After a week of fighting, events in Tajikistan’s part of Badakhshan are quietening down. While a lot has been made in some media outlets of a possible cross-border Taleban link, events seem to have their background in the drug economy rather. On the Afghan side of the border politicking as a side-effect of the events is continuing, implying rearrangement in drug-trafficking networks and possibly an early positioning for the 2014 presidential elections, concludes Thomas Ruttig, a Senior Analyst at AAN (with input from Fabrizio Foschini and Gran Hewad).
The volatile situation in Tajikistan’s Gorno Badakhshan seems to have started to return to normal again. (1) The leader of a short rebellion, Toleb Ayembekov, has surrendered to the Tajik authorities on 12 August on the condition that he would be given a chance to prove his innocence in a free and fair trial in Khorog, the autonomous area’s capital. Ayembekov, a former local commander in the 1990s Tajik civil war who recently has held the most profitable position in the area as commander of the border police post at Ishkashem denied official Tajik reports in an interview given shortly before that he had fled across the border to Afghanistan. As one Central Asia expert correctly noted:
‘There is a general assumption that Afghanistan is a notorious exporter of violence and that the pullout of US and NATO troops in 2014 from the country portends trouble for the neighboring states of Central Asia. Yet this assumption rests on shaky evidence. The recent fighting in Tajikistan reminds us that disorder and violence in Central Asia are homegrown phenomena.’
Nevertheless, there is an Afghan dimension in the latest events at the border between Tajik and Afghan Badakhshan. The rebellion had led Tajikistan to close all border-crossings with Afghanistan, both at the borders with (Afghan) Badakhshan and Kunduz provinces. While NATO supply trucks had been exempted, Afghan Badakhshan’s authorities warned against a threat of famine in the province the food situation of which is known to be volatile.
On the political side, more details about the mysterious eight Afghans who had been arrested during the fighting (find our earlier blog on this here) are still to materialise. But judging by the killing of the district governor of Shughnan, in Afghan Badakhshan, on 14 August things are not necessarily over on the Afghan side, though. The governor, Saifullah Sediqi, was killed together with the commander of the border protection forces, Muhammad Kazem, in a dubious ‘insurgent’ ambush (2) near the border between Arghanjkhwa and Baharak district.
Already during the fighting on the Tajik side of the border, politicking has been picking up on its Afghan side, following reports, mainly by Tajik officials and Russian media, that the rebels in Gorno Badakhshan (if one can call them this) have links with the Taleban on the Afghan side of the border and might receive support from them. President Karzai has presented himself helpful to his Tajik colleague Rahmon and sent interior minister Bismillah Muhammadi (meanwhile dismissed by a parliamentary vote of non-confidence in another context – read our blog on this issue here) and NDS chief Rahmatullah Nabil to Dushanbe for consultations early on during the events. If Afghan media reports can be fully relied in in this case, arrests also have been made
‘on Tajikistan soil very close to Afghanistan [… and] an Afghan smuggling group which had direct connections with people in Tajikistan was arrested in Afghanistan after cooperation and coordination by both governments. […] The Tajikistan presidential website said that Tajikistan had worked with senior Afghan officials to identify and arrest a group of armed Afghan smugglers and other criminals that had linked up with Tajikistan based criminals in the Kharogh border area. […] Unconfirmed reports stated that they had been arrested in the Hawz[-e S]hiwa area of Sheghnan district […] closer to Kharogh area of Tajikistan.’
The government in Kabul also sent more forces to its own side of the border while Afghan media reported simultaneously that a group of ‘insurgents from Khorog’, Gorno Badakhshan’s capital, had been arrested in Afghanistan (Hasht-e Sobh daily, 28 July, source: AAN media monitoring). Whether that is true, or just one of usual propaganda statements (which are spread in both countries) is unclear.
After AAN enquiries in Afghan Badakhshan and browsing through earlier Afghan media reports, a clear picture of what is happening on the ground is still difficult to establish. But it can be taken as a fact that a relatively large Taleban group is active in Warduj district. Already in July last year Hasht-e Sobh (10 July 2011; source: AAN media monitoring) quoted local residents that ‘there are 200 to 250 Talebs in Warduj’ ‘harassing’ people and forcibly recruiting fighters. According to the report, the Warduj inhabitants had launched negotiations with the Taleban after which the latter ‘committed to avoid harassing people using the roads, but only to stand against the government’s security forces’. According to other reports AAN has collected from Badakhshan, the insurgents – who, since November last year, regularly seem to have been positioning checkpoints (3) on a key road leading from the provincial capital Faizabad (4) to Baharak, Warduj and further on to Zebak, Ishkashem and Tajikistan – are also cooperating in the safe passage for drug convoys coming from Darayem and Baharak, as a ‘contribution to jehad’, namely by ‘sending drugs to the enemies of Islam’. Baharak is the second biggest town and bazaar of Badakhshan and, according to a 2011 AREU report,
‘[r]ecent security incidents in Baharak District were attributed […] to the replacement of the long-serving district police chief. In Baharak, the position is a lucrative one given its central position to trade in opium in the province, and the displaced chief is assumed by many to be behind the sudden rise in insecurity.’
The group in Warduj is reported to be led by Mawlawi Shamsuddin from Ragh district who also acts as the Taleban’s provincial leader. He has been affiliated with Hezb-e Islami (5) in the past. Another interesting detail is that former Taleban minister (for planning, later for higher education) Qari Din Muhammad Hanif who spoke in the name of the Taleban Emirate at an academic conference in Kyoto, Japan in July is from Argu district in Badakhshan, one of the few non-Pashtuns in the Taleban leadership then and now.
Warduj has registered ‘sustained insecurity’ and is mentioned as the ‘most insecure district in the province’ of Badakhshan in the first half of this year in reports by the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office. The local Taleban group has accounted ‘for just over half (24 out of the last 47) of the security incidents recorded in Badakhshan since December 2011’ and ‘has shown itself to be an active group, growing consistently in size’. It receives ‘strong community support due to the unpopularity of certain members inside [the] local ANP structure’. Repeated ANSF operations in the area have not significantly curbed its activity that seems to stretch throughout much of the district.
The Hasht-e Sobh report already quoted also refers to the head of Badakhshan’s provincial council, Mawlawi Zabihullah Ateq, saying that ‘as a result of the government officials’ carelessness, the Taleban have build their nests in many districts’. Apart from Warduj, another ANSO report calls Baharak and Kuran wa Munjan (with activity mainly coming in from neighbouring Nuristan and Warduj as well as from Chitral in Pakistan) the ‘most insecure districts’ in the region, adding that the insurgents also try to establish ‘a stronger foothold’ in Darayem (infiltrated more directly from Baghlan but through the normal Taloqan-Faizabad road) (6). This year, Afghan media reported insurgency-related incidents also from Argu (Hasht-e Sobh, 4 June 2012) district. There also seems to be an infiltration route for insurgents from Chitral in Pakistan, leading through Zebak district to Warduj.
Some local sources contacted by AAN also speak of Uzbek and Tajik rebels, Pakistanis and members of the radical-Islamist Hezb-e Tahrirpresent in Warduj. Hezb-e Tahrir, a relatively new ‘opposition’ group in Afghanistan that does not participate in armed fighting but instead concentrates on propaganda activities (and recruitment – an at least indirect support for the insurgency), particularly seems to becoming stronger in the area. (7) Sources from Central Asia AAN has contacted say that some of these fighters ‘take rest’ on the Tajik side of the border. But as so often, the role of outside fighters might be exaggerated. ANSO, this April, reported that the ‘Warduj-based A[rmed] O[pposition] G[roup]s have yet to gain significant support from other non-domestic A[rmed] O[pposition] G[roup]s’.
Although both strands are not necessarily two different things, the events in both parts of Badakhshan seem to have their background more in the drug economy than in the insurgency. According to UN data (and quoted from Frankfurter Rundschau, 15 August 2012), 80 tons of heroin and 20 tons of opium cross the Afghan-Tajik border annually. This reading has been confirmed by Afghan national security adviser Rangin Dadfar Spanta: ‘The problem on the Tajik border is about smuggling. We will deploy forces to crush the smugglers’. Some other details speak for this version, like a report that Shohada district police chief Qari Wadud has been arrested on 28 July and was going to be transferred to Kabul. Wadud (8) is known to possess drug processing factories in the district and sending convoys with drugs to Tajikistan. Evidence which was delivered to Afghan authorities by Tajik officials apparently were sufficient to convince the Afghan side on his involvement in the fighting in Tajikistan.
More precisely, certain forces in Faizabad or Kabul might take the opportunity of the fighting and the Tajik government’s appeal for help to effect a rearrangement – or takeover – of the narco-trafficking networks in control of the border crossings between Tajik and Afghan Badakhshan. The events also can be linked with preparations for the 2014 elections that already are casting their shadows ahead: Could local Shura-ye Nazar people fear that a renewed Karzai-Zalmay Mojaddidi-Rabbani axis might attempt to sweep them off the electoral map in Afghanistan’s populous north-eastern most province? MP Mojadeddi – an influential supporter of Karzai already during the 2004 election who, for a while, was made responsible for the President’s security detail for a while (9) – and Rabbani originally belong to the Jamiat opposition camp but Karzai has been successful time and again in driving a wedge into it. (10)
Also read: Christian Bleuer’s background article ‘What’s going on in the mountains of Tajikistan’ on his Ghosts of Alexander blog here and Navruz Nekbakhtshoev’s ‘The view from Ishkashim’ on the Registan blog here.
(1) There has been some fallout for – or maybe, a simultaneous crackdown on – the Tajik opposition as well, read more about it here. And there are local accusations, and demonstrations, against a number of civilians killed during the fighting. Already during the fighting, Tajik non-governmental sources were concerned about possible revenge killings and looting. In emails also received by AAN they expressed fears about a possible repetition of the targeting of the Pamiri minorities by pro-government forces as it had happened during the 1992-97 civil war. The Eurasia website quotes local residents who use the Afghan Roshan mobile phone network that is working in some areas of Khorog near the border, saying they were evacuating women and children but staying behind to prevent their houses from being burnt down. ‘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.’ There were also reports from the region about attacks by government snipers when townspeople are ‘fetching water or tending to their gardens within their own compounds’ and, similar to currently in Syria, YouTube videos showing ‘armed with assault rifles fighting troops in the distance’. As of yesterday, Tajik troops remain on alert in and around Khorog, accoring to an independent Tajik news agency report.(2) Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed claimed the attack for the Taleban but this does not sound convincing in the Badakhshan context.(3) In April 2012, according to the same Tolo report and one by AFP, Taleban abducted 16 Afghan policemen and killed four others in an attack on a checkpoint in the Warduj district. According to deputy provincial governor Shams ul-Rahman Shams, the attack was carried out by militants from ‘Central Asian countries’ […]. A big number of the Taliban carried out the attacks. The police were overpowered’. The Taleban also seized two police trucks and ammunition. According to an ANSO report, the group abducted and killed the head of the Community Development Council of Mala village in February 2012.(4) Uzbek-inhabited Argu district, just to the west of Faizabad, was called not only Badakhshan’s but north-eastern Afghanistan’s ‘biggest heroin-processing district’ in a 2006 Financial Times article (with Argu and Darayem now catching up).
(5) Hezb-e Islami is said to be so chronically weak in this province (and less ideologically close to the Hezb leadership) that you mainly became a Hezbi in Badakhshan out of rivalry with Rabbani or some of the commanders of his Jamiat party. Hezb has no organised insurgent fronts separate from the Taleban there.
(6) Like in Argo, the insurgents in Darayem are mostly locals, even former Jamiatis, motivated mainly by control over the narco-trafficking.
(7) Hezb-e Tahrir is getting stronger in educational institutions all across northern Afghanistan, so if this is true for the notoriously conservative Deobandi madrasa of Warduj, this is also the case for Faizabad University where raids and arrests against students and lecturers happened recently (NDS even put them under the IMU label, but no media picked it up). A great deal of young Badakhshis who have been educated in Pakistan during the Taleban’s regime afterwards have affiliated themselves with Hezb-e Tahrir.
(8) Wadud is originally a member of Sayyaf’s Ittehad/Dawat party, but he joined Ahmad Shah Massud’s Shura-ye Nazar and supported Massud’s man in Baharak, commander Najmuddin, during the wars for the control of Shughnan district (1997-1999). He has been able to control more or less directly the lucrative narco-border of Shughnan for most of the post-2001 period. Ishkashem’s border, in contrast, came after 2006 under the control of Zalmay Mojaddedi, a Badakhshi MP since 2005 and Karzai’s main ally in the province, who took over some local Jamiati networks.
(9) He belongs to the same Jamiati subgroup as former interior and current anti-narcotics minister Zarar Ahmad Moqbel Osmani and Dr Ahmad Moshahed, a former Afghan ambassador to Tehran and currently chairman of the Independent Administration Reform Civil Service Commission (IARCSC).
(10) Expectedly, there are also much further reaching (conspiracy) theories about what is behind the Badakhshan events: ‘outside hands’ that want to create a separatist theocratic state in the area, comprising parts of north-eastern Afghanistan and Chitral (see here and here). Amendment: As a reaction by Ismaili elders showed who had visited Second Vice President Abdul Karim Khalili – it was reported in Anis daily (Kabul, 5 August 2012, source: AAN media monitoring) – this accusation apparently was not directed at the Taleban but the Ismaili minority that is the majority population in Tajik Badakhshan and a significant minority both in Afghan Badakhshan and areas of north-western Pakistan.
This article was last updated on 31 Mar 2020