With armed groups in Tajikistan’s restive east ignoring demands to surrender their weapons, authorities in Dushanbe may find themselves hard-pressed to avoid fanning a local insurgency. Any new government attack could prompt a cycle of violence that proves difficult to contain, experts caution.
Internet, mobile and landline connections to Gorno-Badakhshan province have been cut since the fighting broke out there early on July 24. That morning in Khorog, special forces targeted Tolib Ayombekov, the head of a border post on the Afghan-Tajik frontier and an opposition commander during Tajikistan’s 1992-1997 civil war. Officials in Dushanbe contend that Ayombekov was responsible for the July 21 murder of a KGB general and was involved in drug smuggling.
Tajik officials declared a unilateral ceasefire on July 25, but the mood in the region remains volatile. In a move that suggests Dushanbe still regards the situation far from stable, Tajik authorities announced July 27 the closure of all its border crossings along the Tajik-Afghan frontier. The ceasefire has been pushed back each day, with fears violence could break out again at any time.
Ayombekov’s whereabouts at present remain unknown. Some reports say he is in hiding, others that he escaped to Afghanistan. Officially, 30 militants and 12 government soldiers have been killed in the clashes. Local news agencies also are reporting that up to 30 civilians have died.
The current stalemate places President Imomali Rahmon in a difficult spot, in which he is possibly perceived as a Central Asian strongman who turns out to be not strong enough to finish what he starts. The biggest unanswered question at this stage, then, is whether Rahmon can save face by collecting some weapons and withdrawing. The region is inundated with arms, including stockpiles remaining from the civil war and weapons accumulated by drug lords who control lucrative trafficking routes that run through the region, says a source who has seen the guns. As government forces threaten to resume strikes should the rebels not hand over Ayombekov and three others, Rahmon may be running out of options.
Any campaign that does not end quickly risks getting bogged down in the harsh mountain winter, Andrei Grozin, head of the Central Asia Department at the CIS Institute in Moscow, was quoted as saying by the Kazakhstani newspaper Respublika. Khorog is situated at 2,200 meters, and Tajik soldiers could make easy targets for snipers hiding in the steep valleys leading to the town, he explained.
Grozin said he was “surprised” by Rahmon’s decision to march into the restive province. “This is a clear demonstration of a very unwise policy,” he said, adding that a prolonged conflict could hurt Rahmon as he goes into a reelection campaign next year.
A Khorog native who left town the day before fighting began believes local rebels have widespread support. He spoke with his family on July 27 thanks to an Afghan mobile number (Roshan, an Afghan network, works in some areas of Khorog near the border). His father confirmed there are civilian deaths and that some women and children are evacuating.
“My mother left for a village, but my father and brother haven’t left because they fear their house could be burned,” the Khorog native said. He believes chances are low the fighting will stop: “Ninety-nine 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.”
Other sources suggest anger is building into a passion for revenge.
An English-language letter circulated widely by email, and confirmed to EurasiaNet.org as authentic by a close friend of the letter writer, describes attacks by government snipers when townspeople are “fetching water or tending to their gardens within their own compounds.” He wriites locals cheered when rebels destroyed an armored vehicle carrying government soldiers; residents at last had “some cause to celebrate that a small number of their brave brothers and sisters, fellow citizens, had stood up against the aggressors.”
The author articulates the feelings of some Pamiris, as the minority in Gorno-Badakhshan is generally known, rallying in Moscow, Washington and Bishkek. The government attacked “only because they are a minority group – but one that will not accept being treated as second-class citizens,” he wrote.
Access to reliable information remains scarce. A video posted on YouTube appears to show local men armed with assault rifles fighting troops in the distance. YouTube was blocked in Tajikistan on July 26 after videos surfaced of small demonstrations in Khorog. The head of the state communications service, Beg Zukhurov, has said a stray bullet severed telephone, mobile and Internet connections to the region. His explanation has prompted widespread ridicule on social networking platforms.
Whether the region can support an insurgency depends in part on Afghanistan, which lies just across the river from Khorog. Authorities say they have detained eight Afghan fighters. Though some news outlets described the Afghans as members of the Taliban, that is unlikely, says Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a think-tank in Kabul. Taliban insurgents, though increasingly located in northern Afghanistan, tend to be ethnic Pashtuns, not Tajiks.
“They are more likely people who are involved in some sort of trade. That could be drugs, which is probably the largest trade across the Afghan-Tajik border. It is also possible they are there for work […] as hired guns, privately,” Ruttig told EurasiaNet.org.
So Ayombekov could turn to allies across the river in Afghanistan for support. “If the militant groups in Tajikistan are involved in drugs then they very likely have links across the border,” Ruttig said.
The 1997 UN-brokered ceasefire that ended Tajikistan’s civil war saw opposition commanders like Ayombekov receive government positions in exchange for laying down their weapons. In the past several years, Rahmon has reneged on such agreements, however. For example, former Minister of Emergency Situations Mirzo Ziyoev was killed in unexplained circumstances in 2009. Ziyoev was also rumored to be deeply involved in narcotics trafficking.
"Rahmon doesn't feel like sharing anymore. He thinks it’s his country and he should control it,” said a specialist on the region who spoke on condition of anonymity to be able to continue working there.
How civilian residents feel about more fighting remains a big question. But local strongmen do have support. "Some of the warlords in the area are seen as heroes. Local people will fiercely protect some of them,” said the specialist. “People in the Pamirs don't take to being colonized lightly."