN and its religious outliers, for instance, Pamiris are often kept for years on short-term consultancy contracts with no benefits such as pensions or health insurance, making them vulnerable to the state as much as to their employers, who can dismiss them at will for any reason at all. Their loyalty, in other words, is bought by insecurity as much as gratitude for the employment given them as a favour. However necessary these arrangements may be thought to be in a post-Soviet context, they also end up making the NGO sector dependent on the state and complicit in its actions. For the AKDN and its satellites require the government’s favour to engage in such dealings in the same way as they dispense favours to others.

Tied as they are in a relationship of co-dependency, in which the state is increasingly coming to dominate civil society, the AKDN has itself become a threat to the security of Pamiris, partly because it appears to confuse its own protection with that of the people it claims to represent. In the wake of July’s violence, for example, neither the AKDN nor any Ismaili religious body has issued any public statement condemning the state’s actions or, indeed, giving Pamiris any instructions or advice, apart from demanding their further disarmament. Given the rumours of another attack by Tajik forces, this silence by the “neutral” institutions of a foreign-funded civil society works only to prevent a resolution to the problem brought to light by the violence this summer. So a letter recently sent to the Aga Khan by a number of Pamiris, an electronic copy of which I received over Skype from some of the authors in Dushanbe, contains the following plea:

We are deeply concerned about the lack of responsibility, empathy and participation of the leaders of the National Council who, according to community members, do not attend community meetings when invited by the people through the local khalifas, stating that they must remain neutral in such a situation […]. We are confused by their response and are at a loss–whom can we turn to in such a dire situation that affects the lives and securities of all jamati members? We feel that the unwillingness of those appointed as your representatives, either in the AKDN or the jamati institutions, to engage with, advise or instruct members of the community, is a dereliction of leadership and responsibility that is deeply demoralizing. We have heard no word about the progress of any negotiations or the planning for any contingency in the uncertain political atmosphere of Tajikistan, and this can only increase the anxiety of your murids.

The passage quoted above is from the second letter sent their imam by some of the signatories. They had received not a word of response, no doubt for legal and diplomatic reasons, to a first letter sent to the Aga Khan late in August. At that time demonstrators had peacefully taken to the main square in Khorog, asking for its council to convene and legalize the gathering so that protestors could demand the army’s withdrawal as well as the resignation of the provincial leadership for acquiescing in its violation of Badakhshan’s autonomy. The head of the Aga Khan Foundation in Tajikistan, however, persuaded them to rely upon the informal negotiations that he and others were conducting with the government. While leading eventually to the army’s replacement by the secret service, the agreement reached seems not to have addressed popular concerns, and those supporting the demonstrators continue to be harassed and arrested. The important thing to note about this event, however, is that it made clear the fundamentally anti-political attitude of Badakhshan’s “civil society” institutions, which worked to dissuade people from acting as citizens and institutionalizing conflict in the political process. Surely if there was any sign of a transition to democracy in post-Soviet Badakhshan this was it, but such a move would threaten the ability of the AKDN to speak on behalf of Pamiris.

The AKDN, of course, together with the Ismaili religious bodies (known as jamati institutions) linked to it, are most likely involved in extensive behind the scenes negotiations with the government and other parties in order to secure the protection of the Pamiri population. This security they probably think will only be compromised by demonstrations and demands, but the question to ask is how responsible these civil society organizations might have been for the violence whose repetition they are now working to prevent? The authors of the letter to the Aga Khan are clear about the fact that the non-availability of political action, or rather its forestalling by the AKDN, together with the latter’s own secrecy and silence, may well encourage a self-destructive resort to arms by some young Pamiris:

We do not wish to hide from you the rumors that some of the younger members of the Jamaat have identified a weapons supply lines and are arming themselves as we speak, preparing themselves for the new offensive, and although they lack experience of warfare, many of them do not wish to act as passive observers to the unjust attack, and we therefore are concerned that the repercussions of this offensive will end in greater loss of human life. […] We, your spiritual children, feel helpless and scared right now, as we prepare ourselves for another attack. Unless something is done, we foresee a large number of us taking up arms to physically defend our land and community, while others are forced to leave the country.

Recognizing the fact that the AKDN and its associated “jamati institutions” have become the mainstays of Badakhshan’s subservience, the Tajik government now flaunts its patronage of these organizations. The President claims to have made their operations possible, and newspapers report that permission for the Aga Khan to visit his followers might be withdrawn for his own security given prevailing conditions. In other words the institutions of civil society are being held hostage to guarantee the good behaviour of Pamiris, thus acting as a brake on their autonomy and political development. Facing the prospect of being humiliated before their own clients, who have until now been fed with unrealistic stories about the wealth and power of the Aga Khan, these institutions are not likely to do anything more than submit ever more unctuously to government decrees, if only in order to maintain their authority over the Pamiri population and continue the work of development which is somehow meant to lead to freedom. The fact that TCELL, the mobile phone company partly owned by the Aga Khan, ceased working during the army action in July and for a couple of months afterwards, is already being seen as a sign of civil society’s capitulation to the state, in a move damaging to the AKDN as a whole.

This is the conclusion to which the supposedly smooth and efficient provision of services, achieved by the elimination of political rivalries, is inevitably driven. Politics cannot be avoided and must be engaged with, a fact that the transitory power of the AKDN and its form of civil society had only obscured over the last decade. Fractious though it may always have been, Pamiri society had at least possessed its own forms of cultural, religious and other authority even in the Soviet past. But their fragmentation and transportation abroad in the era of global civil society activism have done nothing more than limit the possibility of social integrity and political agreement in Badakhshan. Pamiris must realize that in some ways the AKDN and its religious satellites need them more than the reverse, since the profile and credibility of these institutions would be severely damaged without a role to play in Tajikistan. The task before them is therefore to take control of such institutions while at the same time participating in political life under their own name, and not as part of Ismailism’s “frontierless brotherhood”. In no other way can a transition to democracy, even if only at a provincial level, ever be achieved in Tajikistan.

About the Author: Faisal Devji is Reader in Indian History and Director of the Asian Studies Centre at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University.

Explaining the Conflict in Eastern Tajikistan By Alexander Sodiqov (09/05/2012 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Triggered by the murder of a senior security official, a conflict has recently erupted between government forces and former warlords in eastern Tajikistan. Although many different factors might have played into the government’s decision to order the military operation, at its core the intrusion aimed at completing the regime’s long-term agenda of eradicating former opposition commanders. By ordering the military operation in GBAO, the central government has demonstrated that it will no longer permit former opposition commanders or any other groups or individuals to rival the power of state organs in the country.

BACKGROUND: On July 24, the government of Tajikistan sent special-purpose police units and army troops into Khorog, the capital of the Mountainous Badakhshan Autonomous Province (commonly known by its Russian acronym GBAO), in the country’s east. Hundreds of troops supported by helicopter gunships and armoured vehicles marched into the town on the border with Afghanistan, cutting it off from the rest of the country. Landline, mobile, and internet connections to the isolated region were disconnected.

Officially the offensive was ordered to capture four local strongmen accused by the government of involvement in the killing of Major-General Abdullo Nazarov, the head of the provincial branch of the State Committee on National Security (GKNB, formerly the KGB), on July 21. The authorities claim that the main perpetrator of the general’s death was his subordinate within the regional GKNB branch, Colonel Tolib Ayombekov, who had served as deputy head of a border post on the frontier with Afghanistan. Ayombekov denied the charge. Nevertheless, following the general’s death, the government demanded that Ayombekov and three other local strongmen – Imomnazar Imomnazarov, Mamadboqir Mamadboqirov and Yodgor Shomusallamov – turn themselves in to the police. At the same time, the authorities publicly accused the four individuals of being involved in the smuggling of narcotics, tobacco, and gemstones, and also in human trafficking and banditry.

These accusations and the news that troops were deployed to Khorog prompted the strongmen to arm their supporters and fight back the government forces. The standoff in the town on July 24 claimed at least 40 lives, with the government admitting that 12 of its troops were killed and another 23 injured. The authorities also claim they detained 40 rebels, including eight Afghan citizens, and killed about 30 others. The alleged involvement of Afghan militants in the standoff led the government to close the border with its southern neighbor and request Kabul to reinforce its control of the other side of the frontier. Reportedly, there were also some 20 civilian casualties.

The failure of the heavy-handed approach to deliver the expected outcome prompted President Emomali Rahmon to announce a ceasefire on July 25, while demanding that militants lay down their arms and Ayombekov surrender. Following talks with the government, Ayombekov who had been wounded during the offensive turned himself in on August 12. This appeared to normalize the situation in the region, but the murder of Imomnazarov by unknown assailants on August 22 put the process in jeopardy again. Angered by the strongman’s death, dozens of young people attempted to storm the regional administration office, prompting police to open fire and injure two protesters. As a rally in front of the building drew thousands of protesters, the authorities agreed to withdraw troops from the province.

IMPLICATIONS: Since the beginning of the military operation in Khorog, there has been a lot of speculation about its causes and possible objectives. Some opposition activists have described the intrusion as an attempt at “ethnic cleansing” directed against the residents of the province, collectively referred to as Pamiris. Security officials in Dushanbe have portrayed the operation as targeting criminals linked with militant groups in Afghanistan. Some media, particularly in Russia, explained the standoff between the central government and local strongmen as part of the competition for control of drug trafficking routes. In reality, however, the offensive has been aimed at imposing the central government’s full control of the quasi-autonomous province while pushing aside its “informal” leaders who wielded significant extra-legal power in the region.

GBAO was given the status of an “autonomous” province during the Soviet period because its residents constituted a distinct ethnic minority. The province consists of a number of interconnected high-altitude valleys in which people have retained their unique identities, traditions, and vernaculars that have little in common with the Tajik language. Moreover, the Pamiris belong to the Shia Ismaili branch of Islam, while the people living in other parts of the country are predominantly Sunni Muslims. Although the Soviet rulers did much to iron out the differences between the Pamiris and the rest of the Tajik people, the civil war fought in 1992-97, shortly after Tajikistan’s independence, reinforced the divisions.

At the onset of the war, the Pamiris forged an alliance with the Islamic and Democratic forces, collectively known as the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), which fought against the ex-communist apparatchiks supported by powerful militias from the Kulyab region. As the latter gained control of the country’s southern regions and the capital, Pamiri militias retreated to GBAO where high mountains and narrow valleys provided them with a secure defensive barrier. From early 1993 onwards, the commanders of these militias became the dominant political force in the region. They enjoyed broad popular support and came to be regarded as “heroes” because they defended the region from outsiders and used the profits made from the smuggling of gemstones and drugs to supply the local people with imported foodstuffs, thus saving them from starvation. Ayombekov became a de facto leader of these militias after his prominent brother, Abdulamon (aka “Hunchback Alyosh”), was assassinated in 1994. The other three strongmen targeted by the government also achieved prominence during the civil war.

As part of the peace process negotiated in 1997, many former opposition militants were incorporated into the state security services. Ayombekov was appointed commander of police battalion in Khorog and later, in 2008, deputy head of the Ishkashim border post. Although these assignments provided Ayombekov with little formal power, he continued to serve as the region’s informal leader, while Imomnazarov, Mamadboqirov, and Shomusallamov also retained influence. These leaders often served as informal arbiters and “defenders” of the local residents in disputes with the regional administrators, judges, prosecutors, and police officials. Many Pamiris acquiesced with the special extra-legal role played by Ayombekov and other strongmen because they were seen as “local” and “more just” in contrast with the “outsider” and “corrupt” officials. Yet, cognizant of the limitations and sources of their power, the “unofficial leaders” never challenged directly the authority of the central government, particularly of the country’s president.

This arrangement was bound to come to an end as the regime pushed aside or eradicated all but a few civil war-era commanders who had been previously incorporated into the state. In the early 2010s, GBAO effectively remained the last region where the central government had to reckon with former warlords. Their sidelining began in early 2011 when a number of key border officials in the region were replaced and the local branch of the GKNB was strengthened by senior personnel dispatched from Dushanbe. Then, in early July 2012, army troops held massive military drills in the region. The central authorities needed only a reason to launch a crackdown against Ayombekov and the other “informal leaders,” and the murder of Nazarov – who had also been a UTO member in the past – provided such a reason.

CONCLUSIONS: By ordering the military operation in GBAO, the central government has demonstrated that it will no longer permit former opposition commanders or any other groups or individuals to rival the power of state organs in the country. In the longer term, however, the regime’s desire to fully control the isolated province will inevitably come into conflict with the special role that the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the world’s Ismailis, plays there. In addition to effectively lifting the Pamiris from poverty and providing many of them with jobs and western education, the Aga Khan wields influence in the region that the Dushanbe government cannot match. Thus, when Ayombekov and his supporters handed themselves in to the authorities, they announced that their decision to do so was prompted by a request from the Aga Khan rather than the calls from Dushanbe. How the imminent conflict between the central government’s policy of power consolidation and the growing role of the Aga Khan in the region will play out remains to be seen.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Alexander Sodiqov taught at the Russian-Tajik Slavonic University in Dushanbe, Tajikistan in 2009-2010. He is now a PhD student at the University of Toronto.

Deep Dive: The Aga Khan In Tajikistan – September 06, 2012

For a week in late July, Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province was in crisis. On July 24, two days after a top security official, General Abdullo Nazarov, was killed in Badakhshan, an estimated 3,000 government troops were deployed to the region.

A week of fighting ensued that claimed an estimated 70 lives on both sides. Fighters eventually agreed to lay down their arms on July 28 after negotiations with government forces and representatives of the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Ismaili sect of Islam.

The situation seemed calm until the night of August 22, when Imomnazar Imomnazarov, a former opposition commander from the Tajik Civil War, was killed in an attack on his home in Khorog — the administrative center of the region. Imomnazrov had been wanted by authorities in connection with the Nazarov killing. Protesters flocked to the adminstrative building in the city center demanding security, pelting the building with rocks, and even attempting (unsuccesfully) to storm the building.

Two days later, again after negotiations involving local activists and representatives of the Aga Khan, government forces announced they would leave the Gorno-Badakhshan region altogether.

For an in-depth look at the Aga Khan and how his organization, the AKDN, functions in Tajikistan, we spoke with Faisal Devji of Oxford University. Read his piece on the AKDN at “Current Intelligence.”

WATCH: Faisal Devji on the Aga Khan and civil society in Tajikistan

Institute for War and Peace Reporting: Another Blow to Fragile Stability in Tajik East – 23 August 2012

In Badakhshan, many believe local strongman was killed by special forces, though government denies involvement.

Khorog, the main town in Tajikistan’s remote southeastern Badakhshan region, remained tense on August 23 as protests entered a second day following the death of an influential local leader.

Many demonstrators stayed outside the local government offices overnight, after more than 3,000 gathered the previous day demanding that officials account for the death of Imomnazar Imomnazarov in an attack on his home earlier on August 22.

Neighbours told local media that they heard the sound of a grenade blast followed by automatic gunfire. Imomnazarov’s brother and members of his entourage were reported to have been wounded in the attack and taken to hospital.

Khorog has been tense since July, when it was left badly scarred by gun battles between government troops and supporters of a rebellious local frontier guards officer, Talib Ayombekov. When Ayombekov refused to surrender suspects in the killing of a top regional security official, central government ordered thousands of soldiers into the region to capture him and his men.

The ensuing fighting left 48 people dead. Ayombekov’s group was not defeated outright despited being massively outnumbered by government troops, and instead a ceasefire was reached in late July and a process of negotiations started. (See Tajik Rebels Lay Down Arms in Badakhshan.)

Imomnazarov’s role in all this is unclear. Like Ayombekov, he was part of the anti-government guerrilla force during the 1992-97 civil war, before returning to civilian life. As violence broke out this July, the authorities named Imomnazarov as well as Ayombekov and others as leading figures in organised crime in Badakhshan, involved in smuggling narcotics and other items across the nearby Afghan border.

The attack on Imomazarov raised suspicions amongst locals who believed government special forces were responsible, although officials have denied this.

An unnamed security source told the Russian news agency Interfax that it was not in the Tajik authorities’ interest to kill Imomnazarov, as they were trying to restore peace and stability in Badakhshan. Ikrom Umarov, an interior ministry official, dismissed the allegations as entirely unfounded in an interview with RFE/RL radio’s Tajik service.

The attack also caused outrage as Imomnazarov had earlier sustained serious injuries and had difficulty walking, suggesting he did not pose a serious threat at that point. The authorities say Imomnazarov’s sustained these injuries during separate turf wars between local criminals, rather than in the fighting with government forces.

The interior ministry has launched an investigation into his death.

Imomnazarov’s killing is a setback to efforts to restore peace to this isolated region, whose population differs from the rest of the country in language, culture and faith – people here are Ismaili Muslims, not Sunnis like most Tajiks.

The ceasefire and subsequent talks were arranged by a mediating team consisting of local officials, residents and Ismaili figures including local clerics and representatives of the Aga Khan Foundation, which has worked to develop the region over the past two decades. The Aga Khan himself, who wields considerable influence as the spiritual leader of Ismailis worldwide, played a key role in persuading the rebels to accept the truce and urging the wider community to support peace efforts.

The community had responded to this, posting volunteers to help maintain security. Most importantly, Ayombekov and another local strongman Mamadbokir Mamadbokirov, surrendered and began cooperating with the police.

A high-ranking official who recently returned to the capital Dushanbe after visiting Khorog said it had been difficult to agree the ceasefire because local residents were so angry with the government. The negotiations would be even harder following Imomnazarov’s death, he said.

“It took a great deal for us to get them on our side. It’s hard to predict what will happen next,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Since Imomnazarov’s death, there have been reports of local residents putting back some of the road blocks removed when the July fighting died down.

Negotiations have also resulted in a disarmament process in which over 500 weapons have been turned over to the authorities.

A supporter of Imomnazarov, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IWPR he believed this might have been premature, noting, “The guys have surrendered almost all their weapons, and we’re left with no firearms.”

One local resident who gave his name as Alimardon told IWPR how the latest demonstration unfolded. On hearing news of Imomnazarov’s death, crowds gathered in Khorog on August 22 to demand that authorities end the use of force and withdraw troops from Badakhshan.

When no one came out to speak to the protesters, they attempted to enter the local government building but were halted by warning shots from police guards. Two people were shot in the legs, local media reported.

The crowd swelled as residents of nearby villages arrived to attend the Imomnazarov’s funeral, which took place later the same day.

Provincial governor Qodir Qosim and Interior Minister Sherali Khairullaev subsequently met with protesters, and agreed to withdraw troops deployed in and around Khorog and ultimately to shift them out of the region altogether.

The withdrawal seems to have been set in motion, with 200 troops reported to have moved out, while the number of police checkpoints erected during the fighting has been reduced.

Alimardon said the protest would continue until government troops left Badakhshan.

In Khorog, residents are worried that things could take another turn for the worse. A 55-year-old woman from the town said Imomnazarov had many allies in neighbouring Afghanistan who might wish to avenge his death.

“God forbid we get people shooting from the Afghan side of the border,” she said.

Khorog demonstrators leave square 2012-08-24

KHOROG, Tajikistan – Khorog demonstrators departed Vakhdat Square late August 23 after learning about a written agreement to withdraw troops from Khorog, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)’s Tajik service reported August 24.

The deal frees the demonstrators from the risk of prosecution, Yodgor Faizov, CEO of Aga Khan Foundation Tajikistan, told RFE/RL August 23.

The situation in Khorog is calm, an RFE/RL source in the city said, and gradual troop withdrawal has begun.

The agreement was the first written one between security officials and Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast activists since troops entered Khorog July 24 in pursuit of State National Security Committee Gen. Abdullo Nazarov’s suspected killers, Fergana News reported, saying that all previous agreements and promises between the two groups had been verbal.

The protesters massed in Vakhdat Square August 22 after learning that Imomnazar Imomnazarov, a former civil war insurgent suspected in Nazarov’s death, had been killed in his house by unknown gunmen.

Politics dies in the Pamirs, by Faisal Devji, OXFORD DIARY | PUBLICATION DATE: August 24, 2012

In the early morning of July 24th, without any warning, government troops were sent into Tajikistan’s eastern province of Gorno-Badakhshan, apparently to deal with an armed group involved in the smuggling of narcotics, tobacco and even women to and from neighbouring Afghanistan. The immediate provocation for this large-scale mobilization was meant to be the killing of a security official by one of his subordinates, with both men alleged to be part of the murky dealings attributed to those who are posted on the Tajik-Afghan border. But the military incursion into the provincial capital of Khorog was not commensurate with this narrative, including as it did helicopter gunships, armoured vehicles, snipers and checkpoints posted across the town, effectively bringing life there to a halt. The province’s road and communications links were also cut, thus isolating its entire population of some 250,000 in the series of interconnected valleys that make up this mountainous region.

Instead of cowing the people of Khorog, however, this deployment appears to have decided them upon resistance, and in the ensuing violence anywhere between 40 and 200 civilians as well as soldiers are said to have been killed. Taken aback by the tenacity of the opposition, the government is now engaged in negotiations with local notables and “civil society”, though the violence apparently continues in a sporadic fashion. Insofar as it has picked up this story from a place invariably described as “remote”, mainstream media in the West has only repeated some version of the Tajik government’s line, about rooting out corruption and militancy on its border with Afghanistan. But the reality behind this easy stereotype is much more interesting. Indeed I will argue here that far from being yet another example of the difficult post-Soviet transition to democracy, this story is about the failure as much as the future of “global civil society”.

Gorno-Badakhshan has been an autonomous province since Soviet times, and is home to a Shia Muslim sub-sect that forms the country’s most significant religious minority. It was also one of the two regions of Tajikistan that supported the United Tajik Opposition, which stood against other regional elites who took power during the bloody civil war that followed the Soviet collapse in the early 1990s. Although much of the commentary on last month’s events has been dominated by rumours of Islamic militancy among the rebels, Gorno-Badakhshan’s community of Ismailis, as they are now known, is a group that keeps no mosques and practises few of the Islamic rituals common among their Sunni compatriots. Indeed the civil war relied more upon ethnic than religious distinctions, with the Ismailis’ faith defined almost entirely by their ethnic identity as Pamiris, those who inhabit the valleys of the Pamir mountain range.

After taking more than 10,000 lives, the civil war finally drew to a close in 1997, with an agreement brokered by outside parties, including Russia, the US and the UN, but the recent violence in Gorno-Badakhshan suggests that it has never in fact ended. For what the government has done is to breach the peace agreement by violating the province’s autonomy and attempting to exert direct control over it. Of course any state would want to take complete possession of its national territory, especially if this happens to be an expansive border region occupied by a minority population. How, then, is it possible to reach a satisfactory agreement in this context, and why did the one that stopped the civil war in 1997 come apart in the meantime? This is where the story departs the familiar script of post-Soviet transition and becomes intriguingly global in character.

Cargo cult

One of the outside parties crucial in arranging for the agreement that paused, if it did not quite end the civil war in Gorno-Badakhshan, was a faith-based NGO headed from a suburb of Paris by the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the world’s Ismailis. Cut off from his Pamiri followers during the 70 years of Soviet rule, the Aga Khan and his organization stepped to the fore in the 1990s, and, probably with both Russian and American support, made a ceasefire possible in the region without the direct intervention of any foreign government or international body like the UN. It was an extraordinary and even unprecedented achievement for a non-state actor, based abroad, to seal an agreement ending years of brutal violence. And though it was not publicized, probably in order to protect the Aga Khan from unwelcome questions and suspicion from rival Muslim groups, I can think of no other event that so clearly represents the claims of a so-called “global civil society” to address issues as intractable as a civil war.

In addition to reclaiming the allegiance of his Central Asian followers, many of whom didn’t even know their Imam’s name, the Aga Khan was able to deploy his NGO, which had already been active among a related population of Ismailis in the mountains of northern Pakistan for a couple of decades, to provide the Pamiris with much-needed food supplies, medical help and eventually educational, economic and other forms of development assistance. The consequences were practically miraculous, with thousands saved from certain starvation and death by the many specialized organizations that are all part of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). Relying upon a community of wealthy Ismailis with origins in the Indian subcontinent, but now also scattered in Britain, Canada and the US, the Aga Khan was able to mobilize finances, expertise and manpower for his Pamiri following, to say nothing about the support of Western governments and development agencies, given his exemplary record as a social entrepreneur and pro-Western Muslim leader.

So much for the bright side of “global civil society”, whose darker aspect I will now show is entailed in its very virtues. The agreement ending the civil war involved the Aga Khan asking his followers to disarm, in return for which their military commanders would be absorbed into the Tajik armed forces, as were both the officer killed last month and his alleged murderer. The AKDN would then set up relief and development projects not only in Gorno-Badakhshan but the rest of the country as well, and in addition raise funds and support for Tajikistan internationally. This plan worked well for a few years, but once the government’s rule had become more stable, and especially after 9/11, when its support in providing military bases and medical facilities was needed in the War on Terror, the AKDN was suddenly no longer indispensable. Of course this should have been evident from the beginning, since only a very weak or a very strong state would put up with such a situation, and Tajikistan is neither one nor the other.

Once the opposition had been persuaded to disarm, what hold did the AKDN have over the government to make it honour its promises? Apart from the local support that the rebel fighters had also enjoyed, it had nothing but some degree of influence abroad and what at the time of the agreement appeared to be a great deal of money. Like any NGO, in other words, the AKDN could only enforce the state’s compliance by threatening to publicize its misdeeds, something that is highly unlikely in the circumstances, or to pay its way out of any difficulties. For as an international organization dependent on outside donors, and therefore not accountable to the people it serves in any representative fashion, the AKDN, unlike the opposition fighters of the past, is unable to act with popular backing. It cannot act politically and is forced to rely almost entirely upon the power of money and influence, which is to say on the secretive dealings of brokerage that, however useful, are anti-democratic in nature.

After 2001, therefore, Pamiris started noticing that the state was beginning to assert its control over their province, especially through the secret service that had once been part of the KGB. They also noticed, more worryingly, how President Rakhmon was no longer as deferential to the Aga Khan as he once had been, even referring to him disparagingly to the Imam’s own followers in Gorno-Badakhshan. For Tajikistan is now full of Chinese goods and Indian funds, with the Russians and Americans bidding for military bases and influence, while a stream of money rolls in from the illicit trade in opium and tobacco. Gorno-Badakhshan is also rich in yet untapped mineral resources, which suggests that it might eventually become a battleground for corporate and political forces of all kinds to control. In the meantime a large proportion of the country’s young men, who would have been unemployed at home, are working in illegal and often hazardous conditions in cities like Moscow, their remittances now accounting for more of Gorno-Badakhshan’s income than the AKDN.

Delusions of development

And yet the AKDN is everywhere in the province, and possibly even its largest employer, creating the illusion of prosperity and the reality of increasing class hierarchies by its racially differentiated salaries in US dollars. For “locals” are paid in accordance with a “local economy” that has been so distorted by the NGO as not in fact to exist. Khorog’s highly-paid Ismali and other expatriates, after all, are keeping this fake economy alive by paying rent for houses and retaining the services of local drivers, cooks, secretaries and the like. The consequence is an utterly illusory world sustained entirely from without, but sucking in the best Pamiri minds and talent. Despite all the imaginative projects launched, like building a university of international stature, the general economic situation is completely unsustainable, though it does, of course, keep many Pamiri men and women employed, and offers a number of others remarkable opportunities to work or study abroad.

In effect, Khorog has become a smaller version of post-conflict cities like Sarajevo or Ramallah, that are made into models of cosmopolitan life by infusions of cash from abroad. But this money ends up transforming many local people into the dependents of global networks, while leaving others stranded in a completely shadow “local” economy. And as in Ramallah or Sarajevo, what this does is simply to defer violence and poverty for all but a few. The very benefits brought by “global civil society”, then, turn into problems. Nowhere is this more so than in political life, where the wealth and unelected power of an NGO like the AKDN allows it to subvert an admittedly corrupt political system, but at the same time to destroy the collective will and action of ordinary people. For when an autocratic state deals with an unaccountable organization, both speaking in the name of such people without ever consulting them, democracy must be the first casualty.

The violence unleashed upon Khorog in July demonstrates how fragile and, in fact, unreal the NGO vision is, for the only thing that has given the government pause and forced it to negotiate are the old resistance fighters supported by ordinary people. Among the hasty and surreptitious communications I have been receiving from a Khorog under siege is an account of its first couple of days that speaks about the re-emergence of a truly political will and practice among the townspeople. Initially fearful and overawed by the APCs, troops, circling helicopters and snipers, these civilians were suddenly inspired by news that one of the armoured vehicles had been attacked and destroyed. What they did next was organize local councils to decide on a course of action, felled poplar trees lining the main street to prevent military vehicles from moving freely along it, and demonstrated in front of government buildings. Pamiris living abroad as students, interns or migrants have also been instrumental in attempting to publicize the military incursion by demonstrating in cities like Moscow and New York while circulating demands for a cessation of hostilities.

These democratic and collective actions would not have been possible within the framework of an NGO like the AKDN, which, relying as it does on secretive deal-making, has remained conspicuously silent about conditions in Gorno-Badakhshan. They illustrate that the only way of reaching a genuine agreement with the government is by participating in the political process and relying upon one’s own strength. For by organizing themselves people possess a collective power that no NGO does, depending as these do on money and influence alone. This is why the state might prefer to deal with the AKDN, which helps to pacify Pamiris both by disarming and speaking for them, without any threat more powerful than money in its arsenal. And so the latest news I have from Khorog is this: the security officer wanted for his superior’s murder has surrendered his arms, supposedly at the Aga Khan’s behest; and the government is negotiating with a body of doubtlessly sincere and concerned Pamiris, as well as some of the AKDN organizations, but nobody from the local councils I have described. Will we see a repetition of the initial civil war agreement? And will this new agreement have any more force behind it than the old?

All its good works and intentions apart, the AKDN very likely adds to the troubles of Gorno-Badakhshan’s residents by continuing to speak for them long after the civil war formally ended, with the Aga Khan’s representative in Tajikistan, invariably an Ismaili of Indo-Pakistani origin, serving as the paymaster of a vast network of clients, which is how power is bought and sold in the NGO sector. Indeed it is sometimes difficult to see what the real difference is between this exercise of power and the autocratic state’s reliance on very similar kinds of clients. Moreover there are now rumours emerging from Afghanistan, retailed by two members of parliament with constituencies abutting Gorno-Badakhshan, that its own Ismailis, along with those of Tajikistan and northern Pakistan, are plotting with support from the West to set up their own state in these roughly contiguous areas. This dangerous myth, which is meant to inspire sectarian hatred among their neighbours, has been doing the rounds in a Pakistan wracked by sectarian strife for years now, which is only natural given the fact that Pakistan was itself created in this way, by carving out Muslim territories from India. But surely its dissemination across Central Asia is an inadvertent by-product of the AKDN’s “global” character and presence in all three countries.

The local politics that “global civil society” dislikes and distrusts so much is the only thing that is capable of setting and keeping a people free. Whatever the result of the current negotiations, it would be an act of the greatest folly for the people of Gorno-Badakhshan to return to the bubble of an NGO-led society. The AKDN has played an important and positive role in the region, but perpetuating itself there by the constant reproduction of expatriate life, as it has done for well over a decade now, is only a way of risking the diminution of its own legacy. After all its expatriates, including the foreign Ismailis there to “serve” their Pamiri “brothers and sisters”, are the first to leave at any sign of trouble, as they did last month, and not for the first time, by way of a “special corridor”. Yet the continued presence of British, Canadian or American citizens in Khorog at such times might well do much to deter the Tajik state. And in the meantime there are unconfirmed reports that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has offered to support the Pamiri resistance, thus indicating that the exit of one kind of international actor opens the door for the entry of another.

Of course Pamiris are unlikely to accept the questionable and dangerous support of an Islamist party. But do they realize that the AKDN plays, in its own way, a similar destabilizing role in Gorno-Badkhshan’s local politics? Neither “global civil society”, nor the “frontierless brotherhood” of Ismailism that mimics it, can be allowed to define or rather stifle this local politics. The AKDN should be made fully Tajik in character, and give way to elected representatives of the people in any negotiations with the state. As I write, government forces are murdering ex-opposition commanders (including a paraplegic) and civilian demonstrators one by one to avoid any outcry. Rumours are swirling around the capital, Dushanbe, that Pamiris there will be subjected to the kind of large-scale torture and killing they had experienced during the civil war. Not so long ago a lavish Ismaili Centre had been opened amid much fanfare in the same city, by an Ismaili leadership that was clearly oblivious to the continuing threat that faced their people. They had been fooled by their own propaganda about “global civil society” and were unable to recognize that it must collapse like a pack of cards without real political backing. Will the current crisis afford an opportunity for a newly democratic politics to emerge from the local councils set up during it, or is Gorno-Badakhshan to remain the victim of “global civil society” forever?

About the Author: Faisal Devji is Reader in Indian History and Director of the Asian Studies Centre at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University.

Tajik troops to leave Khorog under pressure from protesters – Thursday, August 23, 2012

Tajikistan’s authorities said Thursday they would accede to demands from local residents in the eastern Tajik town of Khorog that government troops withdraw from the region.

Troops are slated to leave the restive region on Friday.

Authorities took the decision during a second day of protests in the town’s central square by around 2,000 people that was sparked by the killing of a powerful local leader.

The crowd demanded that authorities explain why they killed Imomnazar Imomnazarov at his home with a bomb early morning Wednesday.

They also urged the resignation of Qodir Qosim, provincial governor of Gorno-Badakhshan (GBAO), and called for government promises to ensure safety and stability in the area.

In late July, the central government in Dushanbe sent thousands of troops to Khorog, administrative center of GBAO province, to hunt down the suspected killers of regional security chief General Abdullo Nazarov.

Several days of heavy fighting with dozens dead ended in a truce.

In accord with conditions of the ceasefire, several wanted figures surrendered to the authorities and hundreds of illegal weapons were handed in.

Protesters noted that Imomnazarov had surrendered himself and his weapon as part of the deal and consequently was defenseless when he was killed just days later, the local Asia-Plus news agency reported.

They also said the government has not lived up to its part of the bargain by sending the troops back to their barracks.

Another Blow to Fragile Stability in Tajik East – In Badakhshan, many believe local strongman was killed by special forces, though government denies involvement. By Lola Olimova – Central Asia – RCA Issue 683, 23 Aug 12

Khorog, the main town in Tajikistan’s remote southeastern Badakhshan region, remained tense on August 23 as protests entered a second day following the death of an influential local leader.

Many demonstrators stayed outside the local government offices overnight, after more than 3,000 gathered the previous day demanding that officials account for the death of Imomnazar Imomnazarov in an attack on his home earlier on August 22.

Neighbours told local media that they heard the sound of a grenade blast followed by automatic gunfire. Imomnazarov’s brother and members of his entourage were reported to have been wounded in the attack and taken to hospital.

Khorog has been tense since July, when it was left badly scarred by gun battles between government troops and supporters of a rebellious local frontier guards officer, Talib Ayombekov. When Ayombekov refused to surrender suspects in the killing of a top regional security official, central government ordered thousands of soldiers into the region to capture him and his men.

The ensuing fighting left 48 people dead. Ayombekov’s group was not defeated outright despited being massively outnumbered by government troops, and instead a ceasefire was reached in late July and a process of negotiations started. (See Tajik Rebels Lay Down Arms in Badakhshan.)

Imomnazarov’s role in all this is unclear. Like Ayombekov, he was part of the anti-government guerrilla force during the 1992-97 civil war, before returning to civilian life. As violence broke out this July, the authorities named Imomnazarov as well as Ayombekov and others as leading figures in organised crime in Badakhshan, involved in smuggling narcotics and other items across the nearby Afghan border.

The attack on Imomazarov raised suspicions amongst locals who believed government special forces were responsible, although officials have denied this.

An unnamed security source told the Russian news agency Interfax that it was not in the Tajik authorities’ interest to kill Imomnazarov, as they were trying to restore peace and stability in Badakhshan. Ikrom Umarov, an interior ministry official, dismissed the allegations as entirely unfounded in an interview with RFE/RL radio’s Tajik service.

The attack also caused outrage as Imomnazarov had earlier sustained serious injuries and had difficulty walking, suggesting he did not pose a serious threat at that point. The authorities say Imomnazarov’s sustained these injuries during separate turf wars between local criminals, rather than in the fighting with government forces.

The interior ministry has launched an investigation into his death.

Imomnazarov’s killing is a setback to efforts to restore peace to this isolated region, whose population differs from the rest of the country in language, culture and faith – people here are Ismaili Muslims, not Sunnis like most Tajiks.

The ceasefire and subsequent talks were arranged by a mediating team consisting of local officials, residents and Ismaili figures including local clerics and representatives of the Aga Khan Foundation, which has worked to develop the region over the past two decades. The Aga Khan himself, who wields considerable influence as the spiritual leader of Ismailis worldwide, played a key role in persuading the rebels to accept the truce and urging the wider community to support peace efforts.

The community had responded to this, posting volunteers to help maintain security. Most importantly, Ayombekov and another local strongman Mamadbokir Mamadbokirov, surrendered and began cooperating with the police.

A high-ranking official who recently returned to the capital Dushanbe after visiting Khorog said it had been difficult to agree the ceasefire because local residents were so angry with the government. The negotiations would be even harder following Imomnazarov’s death, he said.

“It took a great deal for us to get them on our side. It’s hard to predict what will happen next,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Since Imomnazarov’s death, there have been reports of local residents putting back some of the road blocks removed when the July fighting died down.

Negotiations have also resulted in a disarmament process in which over 500 weapons have been turned over to the authorities.

A supporter of Imomnazarov, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IWPR he believed this might have been premature, noting, “The guys have surrendered almost all their weapons, and we’re left with hardly any firearms to fight with.”

One local resident who gave his name as Alimardon told IWPR how the latest demonstration unfolded. On hearing news of Imomnazarov’s death, crowds gathered in Khorog on August 22 to demand that authorities end the use of force and withdraw troops from Badakhshan.

When no one came out to speak to the protesters, they attempted to enter the local government building but were halted by warning shots from police guards. Two people were shot in the legs, local media reported.

The crowd swelled as residents of nearby villages arrived to attend the Imomnazarov’s funeral, which took place later the same day.

Provincial governor Qodir Qosim and Interior Minister Sherali Khairullaev subsequently met with protesters, and agreed to withdraw troops deployed in and around Khorog and ultimately to shift them out of the region altogether.

The withdrawal seems to have been set in motion, with 200 troops reported to have moved out, while the number of police checkpoints erected during the fighting has been reduced.

Alimardon said the protest would continue until government troops left Badakhshan.

In Khorog, residents are worried that things could take another turn for the worse. A 55-year-old woman from the town said Imomnazarov had many allies in neighbouring Afghanistan who might wish to avenge his death.

“God forbid we get people shooting from the Afghan side of the border,” she said.

Lola Olimova is IWPR’s editor in Tajikistan.

Tajik troops to leave border region after protests Thu Aug 23, 2012 By Roman Kozhevnikov

DUSHANBE (Reuters) – Tajikistan’s government agreed on Thursday to withdraw troops from a mountain region near the Afghan border, ending a stand-off with 2,000 demonstrators who occupied the centre of a town where dozens were killed in a military assault last month.

Troops will begin leaving Khorog on August 24 after a deal between government officials and a 20-strong group of locals in an autonomous region of the impoverished Central Asian state, a high-ranking security source close to the talks told Reuters.

The deal promises the withdrawal of troops from the Gorno-Badakhshan region within 20 days. In return, the local head of government, Kodiri Kosim, will keep his post, the source said.

Several demonstrators told Reuters by telephone from Khorog that the crowd had dispersed, packing up tents that were pitched on the central square earlier in the day.

Government forces in Tajikistan, the poorest of 15 former Soviet republics, stormed Khorog on July 24 in pursuit of a former warlord accused of murdering the local head of the State Committee on National Security, successor to the Soviet-era KGB.

Seventeen soldiers, 30 rebels and at least one civilian were killed in the fighting, near the Afghan border about 520 km (325 miles) southeast of the capital Dushanbe.

Some analysts said the military operation, the largest of its kind in almost two years, was a show of force by President Imomali Rakhmon, whose control over parts of the country remains tenuous 15 years after the end of a civil war.

The wanted warlord, Tolib Ayombekov, denied involvement in the murder and avoided capture, but gave himself up voluntarily on August 12. Though this was a condition for troops to withdraw, residents said soldiers remained stationed on the edge of town.

The trigger for the latest protest in Khorog was the unsolved killing of another former warlord who fought the government in the 1992-97 civil war and enjoyed support among the population of Gorno-Badakhshan.

Imomnazar Imomnazarov was killed early on Wednesday when unknown assailants threw a grenade into his home and opened fire. The prosecutor-general’s office promised to investigate the murder, but in the same statement also accused Imomnazarov of having participated in organised crime, including the smuggling of drugs and precious stones.


Separated from Afghanistan by the Pyanj river, Gorno-Badakhshan is an autonomous region where the authority of central government is fragile. Most of the regional population sided with the opposition during the 1990s civil war.

Situated high in the Pamir mountains, the region covers about half of Tajikistan but its 250,000 people account for less than 4 percent of the country’s 7.5 million population. More than 30,000 people live in Khorog alone.

Several local residents, who declined to give their full names, said by telephone that many former warlords in the region earned money through crime. However, many had won the respect of local people by dividing the spoils.

“People in Gorno-Badakhshan are very poor. The commanders have always given some of their riches to their neighbours, helping them to organise weddings, funerals and studies,” said one Khorog resident, who gave her first name as Midzhgona.

“People close their eyes to where the money has come from.”

Saidnazar, a 21-year-old student who was among the demonstrators and was told about the deal, said the protest had achieved its aim. “We showed the authorities that they need to reckon with us. The authorities showed that they want peace,” he said. “We’re satisfied and we’re going home.”

Tajikistan: Thousands Demand Government Troops Out of Restive East August 23, 2012

Thousands of protestors have rallied overnight and through a second day in Tajikistan’s restive eastern town of Khorog – scene of violent clashes between government troops and rebels last month – demanding Dushanbe withdraw its soldiers.

The rallies began after the unexplained killing of former warlord and local powerbroker Imomnazar Imomnazarov early on August 22. Dushanbe blames Imomnazarov for participating in the July violence, which left dozens dead, but denies any involvement in his murder. Protestors say local residents had fulfilled government demands to disarm and dismantle barricades in the town of 20,000 on the Afghan border, and say the death, which many attribute to government security forces, has violated an uneasy truce.

Shortly after a funeral for Imomnazarov on August 22, protests outside the provincial government headquarters grew violent and security forces reportedly fired into the crowd, wounding two.

Late today, Radio Ozodi reported that government officials had agreed to begin withdrawing and that protestors had agreed to disperse once the troops began leaving.

Large demonstrations are uncommon in Tajikistan and are eerily suggestive of events leading up to the country’s 1992-1997 civil war, when Imomnazarov was a rebel commander with the United Tajik Opposition. Some fear this summer’s violence could herald a return to open warfare.

The fighting started with the July 21 murder of a KGB general in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan province, where Khorog is the capital. On July 24, government troops stormed the town demanding a suspect in the general’s death, Tolib Ayombekov, surrender. Radio Free Europe says approximately 70 died, including an unknown number of civilians, in the fighting that followed. Ayombekov, who denied involvement in the general’s murder, surrendered peacefully on August 12.

Many people in the Pamir Mountains are followers of the Ismaili branch of Islam and revere the Aga Khan as their spiritual leader. Representatives of the Aga Khan’s charities had helped broker the July truce. Shortly after Imomnazarov’s death, the head of the Aga Khan Foundation in Tajikistan, Yodgor Faizov, was defiant.

“Imomnazar Imomnazarov was a real man who followed the command of the Aga Khan and laid down his arms,” said Faizov. “He died like a real man. He could have rallied people around himself and armed them, but he did not.”

“Today we can be proud that the people of Badakhshan after July 24 did all that was asked of them. We complied with all the authorities’ requirements. From now on, the people have every right to demand that troops be withdrawn; the people will decide their own fate. Our young people will themselves bring order to the city.”

An online letter, purportedly by a group of young people from Khorog, has called on President Emomali Rakhmon to stop the violence. “With every passing day, we are increasingly losing hope that peace and stability will prevail in the country again,” the statement said.

“[T]he people of Khorog cooperated with the government in every possible way.” The death of Imomnazarov, “who spoke up for the peaceful resolution of the conflict and who voluntarily lay down his arms in the name of peace and stability on our common land … could provoke a further escalation of the situation and result in heavy casualties.”

Social networkers are fervently discussing Imomnazarov’s apparent assassination. Some don’t believe the government could be so careless as to kill him given the tensions in Khorog. Others see no other explanation. In any case, the death has increased talk of protracted conflict.

“What kind of an idiot could kill the person at a moment when even a minor altercation may lead to a new civil war in Tajikistan?” wrote a visitor to Radio Ozodi, in comments reprinted by Global Voices.

Stop the Military Action in Khorog: From the youth of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, Tajikistan

Dear President,

Dear people’s representatives,

We, the young generation of Tajiks, who have grown up in the peace and harmony that was achieved after many years of civil war in now independent Tajikistan, are today becoming witnesses to the violation of this fragile peace. We were grateful for the ability to live, study, and work in peace. But since the initiation of the military operation in Khorog on July 24, we have been witness to military actions, civilian deaths,and crying children and mothers. With every passing day, we are increasingly losing hope that peace and stability will prevail in the country again.
As you are aware, we have had to bury innocent brothers during the holy month of Ramadan. We saw the death of soldiers, who were the same age as us. Our mothers mourned for their sons and for those innocent soldiers.
Upon hearing the news that it was decided to settle the conflict peacefully, we were proud that reason was victorious once again. All parties came together to negotiate. Up until August 10 2012, no part of the agreement was violated by the so-called former field commanders. The people of Khorog cooperated with the government in every possible way.
But our happiness was marred when a car full of civilians came under direct fire, and as a result two people died and two were wounded. Despite this, we all hoped for an early resolution to the problems and the removal of the armed structures from the region to avoid further complication of the situation.
However, in the early hours of this morning, the house of one of the informal leaders of the city was blown up. Imomnazar Imomnazarov –who spoke up for the peaceful resolution of the conflict and who voluntarily lay down his arms in the name of peace and stability on our common land – died. We believe that such incidents could provoke a further escalation of the situation and result in heavy casualties, both amongst civilianas well as among young soldiers. And this, in turn, could become a pretext for the destruction of peace and accord in Tajikistan, as well as in the whole Central Asian region.
Dear President,

At the start of the 1990s, you showed the whole world that the only way to stop a war is by negotiations. Tajikistan’s peace-building experience became a unique example in modern history… It had seemed that nothing could break this peace any more, especially 20 years later. You managed to bring peace and harmony to our houses, and we are thankful for this. In this difficult period for Badakhshan and for the whole of Tajikistan, we ask you to promote the peaceful resolution of the conflict in Khorog. We ask you to intervene in this complex situation as we believe that a purposeful process of destabilization is taking place in the country by third forces. We, the young people of Badakhshan, are sure that the youth of other regions of the country will join us in supporting all your efforts towards the restoration of peace in our houses and in the whole country.

Peace agreement broken in Tajikistan By Zarifmo Aslamshoyeva, CNN Wed August 22, 2012

(CNN) — A peace agreement that had halted violence in the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan was shattered Wednesday when a rebel commander who had given up his weapons was killed by government forces, neighbors and relatives said.

The incident occurred in the southeastern province of Pamir at 4 a.m., when government soldiers entered the house of Imumnazar Imumnazarov and killed him and two other men, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared retribution.

Imumnazarov’s legs had been paralyzed since the civil war, which lasted from 1992 until 1997.

Efforts to contact government officials for comment were not successful.

Shortly after Wednesday’s killings, 3,000 residents of the city of Khorog demonstrated outside a regional government building, demanding that the government and President Emomali Rahmon investigate why the peace agreement had been broken.

When protesters threw rocks at the building, soldiers fired on them, wounding several, the sources said.

A representative of the Aga Khan Development Network pleaded with the protesters for calm. “Imumnazarov was loyal to this peace agreement until the end,” he said.

During the protest, more than 40 suspected rebel fighters were taken into custody, the government said in a statement.

Last month, the Aga Khan Development Network brokered a peace agreement under which rebels laid down their arms in exchange for a promise from government officials not to attack.

The network is a private group that has worked to develop the region over the past two decades.

The Aga Khan himself, who wields considerable influence as leader of all Ismailis, adherents of the Islamic branch followed by many Pamiris, played a key role in persuading the rebels to accept the truce. He had urged his spiritual followers to refrain from violence, to work for peace and to uphold the law.

The Interior Ministry said July 31 that an offer of amnesty for anyone who disarmed voluntarily had resulted in 200 weapons’ being handed over to the authorities.

But by Wednesday afternoon, the initial progress toward peace had reversed. Internet, cell phone and land line communications had been cut to the Gorno-Badakhshan region, residents said.

Such cutoffs have been routine during periods of unrest.

One government explanation appeared comical to some Pamiris. “The head of the state communications service, Beg Zukhurov, claimed that a stray bullet had severed telephone, mobile, and Internet connections to the region,” Human Rights Watch said in a posting on its website.

The rights group expressed concern over the fate of the detainees. “Torture remains an enduring problem within Tajikistan’s penitentiary system and is used to extract confessions from defendants, who are often denied access to family and legal counsel during initial detention,” it said.

Authorities have not allowed representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit prisoners, it added.

An open letter to the president from “youth of Gorno Badakhshan” bemoaned the deteriorating situation. Since a military operation began in Khorog in the center of Pamir on July 24, “we have been witness to military actions, civilian deaths, and crying children and mothers,” it said. “With every passing day, we are increasingly losing hope that peace and stability will prevail in the country again.”

It said that the peace agreement had been adhered to by the former field commanders and that “the people of Khorog cooperated with the government in every possible way.”

That tense peace was first interrupted two weeks ago, when government soldiers manning a checkpoint in the town of Bidurth — north of Khorog — shot at a civilian car, killing two occupants and wounding two others, the letter said.

“Despite this, we all hoped for an early resolution to the problems and the removal of the armed structures from the region to avoid further complication of the situation,” the letter said.

But Wednesday’s killing of Imumnazarov — who had called for a peaceful resolution to the conflict — “could provoke a further escalation of the situation and result in heavy casualties,” it said. “And this, in turn, could become a pretext for the destruction of peace and accord in Tajikistan, as well as in the whole Central Asian region.”

The letter asked that Rahmon and other government representatives “intervene in this complex situation as we believe that a purposeful process of destabilization is taking place in the country by third forces.”

It did not elaborate on who those third forces might be.

Imumnazarov’s killing was preceded in July, before the peace agreement was reached, by the killing of Sabzali Mamadrizoev, a representative of the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party. He had condemned what he said was the government’s indiscriminate attack on residents of Khorog after a general was killed there.

A YouTube video shows soldiers dragging a man through the city streets and dumping him in a trash heap. Residents identified the man as Mamadrizoev; the government said it wasn’t he. The residents have said they want the soldiers involved in the killing to be brought to justice.

Islamic Renaissance Party national leader Muhiddin Kabiri said in a statement that even if even if the dead man was not Mamadrizoev, he should have been treated humanely.

Tajikistan gained independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 but was troubled by a five-year civil war that ended in 1997 and is still plagued by widespread corruption and poverty.

Tensions remain high between the Tajik government in the capital city of Dushanbe and warlords — so-called Komandos — of Gorno-Badakshan, who are members of the Pamiri ethnic minority.

The region was a stronghold of rebels during the civil war, which claimed thousands of lives. The war divided people along ethnic and regional lines, and the Pamiri largely sided with the opposition.

A United Nations-brokered peace plan left Rahmon’s secular government in place but gave official jobs to some of his opponents, including the Komandos.

Rahmon, who has Moscow’s support and faces reelection next year, has sought to consolidate power and stamp out remnants of the former opposition-turned-warlords.

Witnesses: Tajik troops open fire on protesters August 22, 2012

DUSHANBE, Tajikistan (AP) — Tajikistan government troops opened fire Wednesday on a crowd protesting the unexplained killing of an influential local leader in an eastern town, local residents say.

Witnesses say two people were reportedly injured after hundreds gathered in front of Khorog regional headquarters to demand an explanation for the overnight death of Imumnazar Imumnazarov, a former warlord during the country’s civil war in the 1990s.

Authorities would not comment on the incident when contacted by The Associated Press. While organized crime is known to be rife in remote areas of Tajikistan, many analysts believe the government has launched a crackdown on former warlords as a pretext for stamping its authority on areas of the country not entirely under its control.

The renewed instability in the remote Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous province, which shares a long border with Afghanistan, comes weeks after armed clashes between troops and local armed groups left around 50 people dead.

Danger of further conflict appeared to have been forestalled earlier this month by armed groups agreeing to hand over hundreds of weapons.

This impoverished ex-Soviet nation still bears the scars of the five-year civil war that is estimated to have killed more than 60,000 people. Tajikistan’s location also makes it strategically important to the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan as an important supplies route.

Imumnazarov — one of four former warlords active during the civil war — was sought with the four others by authorities last month on charges including drug and tobacco smuggling. Two of the men surrendered to authorities earlier this month, but Imumnazarov and another man remained at large.

The hunt was ostensibly sparked by last month’s murder of Abdullo Nazarov, a general in Tajikistan’s national intelligence service, which authorities blamed on one of the warlords, Tolib Ayombekov, who has already surrendered.

Imumnazarov’s brother and other members of his entourage were injured in the armed attack on his home Tuesday night. Due to injuries sustained during the war, Imumnazarov was incapacitated at the time, and also bed-ridden with diabetes.

Residents in Khorog said hundreds of mostly young people attending his funeral gathered at the regional administration building on Wednesday to allege the government’s involvement in the killing.

Government forces opened fire after some threw stones at the building, wounding at least two people in the legs, eyewitnesses said.

Telephone connections to Khorog were severed following the events.

A new destabilization in Gorno-Badakhshan: Khorog residents attacked administrative buildings August 22, 2012

Group of inhabitants of the town of Khorog, the administrative center of Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region of Tajikistan, arrange spontaneous protests in connection with the murder the informal leader of the region Imomnazara Imomnazarova. About Tajik service of radio “Svaboda”.

According to the source, the young men attacked administrative buildings, beat the doors and glass. Representatives of the mediation group between the armed groups and the authorities (of Prince Aga Khan IV, the spiritual leader of the Ismailis) stated that the situation threatens to get out of control, and only the intervention of the President of Tajikistan is able to resolve the problem.

According to unconfirmed reports, Khorog residents intend to organize a rally in front of the building of the oblast administration. A source in law enforcement bodies of Tajikistan reported BakuToday, that all government troops in GORNO-BADAKHSHAN AUTONOMOUS OBLAST are on high alert.

As already reported BakuToday, one of the leaders of the armed formations of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (Gbao) Imomnazar Imomnazarov was killed in unclear circumstances on the night of August 22, at his home in the city of Khorog. Imomnazarov was one of the prominent field commanders of the United Tajik opposition during the civil war in Tajikistan (1992-1997) and the last 20 years was hauled to the wheelchair.

According to the source, Imomnazarov was shot dead at his home, at about four o’clock in the morning. Also, his younger brother was injured. Older brother Imomnazarova was killed July 24 at the beginning of the operation of the Government of Tajikistan, the aim of which, as announced, was to apprehend those involved in the death of Chief of SCNS Abdullo Nazarova.

All government forces’ checkpoints removed in the Tajik city of Khorog 16 August 2012

All six government forces’ checkpoints were removed from the town of Khorog (the administrative centre of Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous Tajikistan) today and replaced by traffic police, a representative of the Tajik security service told ITAR-TASS.

“One of the requirements of local people has been implemented and ​​another step towards normalising the situation in Badakhshan was made,” the source said. Reinforced checkpoints were established on July 24, when a large scale special operation began in the city of Khorog and surrounding area to identify and apprehend those involved in the murder on the evening of July 21, of the head of the regional department of the State Committee of National Security, General Abdullo Nazarov

Currently the investigation team of the republic’s attorney general is engaged in investigating the crime. The main culprit involved in the case is the leader of one of the illegal armed groups, Olim Ayembekov, who voluntarily surrendered to the authorities and is now being interrogated.

According to the intelligence services, “the negotiations with the other three former commanders of the opposition: Yodgorov Shomusalamovym, Imomnazarov Imomnazarovym and Mahmadbokirom Mahmadbokirovym whom investigators would also like to question with regard to the murder of the general is nearing completion.”

The Prosecutor General’s Office issued a statement through the government agency Khovar on July 29 according to which all four of Badakhshan commanders were accused of murder, attack on law enforcement, trafficking of drug and precious stones and other crimes.”

Surrendered Tajik Opposition Commander: ‘We Don’t Want To Fight. We Want Peace.’

By Salimjon Aioubov August 13, 2012

Shortly before surrendering on August 12 to authorities in eastern Tajikistan, Tolib Ayombekov — a former opposition commander from the Tajik Civil War linked to the recent killing of a high-ranking security chief — gave an exclusive interview to RFE/RL’s Tajik Service.

Ayombekov — who initiated the August 10 interview — discussed his prospects for surrender, and expectations of justice. Tajik government forces conducted a military operation against an armed group led by Aymobekov in his native Gorno-Badakhshan Province in July, following the murder of regional security chief General Abdullo Nazarov.

Some 70 people were killed in the clashes.

RFE/RL: Where are you speaking from right now?

Tolib Ayombekov: I’m in Khorug [the provincial capital of Gorno-Badakhshan]. I’m receiving medical treatment for gunshot wounds. Two of my brothers have sustained injuries, too. One was wounded to his legs, another to his jaw and neck.

RFE/RL: There were rumors you fled to Afghanistan.

Ayombekov: I’ve heard those rumors. There are all lies. I have not left Khorug, and everybody knew my whereabouts. Everyone knew I had not left for Afghanistan or Pakistan. I stayed in Khorug. I wasn’t able to leave my house for a week because of my injuries.

RFE/RL: Are you and the group under your control still armed?

Ayombekov: We have surrendered our weapons after the Agha Khan [the leader of the Shi’ite Ismaili community — a sect followed by majority of Gorno-Badakhshon population] called upon us to lay down our arms. We collected all arms from our group members and surrendered them. Currently, no one is armed in Khorug apart from government forces who are stationed here on the streets. They shot dead a young man today, and injured two others. People are unhappy again. I don’t know what happens next.

RFE/RL: What would you do if government forces attacked you?

Ayombekov: We fulfilled our promise to Imam Agha Khan and laid down our arms. What could we possibly do if government forces attacked us? We would just surrender. We can’t fight without weapons. Indeed, we don’t want to fight. We want peace.

RFE/RL: Did you take part in peace talks with the government following the July 24 conflict in Khorug?

Ayombekov: I’ve always told them I want all issues to be resolved lawfully. A commission has been set up to negotiate. They visit me frequently and question me.

RFE/RL: What is the main focus of the talks?

Ayombekov: An agreement has been reached that the government will pull out its forces [stationed in Gorno-Badakhshan on July 24], and launch a probe into what has happened here. The defense minister [Sherali Khairulloev] had promised that his troops would leave after the probe began, and that only police forces would stay here. However, this is not the case. The government is actually bringing new forces to the province. The troops still remain here. Many checkpoints have been set up. Government troops’ snipers are still here, and actually 90 more snipers have been stationed. These all could lead to provocations. There are third forces that could exploit such a situation [to destabilize the region].

RFE/RL: The Tajik Prosecutor-General’s Office links you to a number of serious crimes, including drug trafficking, the smuggling of minerals, and trafficking of women to Afghanistan.

Ayombekov: Nobody has discussed these with me. I consider those women [trafficked victims] my sisters. The rumors about their disappearances have been going on for nearly two years. Actually, I have been trying to find them. I’ve found people involved in this, and have established their whereabouts. I have never been involved in any smuggling. These are all baseless speculations fabricated to tarnish my name.

RFE/RL: There are claims that you own several homes in Khorug and expensive cars that are too costly to be obtained by wages you receive in your current official position.

Ayombekov: People from the prosecutors’ office, police, tax officials, and anticorruption agents have approached me with these questions. They checked everything. I have a house, which by no means is a mansion. I have had only one car for the past seven years. I have some bank loans. During his visit to Khorug in 2008, President Emomali Rahmon personally saw my situation and instructed local authorities to help me get bank loans to start a small private business. Since then, I’ve received several bank loans.

RFE/RL: There are claims that you have not paid back the loans in time.

Ayombekov: I got several loans and paid back most of them. When I wasn’t able to pay them back I paid deposits and gave collaterals. What else could I do if I’ve no money to pay? I got a $120,000 bank loan, and left $240,000 worth of collateral. I did not get the bank money by force — it was just a loan, which I’m going to pay back. It was common knowledge what activities General Abdullo Nazarov [the slain regional security chief whose killing was linked to Ayombekov’s armed group] was involved in. We used to pay him money. I don’t know who needed him to be killed. We didn’t need it. But we would be attacked anyway, even if he wasn’t killed.

RFE/RL: Why do you believe you would be attacked?

Ayombekov: You should ask this question of those who started this conflict and spilled blood during the holy month of Ramadan.

RFE/RL: There were claims by former opposition commanders that you were offered $7 million to stage a coup in Tajikistan.

Ayombekov: That is correct. I’ve been approached numerous times by foreigners with such suggestions. But I have told them I don’t want to betray my nation and kill my people because of money. I have informed the Tajik authorities about this.

RFE/RL: Who were those people?

Ayombekov: Foreigners, representatives of foreign states. Our ministers are aware of this.

RFE/RL: Some people call you a Russian agent, others claim you cooperate with certain forces in Afghanistan.

Ayombekov: I’ve been occupying official positions in Tajikistan’s law-enforcement agencies for the past 17 years. I work for Tajikistan, not for Russia or any other country. I’ve been given these positions with the president’s instruction, and to date I follow the president’s orders. I strongly condemn what happened in Khorug. I want peace and unity, and I am against bloodshed and conflict. I have sent a letter to the president and I’m waiting for him to come to Khorug. All people here are waiting to meet him in person. He has always had the Tajik nation’s best interests in his heart.

RFE/RL: Dozens of innocent people were killed during the Khorug conflict. Do you take any responsibility for the conflict?

Ayombekov: If I felt I was responsible for the bloodshed, I would be by now — as some people say — long gone to Afghanistan, Pakistan, or somewhere else. When the authorities told me to hand over the four people linked to Nazarov’s killing, I promised to detain those four. First the authorities were talking about four people; then they wanted 10 people. I needed some time to find and detained them. The authorities should have waited a couple of days. But instead they started shooting in the middle of the night when people were asleep. The interior minister [Ramazon Rahimov] called me at 11 p.m., and ordered me to send those 10 people the following morning. I agreed. But they started shooting in a few hours that night. Local authorities took their own relatives out of the city shortly before the shooting started. But ordinary people were left behind to die. People here know who is responsible and who is innocent.

RFE/RL: Now you are painted into a corner. What do you want to do and who do you expect would help you?

Ayombekov: I only hope for help from God, and then from Imam Agha Khan and the Tajik president, to whom I have sent a letter. The president will take care of me. I have explained everything in my letter, and I have also told him I would answer before the law. But both sides have to obey the law.

Interview conducted by RFE/RL’s Tajik Service correspondent Salimjon Aioubov and translated from Tajik by Farangis Najibullah.

Unrest in TajikistanThe Spectre of Civil War 09.08.2012

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a bloody ethnic conflict raged in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan. The peace accord of 1997 appeared to put an end to the fighting, but recent clashes on the border with Afghanistan indicate that the civil war may be flaring up again. Marcus Bensmann explains the background to the conflict

On 24 July, all hell broke out in Khorog in the Tajik province of Gorno-Badakhshan. In the centre of the mountain town not far from the Afghan border, more than 2,000 soldiers carried out dawn raids on the homesteads of five gang leaders who unofficially control regional ruby and opium smuggling in the mountain province.

The heavy clashes that ensued lasted for more than a day, and even the government conceded a high death toll. In addition to 30 fighters, 17 members of the Tajik security forces and one civilian were killed, although independent sources claim that the true number of victims was much higher. Afghan fighters were also among those detained by government forces after the clashes.

Calm has since been restored; the government controls the town and most of the inaccessible province and is conducting ceasefire negotiations with the leaders, who fled into the mountains. In these talks, the godfathers of the Pamir Mountains have indicated their readiness to agree to full disarmament. Officials say 500 individual firearms have been handed in so far. Telephone and Internet connections in the region have also been re-established.

The Pamir Mountains are known as the “roof of the world”. The Tajik part of the mountain range has three peaks over 7,000 metres, and their glacier-covered summits serve as the water reservoir for the Central Asian plateau. For a short time, the July clashes in the region drew international attention to the complex tinderbox situation involving religions, gang leaders and the desperate attempts by the Tajik state to maintain control of this mountain corridor between China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. A subsidiary of NATO’s north supply route to the war in Afghanistan runs through Tajikistan, and the US and Europe are watching developments with concern. Troop withdrawal operations will also be partially conducted along this route in 2013.

Ghosts of the past

Above all, the government raid raised the spectre of the civil war that raged in Tajikistan from the dissolution of the Soviet Union until the ceasefire in 1997, the aftershocks of which are still being felt in the form of clashes such as those in Khorog. Tajik opposition forces, most of them in exile, are adamant that this now marks the beginning of a new ethnic conflict in the Pamir Mountains.

Tajikistan’s Pamir province is primarily populated by Ismailis, adherents of a branch of Shia Islam that venerates the Aga Khan as a direct descendant of the Prophet.

During the Soviet era, the mountain province – which has just under 200,000 inhabitants, whose language differs from valley to valley and who make a point of saying they don’t feel like Tajiks – was an outpost for Soviet border troops on the Afghan border and received privileged treatment from Moscow. Further back in history, during the Tsarist era, a Russian army reconnaissance unit from Osh in Kyrgyzstan forged its way into the Pamir region. The museum in Khorog still exhibits the piano transported over the mountains by the unit’s Russian commander.

The Tajik civil war began after the collapse of the Soviet Union and saw highland Tajiks from the Pamir Mountains and Garm Valley locked in a power struggle with clans of lowland Tajiks from Kulyab.

At the outset in particular, the war was marked with instances of inter-ethnic brutality. When the victorious Kulyabi Popular Front stormed the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, fighters began what can only be described as a hunt for descendants of the Pamiri and other mountain communities. Those giving themselves away with a guttural Pamiri accent or those perhaps not familiar with a particular lullaby were dragged out of buses at checkpoints and shot.

Saved by the Aga Khan

The opposition, formed of highland Tajiks, waged their war against the central government from Afghanistan, while the Kulyabis enjoyed the support of Russia and Uzbekistan. One of the Kulyabis, Emomali Rahmon, was appointed president in 1994 and still rules to this day. The Pamiri, who as Ismailis eschew all forms of religious fanaticism, nonetheless entered into an alliance with the opposition, which is dominated by Islamist Sunnis. When Moscow’s implementation of the peace accords in 1997 meant that the only legal Islamic party in Central Asia was able to begin its work, many Pamiri also joined despite the fact that the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) is dominated by Sunnis. Although the party has a decidedly progressive chairman in the form of Muhiddin Kabiri, its senior ranks are controlled by more radical elements. In a potentially inflammatory development, the Ismaili chairman of the IRP was also killed during the unrest in Pamir, and the party’s city leader has disappeared.

After securing victory on the plateau, the Kulyabi Popular Front moved to conquer Pamir province too. As they did so, guerrillas from the mountains blocked the narrow access routes and saved – the inhabitants of Pamir are convinced of this – the people from the wrath of the lowland Tajiks.

But the roadblocks meant that supplies could no longer get through, and although Russian border units continued to patrol the border with Afghanistan and the Pamir highlands until 2004, support from Moscow had ceased with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Trapped in the valleys, supplies began to dwindle, threatening the people with starvation. During the Soviet era, only a few Ismaili Pamiri concealed their portraits of the Aga Khan. The prince did not forget his supporters in their hour of need. The Aga Khan Foundation organised a lifeline via the weather-beaten Pamir highway from Osh and ensured the Pamiri received what they needed to survive. When the Aga Khan himself visited the Pamir region in 1995, the people came from their villages and gathered on the banks of the Pamir River to see the descendant of the Prophet with their own eyes.

Return of the resistant spirit

Following the peace accord, the Tajik central government tried to reassert its authority in Pamir, in particular after Russian border units withdrew from the mountain region in 2004, but the civil war commanders were really the ones in control.

These self-assured field commanders from the opposition and Popular Front were a thorn in the side of central government. Many of them were employed in official positions as part of the peace accord, but remained autarkic and reluctant to subordinate themselves to the authority of the president. For his part, Rahmon gradually eliminated them; they were either killed or disappeared in prison. But the commanders in the mountains to the east of the capital were able to hold their ground. Since 2010, the central government has been waging a costly war – in terms of human life – against the recalcitrant commanders in the Tajik mountains.

On 21 July 2012, the head of the state security service was stabbed to death in Pamir province. Central government saw an opportunity to settle some outstanding scores with rebellious leaders and hit back. In doing so, it roused the spirits of the civil war from their slumber.

An echo with dangerous overtones for Tajikistan’s central power structure. Opposition groups say the ethnic conflict has flared up again. The Tajik central government is reacting sensitively to reports in the Russian media that Gorno-Badakhshan province could secede from the rest of the nation and gain independence. The primary outcome of the attack has been that many Pamiri are again siding with the heroes of the civil war. At present, the fact that the situation has not escalated further is primarily due to the Aga Khan, who has a direct line to the Tajik president. His call for calm is also respected by Pamiri leaders.

Russia is adopting a conspicuously laid-back stance in the Pamir conflict. Before this latest escalation, the Tajik foreign minister made it clear to the Russians that the extension of an agreement for a Russian military base in Tajikistan has not yet been agreed. The clashes in Khorog are now showing the world that the government there is finding it difficult to control the highland border region with Afghanistan.

Marcus Bensmann

© Qantara 2012

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/

The View From Ishkashim by Nathan Hamm on 8/6/2012

This is a guest post from Navruz Nekbakhtshoev

Violent Conflict in Badakhshan, Tajikistan: Social Order amidst Chaos and When Master Frames of War Mislead

When the one day war broke out in Khorog, GBAO I was in my native Ishkashim the southernmost district of GBAO which suddenly grabbed the media limelight due to the killing of Abdullo Nazarov, a chairman of the Directorate of Tajikistan’s State Committee for National Security (KGB). Ishkashim is home to three language based ethnic groups: Ghoronis/Tajiks, Rinis and Wakhis. The people of Ishkashim also identify themselves as Ismailis, a sect in Shia Islam. Ishkashimis also have a territorial identity- Pamiri. If asked why Pamiri, they would tell you that it is because they live in, what is now, GBAO.

From the people in Ishkashim I learnt that the war was caused by the killing of Abdullo Nazarov. While they didn’t known who was really responsible for the killing of Nazarov, they were aware that it must have been done to permanently stop him from passing onto Tolib Ayombekov the burden of sharing with officials in Dushanbe the profit from the illicit cigarette business and keep the share of the profit that he was supposed to pass upward all to himself. People I talked to generally agreed that government’s use of force was excessive and inhumane and that the problem could have been solved through careful investigation. On everything else opinions and attachments differed.
When following the one day war, the central government shut down cellphones and internet, no accurate information percolated from Khorog. Ishkashim was in a zone of uncertainty. Local government, citizens and “fighters with no arms”, as they are pejoratively referred to in Ishkashim were passively waiting to see how the conflict unfolded. Surprisingly the war in Khorog and uncertainty over the course of war coincided with order in Ishkashim.

Government Reaction

Local Government Bureaucrats

“We don’t want Ishkashim to get involved in this conflict, otherwise they will come and carry out a mop up operation here. We are for order and stability.” This was not a public statement by the government. I elicited this response when, after the one day war, I visited the district executive committee (raispalkom) in Ishkashim, in the vain hope of getting new information. I noticed officials were trying to get together to discuss the situation and I chanced to ask the official what the meeting was all about and he told me that it was about the situation in Khorog. I asked him why they don’t meet with the people instead. He assured me that people know the government’s position on the conflict.

Indeed, the local government in Ishkashim explicitly did not inform people about the situation or announce its position on the conflict. It was amazing how passive, weak and inconspicuous the local government was during those days. Police weren’t on the streets as usual. The prosecutor, a native of Mastchoh and alleged extortionist was said to be hiding in the hospital. The district chairman was invisible as usual. A bunch of young guys would gather in front of the local government building to exchange rumors about the war. Meanwhile government officials were complaining to me individually without dispersing these “trouble makers” as they put it. They lamented they have no way of stopping these guys from joining the war. They also confided that the central government cut off the phones probably because of a lack of trust. Another source told me that only the district chairman has an active line.

Government officials in Ishkashim are viewed as corrupt, aloof and nepotistic. In fact, the district has not seen any public works projects funded by the government since the good old Soviet days. The district lacks good roads, schools, bathrooms and drinking water infrastructure. People also complained to me that local government officials force public and private sector employees to raise money for cultural activities and concert performers who come to Ishkashim from Kulob.

A few days into the ceasefire the government used the decree of the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Shia Ismailis in an effort to pacify the “restive” Ishkashim. According to the decree the special military operation carried out by the government of Tajikistan is not aimed against the Ismaili community, given that GBAO is also populated by Sunnis. In fact such operation was also carried out in Rasht valley one year ago. At first people thought the decree was a government fabrication because they thought there was no way for the government to obtain a message from His Highness amidst the information blockade. Following the one day war government dispatched its (government) representatives t o the villages with the decree and also to implement the order of the central government to ask sellers at the markets to not raise food prices. It should be noted that Aga Khan’s development project in Tajikistan have been instrumental in building the post-conflict state in Tajikistan and for it was normal for the government to rely on the Aga Khan’s message to ensure citizens’ compliance. Meanwhile the district government was impalpable in the district itself.

Street Reaction

A Not So Ominous Subproletariat

“They are coming to get us. They want to own Badakhshan. We are not Gharmis(referred to the people living in the Rasht valley where government forces effectively put down an uprising a year ago). Guys we should have nomus[pride] and go to Khorog.” These were the statements by several young men, whom I choose to classify as subrpoletarians,1 a category of people who have never held jobs and spent the better part of their lives either in jail or being engaged in illicit business activities involving drugs and gemstones. While with the rise of subproletarians after the fall of Soviet Union things fell apart in several countries of the former Soviet Union, including Tajikistan (think of Sangak Safarov a convict- turned -hero for a short while) these guys weren’t at all ominous. The audiences were students (including me) and young public agent workers. It was amazing how overnight these guys gained popularity in the streets only because they allegedly risked going to Khorog to join the war, although the veracity of their story is much in doubt. They told us that they were captured in Khorog by government forces and were later released when they told the soldiers that they were construction workers. It was a tremendous accomplishment for these “nascent fighters”. To undermine the “legitimacy” of the “old fighters” the “nascent fighters” complained that the “old fighters” hid under the cover at home while they risked their life in Khorog and that we shouldn’t listen to what they say. They were making fun of the “old fighters” for suggesting that if need be they would go to Khorog with swords(“fighters” old and new had no guns). It was disturbing that that the “nascent fighters” were aware that they had friends and relatives in action on the government side in Khorog. On the side I asked two guys who were seasonal labor migrants what they thought about the sermon preached by the “nascent fighters” they told me that they did not want to fight the government forces because it is against the wishes of Hazar Imam(the Aga Khan). Another told me that the fighters in Khorog are involved in drug trafficking and it is strongly condemned in our mazhab (Ismaili sect). A few students were anxious to escape Pamirs unhurt in order to be in time for school. The crowd would then disperse for lunch and get back together again to continue exchanging rumors. The pattern continued up until the time I was there, that is August 1st.


“It is all an internal affair….They are trying to settle personal scores….Tolib’s guys killed the KGB official because they didn’t want to share the profit with him. They are all implicit in this illegal business,” said a retiree with no party affiliation. “Government started the war. The use of 3000 armed men to solve the problem is unreasonable. They should have just captured the culprits….We have nothing to do with this conflict and don’t want to see our guys get involved,” said a government official. “People in Khorog fight for Tolib and Imum, because they help the poor and organize religious events,” said a retiree and a member of communist party. “It would be great if they get rid of wholesale smugglers so that we could buy stuff at the Afgan bazaar (the cross border market),” said a woman. “Our fighters are all talk and no action. They don’t have guns. All they do is get together and share rumors without going to Khorog,” said a female teacher. “I don’t want to see these guys get together in front of my house what if government troop comes and bombs my house,” said a young male public agency employee. “Kids in Khorog are nuts for throwing rocks at the soldiers. What is the point of religious education they get at school?” said a teacher who escaped from Khorog. ”If the Special Forces come they would not harm poor people. I hope they would get rid of the major drug dealer,” said a woman. Such were the opinions of current and former public and private agent employees, whom I call proletarians.

Once phones were cut off a real panic started that Ishkashim was next in line for the mop up operation. It is notable that all throughout this uncertainty people never stoked up on flour . People I talked were confident that supplies routes will open up soon. Very few who did stock up on flour became the target of ridicule . Women said to another women who bought two sacks of flour “you think I will starve and you survive. I will come and share your flour.” It was also amazing that public agency employees would show up to work when there was really nothing to do in the office with no internet or phone.

By way of conclusion

Paradoxically the cloud of uncertainty casting over Ishkashim those days was most notable for its stabilizing effect. Order didn’t break down. If there was any opportune time for the disenfranchised Pamiris to openly defy the corrupt government by supporting their co- ethnics in Khorog, taking hostage Tajik government officials or tearing down the pictures of Rahmon, July 24, 2012 was that time. None of that happened. Instead self-styled nascent and old fighters continued to sit on the fences and exchange rumors of war. Meanwhile amidst the crisis, the alleged weak local government tried to toe the line of the central government by dispatching its representatives to the villages to ensure sellers at the market would not raise food prices.

Most importantly, my observations were consistent with the idea that it is erroneous to assume that an ethnic group, at least in times of war, would behave as a unitary actor and an ethnic identity would predict individual behavior.2 Accounts of the conflict in Khorog tend to portray the war in clear cut terms: “restive, united Pamiris” versus the state, Shias versus Sunnis. We are told that the memory of collective trauma endured by the Pamiris during the civil war and relative deprivation thereafter reinforced the sense of united Pamiri identity during the crisis.

Framing the conflict in ethnic terms is a convenient but fallacious analytical turn to explain the uprising in Khorog. It is convenient because all who fought happened to be Pamiris and Shias, it is fallacious because it does not account for why the rest of Pamiris and Shias refrained from supporting their coethnics. If in fact “Pamiri ethnic identity” were a powerful motivating force and predictive of the behavior of the people of Pamir in times of crisis we would have seen the people of Ishkashim and other neighborhoods of Khorog enter the fray. Divergent reactions to conflict in Ishkashim and the fact that some co-ethnics were fighting and dying on both sides of the divide and other co-ethnics unwilling to mobilize against the government forces casts doubt on the assumption that Pamiri identity becomes potent once the ethnic group is besieged by a hostile force. Studies of civil war tell us that in times of war ethnic group attachment hinges on who controls the territory. It becomes strong if co-ethnics control the territory and weak, i.e., when ethnic defection occurs, when rival groups are in control. If neither side controls the territory, social order will be the equilibrium. Ishkashim was a typical case of a zone outside the control of either central government or the co-ethnic militia unit, hence the dominant survival strategy chosen by Ishkashimis was inaction and social order reigned supreme by default.

Navruz Nekbakhtshoev is a doctoral student in political science at Indiana University and earned his master’s degree in social and public policy at Duquesne University. He has been a research assistant for the Social Science Research Council Eurasia Project, an Aga Khan Foundation International Fellow, an Edmund S. Muskie Graduate Fellow, and has written for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. He recently coauthored “Internet Libel Law and Freedom of Expression in Tajikistan” in After the Czars and Commissars: Journalism in Post-Soviet Authoritarian Central Asia, edited by Eric Freedman and Richard Schafer.

For a comprehensive analysis of how the rise of subproletarians led to the escalation of violence in the Caucasus see Georgi Derluguian, Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus. Can world-system theory and sociological fieldwork explain the bifurcating fates of the post-Soviet Caucasus? ↩

For an empirical analysis of how civil war determines the saliency of ethnic identity see Kalyvas, Stathis. 2008. “Ethnic Defection in Civil War.” Comparative Political Studies. Volume 41 Number 8

Voluntary surrender of weapons starts after address by the Aga Khan 02/08/2012

DUSHANBE, August 2, 2012, Asia-Plus – Reports from Khorog say the capital of the Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) is relatively calm.

Asia-Plus’s correspondent Ramziya Mirzobekova reports no shots have been heard in Khorog in recent days. Shops and bazaars are now open in the city.

Troops have left the Roshtqala district and a decision has reportedly been made to withdraw military personnel from residential buildings. However, snipers are still left in mountains around Khorog; they are said to provide security of the president during the celebrations to mark the 80th anniversary of founding of the Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Region.

According to adjusted data, 21 persons, including six militants and fifteen civilians, have reportedly been killed during the clashes in Khorog.

Voluntary surrender of weapons have started in the region after reading Talika (a highly honored form of communication, a written address) of the Aga Khan, Imam (spiritual leader) of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims. In his address, the Aga Khan calls on people to be calm and give the authorities an opportunity to settle the situation through its appropriate structures.

Meanwhile, a protocol has been signed between the confronting sides through intermediary of the Aga Khan Foundation and representatives of the GBAO public. The document, in particular, provides for voluntary surrender of weapons and ceasefire for the purpose of establishing peace and accord in Gorno Badakhshan and preventing the further spread of conflict in Tajikistan. The protocol reportedly also says that President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon guarantees security to persons who voluntary lay down their weapons.

The clashes began in Khorog on July 24 when government forces launched a military operation against what it called “militants” following the murder of the regional security chief Abdullo Nazarov on July 21.

The authorities have blamed Tolib Ayombekov, a former warlord from the civil war, for the murder of Abdullo Nazarov.

According to some media sources, fighting that occurred in Khorog last week has left at least 17 soldiers, 30 militants, and more than 20 civilians dead.

The authorities are still demanding that four people it considers responsible for the assassination be handed over to face justice.

Western Tourists Are Caught in Tajik Drama – Bike-Tour Participants Recount Escape From Fighting in Regional Capital; ‘You Could See the Snipers Moving Up’ July 29, 2012

DUSHANBE, Tajikistan—Australian tourist Brian Thompson stepped out of his hotel in the Tajik city of Khorog last Tuesday and saw teenagers running around in the streets, carrying fresh ammunition for the local fighters who had taken positions in the surrounding buildings.

Gunfire rang through the town as Tajik government forces tried to push across a strategic bridge to the center of the city, he said. “It was like the pictures you’d see out of Syria,” said Mr. Thompson, a 57-year-old from Perth. “At one stage, you’d have hundreds of people in the streets, calling for us to join them and drive the soldiers out, fists in the air.”

The Tajik government’s military operation in Khorog, capital of the autonomous province of Gorno-Badakhshan, resulted in the worst outbreak of violence since the country’s civil war—which killed some 100,000 people—ended in a United Nations-brokered peace deal 15 years ago. By government count, at least 48 people died in one day of fighting last week, on Tuesday. Since then, a tenuous cease-fire has held in Khorog and the two sides have held their positions.

On Sunday, the Tajik government said some rebels in Khorog have begun laying down arms, something that couldn’t be independently confirmed.

Just before Tuesday’s offensive, the authoritarian government of President Emomali Rakhmon, a former Communist apparatchik, severed all road and communications links with Gorno-Badakhshan, imposing an information blackout that is still in effect. Western tourists who escaped from Khorog in recent days and were interviewed in the capital, Dushanbe, provided rare firsthand accounts of what happened in the remote mountainous region.

“You could see the snipers moving up with a naked eye,” says Debra Banks, a 55-year-old from Sacramento, Calif., who like most of the 40 or so Westerners in Khorog at the time was part of a Silk Road bicycle tour organized by a Canadian company.

A short distance from Ms. Banks’ Khorog hotel, local fighters took out a government armored personnel carrier that tried to cross the bridge over the fast-flowing Gunt river, she said. In the surrounding streets, Khorog residents mobilized to prevent government forces from entering the city, she said, erecting barricades with rocks, chopped trees, construction debris and anything else they could find. Pictures taken by some of the tourists show trucks and construction machinery positioned across the roads to stop government troops.

A Swiss couple who stayed in a private home by the contested bridge recounted a particularly harrowing experience: They told fellow tourists they were pinned to the bathroom floor for much of Tuesday as the building was peppered by machine-gun fire. The couple escaped Khorog unhurt.

The Western witnesses’ reports add to indications that the Tajik government is likely to encounter continued resistance against its attempts to assert central control over Gorno-Badakhshan, an impoverished region that accounts for about half the country’s territory and that was a rebel stronghold in the 1990s civil war. The province is a gateway for the international opium trade between Afghanistan, the world’s main producer of opiates, and consumers in Europe. Most residents of the province belong to the Pamiri ethnicity, which follows the minority Ismaili sect of Islam and speaks languages distinct from Tajik.

Under terms of the 1997 peace agreement, 30% of government jobs in Tajikistan went to former rebels. While Mr. Rakhmon has steadily removed such foes from power since then, these former commanders—usually protected by their own armed militias—still retain influence over Gorno-Badakhshan.

One of them is Talib Ayombekov, the border police chief in an area that serves as a key transit route for Afghan narcotics exports. The Tajik government said it moved its forces into Khorog, which sits on the Afghan border, in order to detain Mr. Ayombekov. The government accused Mr. Ayombekov, a Gorno-Badakhshan native, of assassinating days earlier a general commanding the provincial branch of the Tajik state security service.

“These are the last shots of our civil war. Ayombekov defied the state, and no state that respects itself could tolerate that,” says Abdulghani Mamadazimov, director of the Association of Political Scientists of Tajikistan. “We must be clear: Those are not rebels. Those are drug barons, and the local population knows it.”

Mr. Ayombekov has repeatedly denied his involvement in the general’s death. A statement attributed to him and released Sunday by Pamiri activists described the military operation in Khorog as “genocide against the Pamiri people.” The statement also said he was ready to participate in an independent investigation.

Tajik opposition leaders called Sunday for a halt to the government offensive, warning that it may spin out of control.

“The stronger side must show its strength by stopping the military campaign,” said Muhiddin Kabiri, head of Tajikistan’s Islamic Revival Party, the main political opposition to Mr. Rakhmon’s rule. “It’s best to start negotiations with these armed people now, before they have turned into Taliban. An escalation of the conflict may lead to the involvement of Afghan armed groups, expanding it quantitatively and qualitatively.”

The Islamic Revival Party’s regional chief in Gorno-Badakhshan, Sabzali Mahmadrizoev, disappeared shortly after speaking at a protest rally in Khorog last Monday, Mr. Kabiri said. His body was found days later dumped in the vicinity of a Tajik army base near the city, he said, adding that details are sketchy because of the continuing blackout.

The Western tourists trapped in Khorog last week managed to call on their embassies for help only because two of them had roaming smartphones that caught a mobile-phone signal from neighboring Afghanistan, they said. The development organization of Prince Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Ismailis, who owns the Serena hotel outside Khorog, also helped in the evacuation.

Last Wednesday, the tourists said, during a lull in the fighting and helped by their local guides, they walked through the front lines, carrying one bag each, to the Serena, a bit more than four miles away. Two days later, a helicopter chartered by the Aga Khan network ferried the women and children away to Dushanbe. The men arrived in the capital Saturday, after a 13-hour drive through the mountains organized by Western embassies.

One member of the Silk Road bike tour was 32-year-old Washington state native Candace Criscione. “It was definitely a situation,” she said, “where you know you don’t want to be there.”

Framing the Conflict in Khorog by Zohra Ismail-Beben on 7/27/2012

Government Actions Put National Unity in Jeopardy

Crisis in Khorog, Tajikistan
On July 24th the government of Tajikistan sent troops into Khorog, the regional capital of the semi-autonomous region of Gorno-Badakhshan (formally Mountainous Badakhshan Autonomous Province and referred to here as MBAP, but also known by the acronym GBAO), in the eastern part of the country. The incursion was ordered ostensibly to punish the killers of Major-General Abdullo Nazarov, the head of the regional branch of the State Committee on National Security (formerly the KGB) who was apparently stabbed to death on July 22nd. For two days the government troops battled with the supporters of Tolib Ayombekov, who is accused of being the main perpetrator in Nazarov’s death. He is also being sought for criminal activities including charges of drug trafficking across the porous Tajik-Afghan border in this part of the country. That the story is much more complicated than the version offered by the government is not in doubt, as even the most basic facts are in dispute. For example, Ayombekov has denied having any role in the killing, declaring that what happened to Nazarov was an accident. And the government has not provided any evidence to back its assertions.

Having now declared a ceasefire, the government is in the process of negotiating the handover of those it deems responsible, holding the city of Khorog effectively hostage until these demands are met. In this situation it is the government’s actions that have led to the escalation of the crisis in Khorog. They have opened a Pandora’s Box and the government in Dushanbe must now realize that the exit strategy may be much more difficult than the entry. What is happening now in Khorog exposes the much deeper contradictions of governance and the sense of uncertainty that pervades public life in Tajikistan today.

Framing of the On-going Events

Some media outlets have used a completely erroneous framework with which to view the conflict. Taking a page straight from the government book, they suggest that the troops are fighting Islamists and the remnants of the civil war that plagued the country in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union. But others have focused on a more nuanced portrait, suggesting that this is really about is control of the lucrative drug traffic in the region. Before he became the most wanted suspect in Tajikistan, Ayombekov was on government payroll as the commander of a border guard unit responsible for policing the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. People have pointed out that he has been engaged now for a number of years in drug trafficking, as well as other smuggling operations, of which he has only now been accused by the government. However, it is highly unlikely that the officials in Dushanbe were unaware of what was taking place for some time. As the International Crisis Group laid out in 2009 in its report Tajikistan: On the Road to Failure, there has been a strong belief amongst many observers in Central Asia that officials at the highest levels in the government are complicit in the drug trade. The influx of wealth and the display of material goods in this impoverished country attest to this in the minds of Tajiks. Even in Khorog it is not unusual to see expensive cars owned by those with no visible source of livelihood or income, and it is not unusual to hear comments about it either.

As someone who has lived and worked in the region, my primary concern is the voices of the Pamiri people themselves. Their voices give a sense of deep uncertainty, which stems from a long history of geographical, social, and political marginalization. What is happening now is also the legacy of the civil war, in which the Pamiris (the minority ethnic group that inhabits much of the Gorno-Badakhshan region) were on the losing side. In that conflict Pamiris who had resettled in other areas of Tajikistan during the Soviet period were subjected to repeated bouts of ethnic cleansing. Many were made refugees from their homes in southern Tajikistan and forced to migrate to MBAP, which they saw as a safe haven.

While the news media sources have largely moved beyond the narrative of “Islamists” or “former opposition” fighting government forces, many in MBAP realize the complexity of the situation and the lack of easy frames within which to place this event. There are no “Islamists” in Khorog, and many former opposition commanders in MBAP have been co-opted into the regime and have sought to use the resources of the State to further their own aims. During my research in rural areas of Badakhshan, it was clear that even the district officials saw themselves as part of the Tajik state and sought to utilize the State to increase their own prestige and access to resources, and to strengthen and expand their social networks through this association.

Contextualizing the Pamiri Reactions

What has happened in the past few years, according to both those allied to the government of President Rahmon and those in the opposition, is the gradual sidelining of anyone deemed a potential rival, shrinking the political space to the point where very few people find themselves part of the trusted inner circle. The lack of a broad coalition has not necessarily reduced the possibility of dissent, as the information control in and out of the country is nearly not as controlled as it is in Uzbekistan. But it has reduced the possibility of being heard, which makes life very uncertain and subject to the whims of those in power. What happened in Khorog seems to have taken many by surprise–even though there have been indications that the government had planned to deal with the local drug traffickers at some point–because it sets up a direct confrontation between the center and MBAP as a whole, something none of them would have wished. Although reliable figures are unavailable, it is widely reported that gun battles in the city have brought a number of civilian casualties. Furthermore, the total communication blackout imposed on MBAP has effectively made hostages out of the people of Khorog, as well as their friends and family outside the region who are unable to contact them.

One of the leaders of the Pamiri community, Mahmadsho Ilolov, who has been participating in on-going negotiations with the government on behalf of the citizens of Khorog, expressed his frustration in a recent news interview. While he does not wish to support those accused of drug trafficking, he also points out how the government’s actions have greatly complicated the situation. The government has refused to withdraw its troops until it captures its targets, while Ayombekov and his supporters have indicated that they will not surrender until the government leaves Khorog. (Ilolov’s full interview in Tajik can be found here)

Some news reports have emphasized the differences between the Pamiris, the largest ethnic group of the area, and the rest of the country. The Pamiris are an ethnic minority who belong to the Shia Ismaili branch of Islam, while the people in the rest of the country are Sunni Muslims. There are differences of language and traditions within the Pamiris, but on the whole they have come to see themselves as set apart from other Tajiks. To some this fact of difference has the greatest bearing on the crisis unfolding now. A sense of a united Pamiri identity against any outside intrusions has found a footing amongst those whose sense of helplessness grows as the siege of Khorog continues. While it has roots in a long history, the increasing vigor of the Pamiri identity was forged by the traumas of the civil war, in which Pamiris were targeted not just as members of the opposition, but for merely being Pamiri.

There are warnings that this crisis might indeed become much bigger if people in Khorog began to coalesce around the issue of ethnic autonomy and defense of their homeland against aggression (see for example Tajikistan: Badakhshan Clashes Risk Sparking Insurgency, Analysts Fear). However, the one thing that unites most Tajiks is that they never want to return to the period of the civil war and its tragedies. Many have spoken about the steady erosion of the political space and connected the present events with other recent displays of military force intended to deal with “rogue” commanders in other parts of Tajikistan such as the Rasht Valley (see the ICG report for details). This erosion makes it even more difficult to move past the civil war. And for some this act has in fact reopened those old wounds.

President Rahmon has always emphasized a unified Tajik identity, an inclusive vision for the Tajik State in which there is a sense of shared rights and responsibilities. Much of that has seemed like a cheap rhetorical ploy. The attempts by the government to create symbols of national unity, such as the largest flagpole in the world, have rendered such efforts absurd at times. However, I would argue it has been effective to the extent that it has hid well the deep fissures exposed by the civil war. It seems that such a fiction, however flimsy, has once again proved untenable. It has in fact undermined and stands contradictory to President Rahmon’s own attempts at statecraft and his efforts to create a national identity. He has built a narrative of himself as the great force of stability and security, the lynchpin of the Tajik State. But such arbitrary actions by the state against its own people shatter these illusions. The question for the long run is whether the Tajiks can forge a national identity without him.

Violence In Tajikistan’s Badakhshan Province A Legacy Of Civil War July 26, 2012

WATCH: RFE/RL’s Tajik Service Director Sojida Djakhfarova explains the strategic importance of Gorno-Badakhshan


Government forces have recently clashed with armed groups in Tajikistan’s remote Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province, a mountainous region along the Afghan border that has existed largely outside Dushanbe’s control for decades. RFE/RL’s Robert Coalson takes a quick look at Badakhshan and the wider impact of unrest there.

Relatively few people have heard of Tajikistan’s Badakhshan region. Why is it important?

Badakhshan is an isolated, mountainous region of southeastern Tajikistan that shares a long and virtually open border with Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, and China. The region has considerable mineral wealth and is also a corridor for illegal trafficking in cigarettes, alcohol, and narcotics — particularly Afghan heroin.

It has a population of about 250,000, most of whom belong to the Pamiri ethnic group and are Shi’ite Muslims of the Ismaili sect. Tajikistan is a Sunni-majority country.

Badakhshan lies several hundred kilometers from the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, and is isolated by rugged mountain terrain. It has been largely de facto autonomous since Tajikistan became independent in 1991. The borders in the area were patrolled by Russian troops until the Tajik government asked them to leave in 2005.

Tajikistan is considered a weak state that is potentially vulnerable to destabilizing influences that could come across the border from Afghanistan as the NATO-led international coalition there draws down its combat forces in 2014. This is a matter of considerable concern to both Moscow and Beijing.

The larger neighborhood powers have long had serious concerns about security in the region. Omar Ashour, who teaches Middle East studies at the University of Exeter, notes that Russia intervened heavily to end the Tajik Civil War in 1997 because of concerns that the fragile country could be undermined by the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

He says the government remains weak, unreformed, and lacks popular support. “You have a government that is not giving any signs of reform or transparency or turning away from corruption. It runs the country almost like an organized-crime syndicate,” Ashour said.

The Tajik government says it has been fighting “militants” in Badakhshan. Who are these militants and what is motivating them — is it religious, ethnic, economic?

Although the Pamiri who populate Badakhshan are ethnically and religiously different from northern Tajiks, the main drivers of the current conflict are clashing economic and power interests that are the unresolved legacy of the Tajik Civil War. Although fighting in that conflict ended in 1997, the central government has been continuing to settle things with former opposition figures, including many that were brought into power structures following the end of the fighting.

Paul Quinn Judge, acting Asia program director of the International Crisis Group, sees the current violence as a legacy of Tajikistan’s civil war.

“The pattern was after the civil war, in many places, to give local guerrilla commanders — commanders of the United Tajik Opposition, that is — positions in their home which would allow them to wield substantial political, administrative, and economic clout,” Quinn Judge said. “The current targets of the government’s operation seems to fall very much within that mold.”

In Badakhshan, the government is targeting a former opposition commander named Talib Ayombekov, who was given a post in the Interior Ministry and later with the border guards. The fighting was sparked by the July 21 killing of Abdullo Nazarov, who was also an opposition commander during the civil war, but who later was made chairman of the Directorate of Tajikistan’s State Committee for National Security (KGB) in Badakhshan.

Ashour notes that both men are from the country’s Sunni majority and have relatively little support among the local population.

How is NATO’s plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan a factor in Badakhshan?

Although the Badakhshan violence is a purely internal matter, it is not isolated from the events in Afghanistan. Quinn Judge argues that the developing withdrawal from Afghanistan is already increasing tensions in the area.

“The beginning of the drawdown is already making people nervous. Those living around Afghanistan, those with a stake in Afghanistan,” Quinn Judge said. “And what is happening in Badakhshan right now, which could have long-lasting repercussions, is bound to make players like China and the U.S. extremely nervous in the long run.”

The University of Exeter’s Ashour also argues that the emerging security vacuum is fraught with danger for Tajikistan.

“I think what the NATO departure will do is just make all the major players in Tajikistan think that they can expand their influence without having some big brother in the neighborhood intervene to empower one side or the other,” Ashour said.

Ashour agrees that the recent events in Badakhshan could have dangerous, long-lasting repercussions unless the international community pays serious attention.

“Tajikistan is really on the brink at the moment and I think without some kind of international pressure to start some serious reforms in the security sector, in the military sector, and the political system, I think this country may see another cycle of heavy violence,” Ashour said.

Unprecedented Clashes in Southeast Tajikistan: Authorities send in army to take on powerful figure linked to high-profile murder case. By Lola Olimova – Central Asia RCA Issue 680, 25 Jul 12

Forty-two people died when Tajik government forces clashed with supporters of a renegade military commander in the remote southeastern province of Badakhshan, police agencies said.

In a joint statement issued on July 24, the interior ministry and national security committee said 12 of the dead belonged to the Tajik security forces and the rest were members of a rebel armed group targeted in a major military operation.

On July 25, the Tajik military and police held talks with Ayombekov’s group and agreed a ceasefire. This held through the day – gunfire was no longer heard in the main provincial town, Khorog. It appeared the Tajik government military had fallen short of achieving its objective of crushing the rebel forces. (See Halt to Fighting in Tajikistan’s East, No Clear Outcome.)

This outbreak of violence – highly unusual for this sparsely-populated, high-altitude region of Tajikistan – began on July when the provincial head of the national security service, Major-General Abdullo Nazarov, was killed in an attack outside Khorog.

The authorities identified one Tolib Ayombekov as a possible suspect. Like the murdered man, Ayombekov was a member of the regular security forces, in his case as commander of a border guards unit at Ishkashim, close to the Afghan frontier.

According to the official account of events, the authorities sent a team to negotiate with Ayombekov and urge him to hand over the alleged killers among his men. After three days of talking, it was clear this was not going to happen.

“Ayombekov categorically refused this demand and instead he mobilised armed criminals,” an official statement said.

The authorities then sent in the military, resulting in street battles in Khorog. Although casualties were high, the government said no civilians were killed.

A state of emergency was declared in Badakhshan, the few roads in and out were blocked, flights between Khorog and the capital Dushanbe were suspended, and mobile phone and internet access was cut.

Ayombekov is a former rebel leader turned security forces member. Like many opposition commanders who fought the government during the 1992-97 civil war, he was given his command in the border guards force as part of the peace and reintegration agreement that ended the conflict.

In that job, officials are now alleging, he set up a crime ring that ran cross-border smuggling of narcotics, tobacco and precious stones.

Unlike other former rebel strongholds, Badakhshan has been less of a worry for central government over the years. In eastern valleys nearer to Dushanbe, there have been sporadic incidents since the civil war, which though localised, raised concerns of a Sunni Islamic insurgency with possible links to the Taleban or al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. (See Tajikistan: Islamic Militancy No Phantom Menace and Tajik Authorities Struggle to Quell Militants.) People in Badakhshan are mostly Ismaili Muslims, so that kind of link is of little direct concern.

Some experts argue that Badakhstan’s remote location and apparent stability meant that officials in Dushanbe did not keep such a close eye on things.

According to the editor of the Asia Plus newspaper, Marat Mamadshoev, Badakhshan was the last region where the authorities have taken on the former insurgent commanders.

“Operations like this one tackling civil war-era warlords have taken place virtually everywhere in Tajikistan – in the Rasht valley, in Soghd and in Kulob,” he said, naming regions in the east, north and south of the country. “The majority of the [major] civil war participants have either been killed or imprisoned.”

Left to their own devices, some of the ex-field commanders have built up a strong presence in Badakhshan, perhaps leaving them with the impression that they could defy the central authorities. In an incident four years ago, a group led by one Muhammadbokir Muhammadbokirov attacked the provincial offices of the interior ministry.

The names of several former guerrilla leaders come up in connection with allegations of organised crime, above all the highly lucrative trade in heroin from Afghanistan. The border is porous due to the difficult terrain and lack of adequate patrols.

The ongoing military operation in Badakhshan is likely to shake the powerbase of former warlords whose influence seems to have grown over the last ten years or so.

Ayombekov, who has not been killed or captured, reportedly sent a letter to President Rahmon, perhaps in the hope he would step in as a kind of arbiter. It clearly did not work. The major-general’s murder was a direct challenge to central government, and the response was a show of force.

Political analyst Nurali Davlatov argues that the government should carefully weigh the consequences that excessively heavy-handed action could have in this distinctive part of Tajikistan. The Pamiri people of Badakshan differ from the rest of the country in language, culture and Islamic practice, and feel underrepresented in central government institutions.

“The use of force could strengthen separatism,” Davlatov said. “There are differences of ethnic background and religion and – whatever others might think – the Pamiris believe their rights are infringed on.

“If the government is able to draw a distinction between the ordinary people and the warlords, then an escalation can be averted.”

Davlatov warned that if former field commanders were cornered but not defeated, they might look for support from armed groups over the border in Afghanistan, where he believes they already have connections. That would lead to an expansion in the conflict that Tajikistan’s military would be hard-pressed to cope with, he added.

Any failure to resolve the current situation is likely to place the government under considerable international scrutiny, Davlatov said. As a key Ismaili region, Badakhshan has benefited from development aid from the Agha Khan Foundation – but so have other, non-Ismaili parts of the country.

Lola Olimova is IWPR Tajikistan editor. Updated information from radio editor Shahodat Saibnazarova.

Tajik authorities acknowledged the deaths of 42 people during a RAID in the Pamir July 24, 2012

The Ministry of the Interior and the State Committee for national security (scns) Tajikistan has officially confirmed the death of 42 people in the ongoing security operation in the city of Khorog, the administrative center of Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (Gbao). Correspondent reports BakuToday, about this evening, 24 July, it was reported in the news of the State TV channel.

According to the source, 42 killed 30 people were militants and 12-by law enforcement officials. “It was also arrested 40 members of illegal armed gangs, of which 8 persons are citizens of Afghanistan. They seized more than 100 guns, “according to State television channel.

Meanwhile, according to an informed source, Prince Aga Khan IV, who is the head of the Ismailis (residents of GBAO profess Islam and Nizari) day July 24 in a telephone conversation discussed the situation in Tajik Badakhshan with President Emomali Rakhmonov. According to the source, in the next few days Prince Aga Khan IV is going to visit the region. But this information is not confirmed officially.

Meanwhile, in Dushanbe, Tajikistan continues to deliver on helicopters wounded from the city of Khorog. Media write about 200 dead on both sides. According to local residents, the population build barricades in Khorog. Also reported a concentration of fighters in neighbouring Afghanistan, where today ran Tolib Ajëmbekov, last known warlord of the United Tajik opposition. The Tajik authorities believe him guilty of killing Abdullo Nazarov, head of the Office for GBAO SCNS. On the morning of 24 July, authorities launched a special operation to apprehend the perpetrators of the deaths of generals.

Tajikistan: Will Ceasefire End Deadly Conflict in Gorno-Badakhshan? July 25, 2012

Reports of civilian casualties trickled out of Tajikistan’s mountainous east on July 25 as security officials announced a ceasefire and demanded militants hand over the local warlord targeted in the offensive, launched a day earlier. The fighting in Gorno-Badakhshan province (GBAO) is being described as the worst in Tajikistan since the 1990s civil war and raises concerns of a protracted new conflict.

According to the Interior Ministry and National Security Committee, 42 died during the operation on July 24, including 12 government soldiers and 30 militants. Though the government denies any civilian deaths, reports of such fatalities have been widespread. Radio Free Europe’s Tajik service says unidentified snipers killed at least six civilians, including children, early on July 25. The independent Asia-Plus news agency, which has been blocked throughout Tajikistan, reports approximately 20 civilians died. Unconfirmed reports put the civilian death toll as high as 100.

With the region still cut off from telephone and Internet, numbers are impossible to verify. Some Dushanbe residents unable to reach their loved ones in GBAO are panicking.

One of the few residents able to get through on a special line said he heard reports of children killed in the neighborhood of Khlebzavod (“Bread Factory”). “My son told me, ‘Daddy, it is so terrible to hear the real whistle of bullets,’” said the resident.

The military operation began after the government accused Tolib Ayombekov, the chief of a major border post near GBAO’s capital, Khorog, of arranging the July 21 murder of General Abdullo Nazarov, the provincial head of Tajikistan’s KGB-successor agency. Authorities also accuse Ayombekov, a former civil war-era commander, of organizing an illegal armed gang and drug smuggling. Some unconfirmed reports say he has fled to Afghanistan, directly across the Pyanj River from Khorog. A July 25 amnesty announced by the government does not apply to Ayombekov or three other militants wanted for the murder, according to Reuters and other reports.

The operation risks disenfranchising local Pamiris, a cultural and linguistic minority in Tajikistan that comprises the bulk of the population in high-altitude Gorno-Badakhshan. The sparsely populated region, which shares a long border with Afghanistan and is central to the Afghan narcotics trade, has long resisted the authority of President Emomali Rakhmon. Most residents sided with the opposition during Tajikistan’s 1990s civil war. Locals still complain of underrepresentation in government positions. The region remains the poorest in the country, itself the poorest in the former Soviet Union.

There were scattered reports of protests in Khorog on July 24 and 25, and outside Tajik embassies in Moscow and Bishkek. And on the night of July 24, a group of unidentified assailants beat Tajikistan’s military prosecutor who was in Khorog as head of the task force investigating Nazarov’s killing, Asia-Plus reported.

Analysts in Dushanbe believe the government’s ability to temper any anger in the Pamir Mountains, where GBAO is located, will depend on the number of civilian casualties.

“Given the type of battle that took place, it’s reasonable to assume civilians were killed. If there are many civilian casualties, than the government has a nightmare scenario on its hands. If there ever was a separatist movement in GBAO, this will be a big problem. The big question is how many civilian casualties there are,” said a well-informed analyst in Dushanbe. (The local government in GBAO has announced a 20-person commission will investigate civilian deaths, Asia-Plus reported.)

The analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to fears of government reprisal, doubts the violence could spill into other parts of the country, as the Pamiris have few natural allies.

While sources in Tajikistan have been wary of going on the record, one strongly held view is that Dushanbe had been planning an operation to eliminate four to eight militant groups in GBAO, most of which are believed to be involved in drug trafficking. Since the civil war ended in 1997, President Rakhmon has steadily pushed out opposition commanders who received positions in the UN-brokered peace agreement, but he has not confronted commanders in GBAO so directly until now.

Speculation is rife that the operation is first and foremost political, to cement control in a mildly autonomous region, but also to increase leverage over the drug trade. Western diplomats have long accused senior officials throughout Tajikistan of involvement in heroin trafficking. Roughly 25 percent of Afghan narcotics pass through Central Asia each year, the majority through Tajikistan, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. One of the major trafficking routes goes straight through Khorog.

“The primary goal of the operation is political – to get rid of armed opponents. But the second is to consolidate the drug trade,” said the analyst in Dushanbe.

Officials said 40 militants have been arrested, including eight Afghans. While some Russian media quickly drew links between the militants and the Taliban, it is questionable whether the Taliban, strict Sunni Muslims, would team up with Ismailis, whom they consider heretics.

Government Ends Operations In Eastern Tajikistan – Thursday, August 23, 2012


By RFE/RL’s Tajik Service – July 25, 2012 – Tajikistan’s military has ended operations in the eastern province of Badakhshan.

Earlier on July 25, the Tajik government called for a four-hour cease-fire to negotiate with those involved in hostilities in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province. Dushanbe also said those who lay down their arms and surrender would not be punished

Dozens are reported to have died in fighting that broke out after the government moved forces to the region following the July 21 assassination of General Abdullo Nazarov, a regional head of the State Committee for National Security.

The government said at least 12 soldiers and 30 militants were killed in fighting in the remote mountainous region on July 24.

The Tajik Service reports that at least 30 civilians were killed in Khorog, the provincial capital, by unknown snipers.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has expressed concern over the “reports of civilian casualties” in the remote mountainous region.

The head of the Gorno-Badakhshan regional government, Qodiri Qosim, said Tajik President Emomali Rahmon declared the cease-fire on July 25 after sending officials led by his defense minister, Sherali Khairulloev, to the region to negotiate.

The government has described the armed fighters as “militants,” but reportedly has offered its amnesty to all but four of the fighters if they lay down their weapons and surrender.

Among the four is Talib Ayombekov, a former Islamic opposition fighter who received a post in the Interior Ministry then a senior position in the border guards after the civil war.

Tajik authorities blame Ayombekov for Nazarov’s murder, charges Ayombekov denies.

Restive Region

The government maintains only a tenuous hold over the remote Gorno-Badakhshan region, where the majority of the people are Shi’ites of the Ismaili sect who sided with the opposition during Tajikistan’s 1992-1997 civil war.

The central government’s relationship with the eastern region has grown worse in recent years, as government forces were repeatedly sent to Gorno-Badakhshan to rein in unrest and excesses committed by local officials.

Many local figures are, like Ayombekov, former fighters for the opposition who received posts under the terms of the 1997 peace accord that ended the civil war.

Nazarov, the slain general, was another former opposition fighter who received a state position.

Allegations about his murder have revolved around reputed smuggling operations in the region, which borders Afghanistan and China.

Other fighters in eastern Tajikistan, however, maintained and even increased their personal influence over local affairs.

Government forces were sent into the region in 2008 amid growing discontent that spawned demonstrations in the regional capital Khorog, and again in 2010 during protests that centered on the actions of a regional prosecutor.

One security operation in the Rasht area in 2010 to recapture escaped prisoners led to months of fighting in the mountainous terrain controlled by former opposition field commanders who did not accept Tajikistan’s 1997 peace accord. The clashes left scores of government troops and militants dead.

This latest fighting has prompted the Ismailis to claim they are once again victims of government repression.

Besides protests in Khorog, Ismailis have staged protests in neighboring Kyrgyzstan and at Tajikistan’s embassy in Moscow against the government’s military operation in Gorno-Badakhshan.

Violence in Tajikistan: The strongman cometh – Drugs, as well as politics, are behind the fighting in a remote region – Jul 28th 2012

THE government in Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, has long been suspicious of faraway Gorno-Badakhshan, a vast and sparsely populated region in the country’s mountainous east. The inhabitants of the isolated valleys speak strange tongues and revere a descendant of the prophet, the Aga Khan, rather than the strongman president, Emomali Rakhmon. He has never forgotten that they did not support him during the country’s brutal post-Soviet civil war.

At the weekend Mr Rakhmon’s regional security chief was killed in Gorno-Badakhshan, snuggled between Afghanistan and China. The alleged perpetrator, an opposition commander in the civil war, Tolib Ayombekov, refused to give himself up, and Mr Rakhmon sent in his special forces.

The fighting was in central Khorog, the provincial capital. Officially 42 combatants were killed on July 24th. But rumours are trickling out of dozens of civilian casualties. On July 25th the government issued a ceasefire and amnesty, provided Mr Ayombekov surrendered.

The violence may be as much about drug-trafficking as politics. Some 30% of all Afghan opiates pass through Central Asia, mostly through Tajikistan, which explains all the four-wheel drives and McMansions in dirt-poor Khorog. The government alleges Mr Ayombekov played a role in the trade, though senior officials in Dushanbe are in on the game too.

To most Tajiks Mr Rakhmon is the embodiment of stability. Everywhere his portrait hangs on government buildings, a reminder that someone, at least, is in control. Most overlook his blatant corruption and nepotism in exchange for enduring peace.

The contract is more fluid in Gorno-Badakhshan. The Pamiris there have long felt disenfranchised. Meanwhile, local power brokers will be reluctant to cede control of the narcotics trade.

The instability will worry NATO commanders across the Pyanj River in Afghanistan. Tajikistan is also a transit for Western supplies in and out of Afghanistan.

With little proof, Russian media swiftly connected the violence to the Afghan Taliban. There is a motive to their claims. Russia has been renegotiating the lease for its 6,000-plus troops stationed in Tajikistan, Russia’s largest foreign deployment. Moscow says Dushanbe needs the extra support as NATO leaves the region. This week’s events will bolster that case.|asi

Author: ismailimail

Independent, civil society media featuring Ismaili Muslim community, inter and intra faith endeavors, achievements and humanitarian works.