Officials in Tajikistan are adamantly denying a large-scale government security operation in the eastern Rasht Valley has anything to do with reports that a notorious Islamic militant commander has returned to the area from Pakistan. Authorities are sticking with the story that the beefed up security presence in the mountainous region is connected with a government anti-drug offensive.
The Interior Ministry says Operation Poppy 2009 commenced on May 15 and is scheduled to run through November. It is designed to stop opium cultivation and interdict traffickers in the isolated valley, roughly 150 kilometers east of Dushanbe. But locals tell journalists the region has never been used for poppy growing and is not even well suited for cultivating the crop.
Some local observers believe the government is using the anti-drug explanation as a cover. The real objective, they add, is to hunt a militant Islamic commander, Abdullo Rakhimov, who also goes by the name Mullo Abdullo. According to various Russian and Tajik media outlets, Abdullo recently returned to Tajikistan from his hideout in Pakistan, bringing with him up to 100 militants. Unconfirmed reports say that Abdullo in recent weeks appeared in villages throughout the Rasht Valley seeking the support of local elders.
That Abdullo would resurface in the Rasht Valley makes sense, as it was his base of operations during Tajikistan's 1992-97 civil war. The region in general had the reputation during the five years of internecine strife as being a stronghold of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), which battled for power against forces loyal to incumbent President Imomali Rahmon. The UTO consisted of an unwieldy alliance of democrats and Islamists. Abdullo, an Islamist hardliner, was among the Tajik opposition commanders who refused to reconcile with Rahmon's administration after the signing of a 1997 peace deal.
Rather than make peace, Abdullo reportedly led an armed band that maintained a base in northern Afghanistan and which made regular forays into Tajikistan. In 2000, Tajik government forces smashed Abdullo's force and took the commander prisoner, along with roughly 40 of his followers. Somehow, however, Abdullo escaped punishment, and even managed to leave the country. Some experts say he had a powerful patron -- the fabled Afghan warlord Ahmad Shah Masoud, an ethnic Tajik -- who secured his release from government custody and installed Abdullo as a commander in the Afghan Northern Alliance. More recently, Abdullo was believed to be living in Pakistan.
In a telephone interview with EurasiaNet on May 26, an Interior Ministry spokesman denied the rumors that the ongoing government operation was aimed at either capturing or crushing Abdullo before he could stir up trouble. "It is not true what people and analysts are saying. There are no armed groups in that area. Everything is fine," said the press officer who would only give his name as Abdurakhim.
The government may insist there is not a fire in the Rasht Valley, but there seems to be plenty of smoke. On May 21, the Asia Plus news agency reported the arrest four days earlier of a former UTO figure Muzaffar Nuriddinov, who happened to be a close associate of Abdullo during the war years. The Interior Ministry also announced the arrests of several other prominent former UTO fighters.
In Dushanbe, analysts view the Interior Ministry's explanations with skepticism. Abdugani Mamadazimov, who heads Tajikistan's National Association of Political Scientists, questioned the notion that the Rasht Valley is a center of poppy cultivation. "The climate is different from the places where they grow it," he said.
Mamadazimov expressed belief that the government is seeking to root out suspected militants, not traffickers. "The arrest on May 17 of Muzaffar Nuriddinov only enhances [this] alternative version for the operation," the political scientist said.
Rakhmatullo Zoiyrov, leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party, told EurasiaNet May 26 that rumors of Abdullo's return are causing concern in Dushanbe. Like Mamadazimov, Zoiyrov voiced doubts about the government's explanation for the Rasht Valley operation. "It's weird, because former operations, like Poppy 2008, used to take place over much shorter periods of time. This year it is going until November," he said.
The rumors swirling about Abdullo's return to Tajikistan, along with the violent clash May 26 in a border town in Uzbekistan, suggest that Islamic militant groups may be intent on reestablishing a foothold in Central Asia in 2009. Dozens if not hundreds of Central Asian militants had been using Pakistan's tribal areas as a safe haven in recent years. But Pakistani government forces have been clamping down in formerly lawless areas, reportedly prompting some foreign militants to return to their countries of origin.
Tajikistan at present would appear to be vulnerable to an insurgency. The country is currently struggling to stave off an economic catastrophe connected with the global financial downturn, and dissatisfaction with Rahmon's administration appears to be on the rise. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].