Badakhshan-Tajikistan Clashes Risk Sparking Insurgency

Wikistrat analyzes the murky but dangerous situation in Tajikistan where government forces have clashed with local opposition.

A Tajik Air Mil Mi-8 helicopter, February 6, 2007
A Tajik Air Mil Mi-8 helicopter, February 6, 2007 (Brian Harrington Spier)

The response by the Tajik government to the murder of a security official last week — sending troops into the capital of Gorno-Badakhshan — may cause more harm than they anticipated.

Major General Abdullo Nazarov, the head of the regional branch of the State Committee on National Security (formerly the KGB) was apparently stabbed to death on July 22. Two days later, Tajik troops marched into Khorugh, nominally seeking to arrest Tolib Ayombekov, the head of a border post on the Afghan-Tajik frontier and an opposition commander during Tajikistan’s 1992-1997 civil war, who has been accused of the general’s murder.

Last Wednesday, a ceasefire was declared but the two sides remain at an impasse. Ayombekov’s forces refuse to surrender their weapons or their leader while the Tajik government, headed by autocratic President Emomalii Rahmon, is not perceivably ready to “save face by collecting some weapons and withdrawing.”

Andrei Grozin, head of the Central Asia Department at the CIS Institute in Moscow, was quoted as saying that “any campaign that does not end quickly risks getting bogged down in the harsh mountain winter.”

A letter confirmed accurate by sources close to EurasiaNet paints a grim picture in Khorugh, effectively held hostage by the cease fire.

99 percent of local people support these commanders. It’s a small town. Everyone is related. Everyone is family, friends. There is not a specific group the government is fighting: All local men are involved.

Reports on casualties are varied. Government figures estimate seventeen troops, thirty militants and one civilian while other estimates are higher — particularly concerning civilian deaths. Opposition sources cite two hundred overall casualties.

The most recent reports out of the region are inconsistent. Reuters reported that some rebels have begun to surrender after government threats to resume their assault but the report has not been picked up or corroborated by other news sources and only cites Tajik government officials. The situation remains tense in any event.

The shutting off of Internet, mobile and telephone services to the region makes it all the more difficult to decipher precisely what is happening. Early in the conflict, authorities severed access to YouTube in particular and as of Sunday, the websites of at least one Russian television channel and the BBC were blocked.

Analysis

The situation in Tajikistan is at best murky. No single narrative can fully explain and contextualize what is happening.

The sudden unrest in Tajikistan’s poorest region is the byproduct of multiple coincidences, situations and events. It cannot be explained simply with one line or another. Leftover civil war grudges and Islamists? Contested control of lucrative Tajik drug routes? Pamiri ethnic autonomy? Another Shia-Sunni split? The true reasons behind the explosion of violence in Gorno-Badakhshan must be nuanced and incorporate, as appropriate, these various strands.

The situation in Tajikistan is complex, made more so by usually poor coverage of the region and the shutdown of communication services, attributed to a stray bullet hitting a telephone line.

The suspected mastermind behind General Nazarov’s death, Tolib Ayombekov, was one of many opposition commanders in the Tajik civil war who was bought off with money and position. In recent years, though, President Rahmon has been reneging on some of those deals, removing former opposition commanders from their jobs. One possibility is that Ayombekov’s lucrative position as head of a border post (and thus a chief smuggler of Afghan drugs) was under threat from the central government.

This conflict may not have started due to ethnic and religious differences between the autonomous region and the core of Tajikistan but they could help escalate it.

Gorno-Badakhshan is populated primarily by Shia Ismailis of the Pamiri ethnic group, both minorities in Tajikistan. The region supported the opposition in the civil war. Given the porous border with Afghanistan, there is a high potential for insurgent and terror networks to take root. Differences in ethnicity may keep the Taliban from moving north but won’t preclude them from taking advantage of a porous border, as indicated by Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghan Analysts Network, a Kabul based think tank.

Rahmon is in a difficult position. Official reports that rebels were handing in weapons are meant to convey control which the Tajik government may not actually be able to exert in the region. As Central Asia’s preeminent strongman, backing down is difficult to do but while Ayombekov’s forces refuse to surrender and government forces demand it, there are a dwindling number of alternative options. Should violence resume, the region may be ignited. And what seems to have started as the manhunt for an accused murderer of a regional security official could create — out of a heap of dry kindling — a fiery insurgency.

Wikistrat Bottom Lines

Opportunities

Al Qaeda, the Taliban and other terrorist organizations can take advantage of the situation to gain a foothold.

Well timed assistance can help solidify Russia’s position in the country.

Risks

If the Tajik government cannot quickly solve this issue, it risks getting bogged down in an insurgency that could become another civil war. If Russia gets too involved, it might result in another costly and deadly commitment.

Dependencies

How quickly can the Tajik government end the situation and how costly will it be? How long will it take for the terrorist and insurgent networks to take advantage of the chaos?

Eric Black, Michael Breen, Thomas Frear and Cuneyt Yilmaz contributed to this analysis.

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