Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Regional Relations

Clashes in Eastern Tajikistan – with Afghan Participation?

Thomas Ruttig 8 min

Local media speak of ‘unprecedented violence’, after Tajik security forces have started a ‘special operation’ against what the government in Dushanbe calls an ‘armed, illegal group involved in drug trafficking and also tobacco smuggling and the trafficking of minerals’, following the murder of a high-ranking security official. Interestingly, it has claimed there were Afghan citizens among those captured during the operation. President Karzai has announced an investigation. Thomas Ruttig, Senior Analyst at AAN, tries to gather the facts and looks at possible Afghan repercussions.

‘Its tough to know with any certainty what’s going on in Tajikistan’, wrote a western specialist on the region in a private email to me. A Tajik opposition politician – Rakhmatillo Zoirov of the non-Islamist and post-civil war National Social Democratic Party – says that he did not believe the government account of events that led up to this week’s clashes. So, let us take with a pinch of salt the following summary of what happened. It relies mainly on official information. The major independent Tajik news websiteAsia-Plus was interrupted most of yesterday.

On 21 July, Major-General Abdullo Nazarov, the head of Tajikistan’s National Security Committee in the Autonomous Region Gorno (Mountain) Badakhshan, the sparsely populated east of the country (with some 200,000 inhabitants) dominated by the Pamir mountains, came back from a ‘business trip’ to the south of the region. (So, in Tajikistan government officials, including from the security services, are also businessmen.) Between Ishkashem – across the Amu river from a town with the same name in Afghanistan, 520 kilometers east of Dushanbe, and the region’s capital, Khorog, his car reportedly run into a checkpoint of armed men. He was dragged out of the vehicle, stabbed and died on the way to the hospital.

The government under President Emomali Rahmon(ov)(1) identified an armed gang, led by Tolib Ayembekov, as the perpetrators (he denies any involvement) and ordered a ‘special operation’ to ‘disarm [the] illegal armed groups’ that began on 24 July. It declared a state of emergency for Gorno Badakhshan, closed down the major highway and air links from the capital Dushanbe to the region’s centre, Khorog and also cut off phone and internet links. The local traders shut down their markets. The operation led to street fighting in and around Khorog. According to official sources, 42 people were killed, 12 members of the security forces, the rest ‘rebels’. Eyewitnesses also speak of civilian casualties. The Persian service of the BBC was quoted as reporting 100 members of the security forces were dead and 100 ‘civilians’ killed. Ayambekov reportedly fled into Afghanistan.

The clashes also made it into the Afghan media. Tolonews reported ‘eight Afghan insurgents’ among the dead. How does Tolo know that these were ‘insurgents’; no other report from the region used this term. According to official Tajik reports Afghan ‘citizens’ were ‘arrested’. And so far, there have been no reports about Afghan insurgents operating from or on Tajik territory.

Rather vice versa: in October 2010, the Tajik authorities accused a former opposition commander, Mulla Abdullo (who was subsequently killed), of having infiltrated back into Tajikistan’s Rasht valley from Afghanistan in collusion with fighters of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. But maybe, this story was just a pretext for a crackdown in Rasht. In July 2010, BBC Monitoring picked up a report by the Tajik newspaper Ozodegon speaking of Afghans robbing cattle on the Tajik side of the border. A year later, in July 2011, the New York Times reported that ‘kidnappings, along with murders, armed clashes and other violence, have become persistent features of life along Tajikistan’s extensive border with Afghanistan’. And after a prison break in Dushanbe in August 2011 a great number of Tajik prisoners passed the border river and positioned them in a forested area in Imam Sahib district of Kunduz province. But almost all of them got killed or disappeared as a result of an Afghan security forces operation some days after the prison break. This operation, as a sign of regional cooperation and neighbourly good will, was followed by a visit of the Tajik President to Kabul.(2) So, the Afghans involved in (or being drawn into) the Khorog special operation are more likely to be in ‘drug business’ than insurgents.

As Eurasianet comments, ‘While some Russian media quickly drew links between the militants and the Taliban, it is questionable whether the Taliban, strict Sunni Muslims, would team up with Ismailis’ a minority Muslim sect to which most of the people in Gorno Badakhshan belong. They also speak different languages from most other Tajiks.

The supposed leader of the ‘rebels’, Ayembekov, though, also belonged to the Tajik security forces. He has been the commander of the Tajik border guard(3) unit at Ishkashem at the border with Afghanistan. A former commander of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) – like Nazarov (amended on 27 July) – that fought the central government, already then under Rahmonov, during the bloody civil war (1992-97) which following the break-up of the Soviet Union and Tajikistan’s independence, he received a government position after the UN brokered a peace deal. This included a power sharing which gave 30 per cent of all government, security forces and local administration posts to UTO – in return for the disarmament of its 6-7,000 fighters.

His group, according to official Tajik sources, now belongs to six to eight ‘armed, illegal groups’ with between ‘60 and 90 armed men each’ in Gorno Badakhshan. They areallegedly involved in smuggling drugs, gem stones and tobacco products, with Ayembekov’s group particularly busy in the tobacco business. He is also said to control the illegal excavation of rubies in the Tajik Pamir. While tobacco is one of Gorno Badakhshan’s major crops, the drugs and most of the gem stones come from south of the border and often are exchanged for weapons. There, commanders of the former ‘Northern Alliance’ control ruby, emerald and lapis lazuli mines in Badakhshan and the Panjshir and some are reportedly also involved in the drug trade (see an earlier AAN blog here). According to UNODC, 25 per cent of Afghanistan’s illegal drug exports, opium and increasingly heroin, are brought across the long and porous Afghan-Tajik border. Gorno Badakhshan has a border with Afghan Badakhshan, and a bridge, inaugurated in 2004 links both countries at Khorog. This is the way, Ayembekov apparently took flight.

While western media show some understanding for the operations ordered by President Rahmon, on account of him stamp[ing] out all signs of radical Islam’, fighting and criminals, they also see other motives behind them: ‘Ayombekov […] and other former warlords who got official jobs in the power-sharing deal have gradually been driven out of the government as Rakhmon has sought to tighten his grip on power’. The AP adds in a separate article that ‘Rakhmon’s two decade-long rule has been marked by persistent violations of democratic standards and suppression of political opposition’.

Ayembekov, though, is a native of Gorno Badakhshan and while UTO was usually described as an Islamist (or Islamist-led) alliance, it actually comprised of three different parties. The largest one was indeed the Islamic Revival Party (IRP)(4) but the other two, the Democratic Party and a movement that fought for autonomy of Gorno Badakhshan, called Lal-e Badakhshan (Ruby of B.)(5). They were rather secular and liberal in outlook(6). Ayembekov seems to have belonged to the latter group. So, at least the anti-Islamist label may not apply for him.

Non-government sources from the region see the ‘special operation’ in Khorog as part of a longer campaign. The renowned Institute for War and Peace Reporting (that is also reporting from Afghanistan) quotes the editor of the Asia Plus newspaper, Marat Mamadshoev, saying, ‘[o]perations like this one tackling civil war-era warlords have taken place virtually everywhere in Tajikistan – in the Rasht valley, in Soghd and in Kulob [regions in the east, north and south of the country]. The majority of the [major] civil war participants have either been killed or imprisoned.’ Badakhshan, he added, was the last region where the authorities have taken on the former UTO commanders.

One Tajik analyst, quoted by Eurasianet, adds that one ‘goal of the operation […] is to consolidate the drug trade’. A 2009 report by theInternational Crisis Group makes this view plausible:

‘An active anti-drug control program has failed either to tighten up control on the border or slow the drug flow. While Tajikistan has a high rate of drugs seizures, specialists and diplomats say that the pattern of drug operations suggests that the couriers are being caught while large shipments slip through the net. Diplomats feel there is high-level government involvement in the drug trade.’

So, one also could look at the operations as follows: President Rahmon, with tacit consent from Russia and the West is fighting competitors in the drug trade and, simultaneously, dismantling the 1997 power sharing agreement. As one German observer puts it, he is, ‘step by step pressing the UTO into a straight jacket’ and trying to make it ‘incapable of any action as an opposition force’.

Rahmon’s approach is interesting also from an Afghan viewpoint because a power-sharing agreement with the Taleban and other insurgent groups could be on the table – and the Tajik settlement is sometimes mentioned as a possible model. The Tajik example shows, however, where the weaker party to such an agreement can easily end up.

President Karzai, meanwhile, in a telephone conversation with his Tajik counterpart on 25 July, promised to take every necessary step in order to end the violence in the region. Tajik media quoting him as saying that additional security forces would be deployed in the border region between the two countries.(7) For Karzai, this is a golden opportunity. He can reach out to the government of a neighbouring country (that recently promised urgently needed supplies of electricity), show that he plays along with the much-discussed ‘regional approach’ (earlier blogs on this herehere and here) and bolster his position in Badakhshan by sending in loyal forces to possibly have a closer eye on the drug trade on this side of the border. The province and its economic factors are mainly controlled by his political opponents; the Rabbani family as the historical leaders of Jamiat originate in Badakhshan. This also can help with a view to the 2014 elections.

(1) The former leader of a Soviet kolkhoz (collective farm), he became the leader of the government side in the civil war, the so-called Popular Front, after the original leader of the militia, Sangak Safarov, was killed and, after his predecessor, Rahmon Nabiev, was forced to step down in 1992, subsequently the country’s president. Initially, he used his Russified name (ending in –ov) before switching to the Tajik form of Ra(k)hmon.

(2) Also historically, this worked in another way. It was the Northern Alliance led by Ahmad Shah Massud, not the Taleban, that support the UTO guerrillas. As Kristian Harpviken writes: ‘major parts of the armed opposition found support in Afghanistan, where there were also refugee camps which served as safe havens for the fighters’. This cooperation was ended in 1996 under Russian pressure.

(3) Tajikistan ‘had the Russian border guards on the Tajik Afghan border until 2005, when they gave the control to Tajik border guards and remained as advisers’, according to Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh.

(4) Meanwhile, according to Arne Seifert who worked in the OSCE’s Tajikistan mission, even in the IRP ‘a nationally oriented, reformist’ wing has gained the upper hand, after a more Islamist leadership was sidelined in 2005. Furthermore, the conflict in Tajikistan cannot only be described as a competition between Islamists and non-Islamists but also as one between the elites of different regions of the country, mainly Kul(y)ab, now Khatlon, and Leninabad/Khojent/Soghd (Rahmonov) and Garm (UTO). Quoted from: ‘Friedensschluss und Systemtransformation: Was lehrt der Rückblick auf den tadschikischen Bürgerkrieg?’ In: Friedensgutachten 2010 (not online).

(5) Lal-e Badakhshan seems to have disappeared as an independent organisation (but I stand to be corrected), the DP has split into two factions, one banned and one legal.

(6) In this interview, party leader Muhiuddin Kabiri suggested that the government in Dushanbe exaggerates the threat from Afghanistan, and said that a Taliban government in Kabul may in fact improve security in Central Asia:

‘[T]here is some mythology about Afghanistan, the Taliban, that all of our problems come from this country. I’m not sure that the Taliban today is the same as the Taliban of 10 years ago. Ten years ago they were more romantic, more ideological. Now they’ve become more pragmatic. If they are in the next government, they will feel more responsibility and I’m not sure they will send some terrorists to Tajikistan or Uzbekistan, because they are also interested in stability in the region.

I think the Taliban will push Central Asian leaders to become more democratic. It is some kind of paradox: how can the Taliban develop democracy in Central Asia? Now, when Western countries, led by the U.S., talk about democracy, nothing is done. The Taliban are not talking about democracy, they are talking about sharia. But our leaders, our elites, they will feel some threats coming from Afghanistan, I think they will give some more freedoms, more opportunities for people to keep people under control, not to push people more toward Taliban and radicalism. It’s a paradox, but maybe it will happen.’

(7) The Tajik news agency Avesta cites ‘unconfirmed reports’ about an ‘accumulation of a large number of armed men in neighbouring Afghanistan’ but assumed they were about to help Ayembekov’s forces.


Drug Trafficking