Foreign Policy and Civil Society Program

August 2012

Summary: The events that shook the autonomous GornoBadakhshan region in eastern Tajikistan in July shed light on the internal fragility of some of Afghanistan’s neighbors, and the need to better assess the real sources of instability in Central Asia. The Tajik government often posits that it is fighting Islamic insurgents from Afghanistan, mostly foreigners belonging to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and allies of the Taliban. But many observers reject this argument. Popular resentment against the central government has grown in magnitude over recent years, driving the revival of the type of separatist and autonomist tendencies that pushed the country into civil war following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Tajik state loses control of parts of the country during the summer, but still manages to restore order through the exercise of violence. The capabilities of the Tajik army and security services are therefore destined to become a crucial factor in the stability (or lack thereof) of Emomali Rakhmon’s regime in coming years.

Battle on Top of the World: Rising Tensions in Tajikistan’s Pamir Region
by Sébastien Peyrouse

At a time when the international community and the Central Asian governments are advancing multiple debates on how to address possible post-2014 “spillover” from Afghanistan, the events that shook the autonomous Gorno-Badakhshan region in eastern Tajikistan in the second half of July shed light on the internal fragility of some of Afghanistan’s neighbors, and the need to better assess the real sources of instability in Central Asia. On July 24, the Tajik government blamed the head of the Ishkashim border guard section, Tolib Ayombekov, for having assassinated General Abdullo Nazarov, the chairman of the Directorate of Tajikistan’s State Committee for National Security in the Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region. Ayombekov refused to surrender and regional authorities did not intervene, so the central government sent the army to storm the regional capital, Khorugh. Despite the unilateral declaration of a cease-fire the next day, the situation remained tense for several days. Shelling in the city center and battle in the streets with heavy weapons caused panic among residents and multiple civilian casualties (the exact number remains unknown, but the range is between 20 to more than 100

people). The region was put into a total communication blackout, transportation was cut, journalists banned, borders with Afghanistan closed, and most foreign nationals evacuated. The authorities were required to collect arms, often dating from the civil war period of 1992-1997, from individuals. Several targeted assassinations likely also took place during the fighting, such as that of the local leader of the opposition party, the Islamic Rebirth Party of Tajikistan, Sabzali Mamadrizoyev. This is not the first time in recent years that Tajikistan has been affected by localized riots. The Rasht region, in the center of the country and one of the core areas of the civil war, traditionally feels the heaviest impacts. In the spring and summer of 2009, the Rasht Valley was the site of a several weeklong operation that pitted the security services against a group of Islamic insurgents attempting to stage a coup. They were allegedly led by Mullo Abdullo, a former warlord who had rejected the 1997 peace agreements and had fled to Afghanistan alongside the Taliban, before staging an unexpected comeback. The actual presence of Abdullo in his Tavil-Dara fief was extensively debated and remains unconfirmed. He was eventually killed

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Source: CIA World Factbook 2012

in 2011 by Tajik forces. At the end of summer 2010, new events shook the country. That August, 25 prisoners — most of them linked to the previous attempted coup — escaped from one of Dushanbe’s high-security prisons. Some days later, the country was hit by its first suicide bombing when a car exploded in the northern city of Khudjand in an attack on police buildings. On September 8, about 40 supporters of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan who had been located on one of the “neutral” islands (controlled by neither the Tajik nor Afghan armies) in the Piandj River attempted to cross the Tajik border. Last but not least, on September 19, a brigade of soldiers was attacked while crossing the Kamarob Gorge in the Rasht district. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan killed more than 20 of them, and the Tajik government has pinned the blame for this act on three former warlords. The Tajik government often posits that it is fighting Islamic insurgents from Afghanistan, mostly foreigners belonging to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and allies of the Taliban. But many observers reject this argument. The regional warlords are more political and identity entrepreneurs, who cultivate their patronal legitimacy by redistributing public assets and capturing state revenues, than

they are messengers of radical Islamism. International jihadism is not very attractive in Tajikistan. The radical Salafi movements, which are indeed growing, are influential in Dushanbe and its suburbs, Khatlon, Sogd, Kulyob, and Kurgan-Tyube, but not necessarily in the areas subject to summer insurgency. In the case of the 2012 clashes in Gorno-Badakhshan, the religious argument is even less relevant. The residents of Khorog and Iskhashim are nonTwelver Shiites, Ismaili who worship Karim Aga Khan IV. The Taliban consider them to be heretics. They also have strained relations with Sunni movements, particularly Salafi ones, as they advocate for a more secular, modern, and Western-oriented Islam. The information coming from the Afghan government that hundreds of Islamic fighters in the

The regional warlords are more political and identity entrepreneurs than they are messengers of radical Islamism.

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Afghan region of Badakhshan, on the border with Tajikistan, would be willing to assist the insurgents in Khorog is difficult to interpret. Indeed, some Pamiris may have crossed the border and found refuge on the Afghan side, and some Tajiks at war with the authorities in Dushanbe can hope to spread the idea of a new conflict, but these combatants cannot be linked to the Taliban and do not have any direct connections with the Afghan insurgency. The reasons for growing tensions between Dushanbe and the regions should be sought elsewhere. Popular resentment against the central government has grown in magnitude over recent years. Land reforms and the agricultural banking system have weakened rural economies, which constitute the source of livelihood for most of the population. Endemic corruption, which negates the already limited efficiency of public services like health, education, and pensions, has discredited the state legitimacy. Tajik households now rely mostly on out-migration to gain revenues. Out of a population of 7 million, nearly 1 million Tajiks work in Russia on a seasonal or permanent basis. The World Bank estimates that remittances account for about 40 percent of Tajikistan’s GDP, placing the country first in the world in terms of dependence on remittances as a share of GDP, ahead of states in Central America and sub-Saharan Africa. This situation drives the revival of the type of separatist and autonomist tendencies that pushed the country into civil war following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the Gorno-Badakhshan region, separatist tendencies first emerged during perestroika, accompanied by a desire to reaffirm Pamiri distinctiveness against the revival of the Tajik Sunni identity that was being organized in Dushanbe. By 1993, at the height of the civil war, some members of the Lali Badakhshan party attempted to proclaim the independence of Gorno-Badakhshan and sought, unsuccessfully, the support of Aga Khan, while others were asking for unification with Russia. Today, secessionism is no longer on the agenda, but the narrative of defiance against Dushanbe continues to be upheld in the management of local affairs. Pamiri businessmen do not hesitate to fall back on separatist sentiments when fighting the federal tax authorities. The events of July 2012 — when the Pamiri elites, confident in their stronghold of Khorog, refused to deliver one of their own, Tolib Ayombekov, to the central authorities — should be interpreted in this context.

Today, secessionism is no longer on the agenda, but the narrative of defiance against Dushanbe continues to be upheld in the management of local affairs.
Several conclusions can be drawn from this series of violent events in 2009, 2010, and now in 2012. First of all, the peacekeeping patterns developed after the civil war are in the process of collapsing. The post-war stability resulted from both formal and informal processes. Formal because 30 percent of decision-making posts were reserved for members of the United Tajik Opposition, but this figure is no longer observed in the administration, ministries, or government; informal because the rallying of the warlords to the new political order was negotiated by the retention of substantial political, administrative, and economic leverage in their home region. A large part of the patronal mechanisms of these warlords relies on drug traffic coming from Afghanistan and moving in the direction of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The Pamiri “narco-barons,” who controlled a large part of the traffic during the civil war, are now in competition with other criminal groups with links to high places in Dushanbe. Secondly, the clashes are increasing in magnitude. Although the summer months have always been conducive to underground business and insurgency activities in mountainous areas, the scale of the fighting has grown since 2009. The law enforcement agencies, mostly the State Committee for National Security and Special Forces of the Interior Ministry are directly involved in the fighting. The Tajik state, often described as failing, loses control of parts of the country during the summer months, but still manages to restore order through the exercise of violence. The capabilities of the Tajik army and security services, particularly air capabilities (helicopters and small combat planes), are therefore destined to become a crucial factor in the stability (or lack thereof) of Emomali Rakhmon’s regime in coming years.

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A difficult geopolitical context does not help to peacefully address domestic tensions. The U.S./NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan accentuates the feelings of anxiety of the Tajik population, who doubt the government’s ability to react in case of instability across the border. The authorities are under pressure. Tajikistan is not one of the three countries with which NATO has reverse transit agreements (it has signed them with Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan), although negotiations are still underway. Dushanbe stands to lose a significant source of revenue but also much-needed visibility for the country in its standoff with Tashkent. Talks with Moscow on its military base are even more strained. The Tajik authorities want to get the highest amount of rent, but also ensure their long-term autonomy from the Kremlin’s interference. Far from the “Great Game” grid of interpretation, it is actually domestic stability that is at stake. The Tajik peace mediation process had been successful in the 1990s, and in some respects could be a model for neighboring Afghanistan. The possibility that it would be brought into question just when civilian solutions for post-2014 Afghanistan are developing would be bad news for the whole region.

About the Author
Sébastien Peyrouse is a Research Professor of International Affairs at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (IERES), and member of the Central Asia Program (CAP) at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, as well as a EUCAM (Europe-Central Asia Monitoring) researcher and FRIDE associate.

About GMF
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting better understanding and cooperation between North America and Europe on transatlantic and global issues. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working in the transatlantic sphere, by convening leaders and members of the policy and business communities, by contributing research and analysis on transatlantic topics, and by providing exchange opportunities to foster renewed commitment to the transatlantic relationship. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, Bucharest, and Warsaw. GMF also has smaller representations in Bratislava, Turin, and Stockholm.

About the On Wider Europe Series
This series is designed to focus in on key intellectual and policy debates regarding Western policy toward Wider Europe that otherwise might receive insufficient attention. The views presented in these papers are the personal views of the authors and not those of the institutions they represent or The German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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