Fresh fighting over the weekend in eastern Tajikistan has heightened fears that the mountainous region, home to a disaffected ethnic minority and lucrative drug-trafficking routes, faces another cycle of violence this summer.
At least one gunman died early Saturday in an attack on the headquarters of the State Committee for National Security, the GKNB, in Khorog, authorities say. Two other attackers, who reportedly fired Kalashnikovs and hurled a grenade at the building, were injured and are in hospital. The GKNB has called the attack the work of terrorists, suggesting it is planning a forceful response.
The violence follows a shootout on May 21 between alleged drug dealers and police that left at least two dead. That set off a rampage in Khorog, with residents – angered at what they called the authorities’ heavy hand – burning government buildings, including a police station, the prosecutor’s office and a court building.
Late last week, according to local media, thousands of Khorog residents rallied to demand an investigation. A statement distributed by local civil society activists called the May 21 violence a government attempt to “create an atmosphere of fear and blind obedience to power.” Fresh on their minds is an unexplained, weeks-long military operation in 2012 that left at least 22 locals and as many soldiers dead. Activists also demanded an investigation into those events.
They may feel authorities are again not listening. Over the weekend, Khorog residents reported seeing five or six helicopters with approximately 100 soldiers arriving in the town, though it is unclear who they may be. The defense ministry has denied sending its troops. It is possible they are from another one of Tajikistan’s security agencies.
Remote Khorog, capital of the Mountainous Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO), sits on the Afghan border and is a pit stop on smuggling routes for drugs, gems, cigarettes, and possibly people. During the 2012 military operations, authorities tried, and mostly failed, to unseat several local warlords suspected of drug trafficking. Some Western analysts see the violence as part of a turf war, with the authorities trying to take a larger piece of the drug-smuggling pie for themselves.
Complicating the central government’s efforts, GBAO is home to minority Pamiri ethnic groups who often do not feel represented by President Emomali Rakhmon, who has, in his 22 years in office, empowered people from his native Khatlon region at the expense of all others. The 2012 violence hardened mistrust. Local warlords have helped fill the vacuum, winning the support and trust of their communities.
As one experienced analyst of drug trafficking in Tajikistan tells me, the latest violence appears to be “part of the blood code that Soviet-type security services operate under; i.e., if you kill one of mine, I'm going to kill you.”
Elite troops suffered heavy losses in 2012, and “I'm sure they haven't forgiven the Pamiris,” the analyst wrote in an email. “The attack on the GKNB [building] wasn't surprising – just tit-for-tat retaliation for the deaths [on May 21]. That the cycle of vengeance will continue is indeed a scary thought. I don't think Rakhmon really knows/has control over what is happening at this point.”