The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe demanded that the Tajikistan government should rescind its decision to block the video-sharing YouTube. Twenty people held protest demonstration in front of the Tajikistan embassy in Washington. The United Nations demanded immediate access for its representative to visit the Gorno-Badakhshan region in eastern Tajikistan to take stock of the emergent “humanitarian situation” there. Anyone who thought the Pamirs were at the end of the world was making a mistake.
As it happened, the eruption of violence in Tajikistan’s remote Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province, the mountainous region along the Afghan border straddling China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region became world-class news for strategic pundits. The events are, prima facie, “local” news; but a ring of regional politics surrounds them and embellish them and they possibly signify also an emerging vector of a much larger canvas of the “great game” involving big powers competing for influence in the Eurasian heartland.
In a way, the events appear like a dress rehearsal of a play that one would instinctively suspect to have many engrossing sub-plots while the main plot itself is yet unclear and can only be scripted as the play progresses.
The last week’s events look deceptively simple: following the killing of a top Tajik security official on July 21 near Khorog, capital of Gorno-Badakhshan, Dushanbe ordered a hunt for a former opposition Islamist field commander Tolib Ayombekov, who, it alleged, is the head of an organized criminal group involved in smuggling and other crimes. The government blocked the only road link connecting Gorno-Badakhshan with the rest of the country and shut out the media from the region. In the ensuing violence, according to western reports, nearly 200 civilians have been killed.
At any rate, after the 4-day long security operations, the government ordered ceasefire last Tuesday and demanded that the militants handed over Ayombekov. Four days thereafter, the government announced that militants have begun surrendering with weapons and were promptly being granted amnesty.
The Gorno-Badakhshan region in the Pamir Mountains used to be the stronghold of the Islamist opposition during the Tajik civil war in the early 1990s. The government’s hold over the region was at best tenuous even after the civil war ended in 1997 on the basis of a political reconciliation of the opposition field commanders who were accommodated in the power structure in terms of a peace agreement supervised by the United Nations.
Thus, one way of looking at the latest security operations is that they could form part of a continuing attempt to consolidate government’s power in a region, which has lately become a base for the erstwhile field commanders who feel alienated. The past decade has seen retrogressive trends of steady marginalization of the opposition figures who formed part of the government.
That is to say, the security operation would have a political objective, namely, to establish control over a remote, isolated, rugged, de-facto autonomous region (which is so desperately poor that it could be the poorest region of the former Soviet Union, but potentially could be rich thanks to its untapped mineral wealth).
On the other hand, the region is a major smuggling route for narcotics originating from Afghanistan. Equally, it is undeniable that there is a nexus between the Islamist militants in Afghanistan and the drug mafia. Where it is that Islamism ends and criminality begins in the Tajik context is also hard to tell. A widespread impression has grown among the outside observers that even government officials are involved in heroin trafficking. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that around a quarter of Afghan narcotics pass through Central Asia and much of it through Khorog.
The Russian troops used to patrol the region’s 1300-kilometer long border with Afghanistan until 2005 when the Tajik government took over the responsibility. Evidently, there has been a marked downward slide since then. Also, as the drawdown of the NATO forces in Afghanistan accelerates, there is a palpable sense of disquiet not only in Tajikistan but also in the other regional capitals about the post-2014 security scenario.
The heart of the matter is that the Tajik government is in serious disarray. The western experts all but label the government as an organized crime syndicate. There is also a likelihood that the clan struggle that was at the core of the Tajik civil war is reviving – involving people from the eastern Pamir region and the heavily populated western regions of the country. To be sure, any attempt to “disenfranchise” the Pamiris who form the bulk of the population of Gorno-Badakhshan could be the recipe for internecine strife.
The risk of a “clan struggle” happening is real, considering that the local people already harbor grievances of political discrimination. Epithets like “ethnic cleansing” and “pogroms” are already being bandied about. The government may feel complacent that the Pamiris have no “natural allies” in the country and it is possible to isolate them and bring them down to their knees by blockading the single road that connects the mountainous region with the outside world. The point is, the leadership in Dushanbe has been steadily purging from the power structure the opposition commanders from the Gorno-Badakhshan region who were accommodated under the UN-brokered peace agreement in 1997, and is unwilling to accept that Tajikistan is in reality a very weak state and is extremely vulnerable to the spill over from Afghanistan.
The biggest danger is that in the sort of power vacuum left by the western troop withdrawal in Afghanistan, the competing factions within Tajikistan may try to expand their clout. The result could be another cycle of bloody violence similar to the civil war in the early 1990s or simply a free-for-all leading to chaos. This is where continued Russian commitment to safeguard Tajikistan’s perilous security becomes crucially important. There is no other foreign power, which can replace Russia under the prevailing circumstances as the provider of security for Tajikistan.
A pivotal country
Yet, Russia too has failed to rise to Tajikistan’s expectations. It is worthwhile to recall the high hopes raised by the strategic agreement signed in October 2004 in Dushanbe during the visit by President Vladimir Putin, which provided for extensive military and economic cooperation between Russia and Tajikistan. The core of the agreement related to the base for Russia’s 201 Motorized Rifle Division with the Russian commanders based in Dushanbe and 5000 troops deployed in the southern Tajik cities of Kulyab and Kurgan-Tyube.
The icing on the cake was the 49-year lease of the Okno optical tracking complex (for the identification of satellites at altitudes between 2000 and 40000 kilometers) at Nurek, fifty kilometers southeast of Dushanbe, which is still a vital asset for Russia’s space surveillance capability.
The hope at that point of time was that Russia would remain deeply committed to its ally – that Russian companies would invest upto $2 billion in the Tajik economy (which meant a great deal since the GDP of Tajikistan for the year 2003 stood at just under $7 billion). Tajikistan expected a $250 million Russian investment in the Sangtuda hydroelectric station to supplement a similar amount it had already secured from Iran. Again, RusAl was expected to provide $560 million for the Rugun hydroelectric project and another $600 million for the construction of an aluminum smelter in southern Tajikistan. All told, RusAl was expected to invest more than $10 billion in the Tajik economy over the decade since 2004.
Suffice to say, Dushanbe feels let down over the saga of unfulfilled Russian promises. Today, as the two countries continue to haggle over the terms of renewal of the 10-year lease for the Russian base (which is expiring in 2014), it is useful to recall the actual Russian performance against the pledges made in 2004 to the Tajik leadership and draw a fair balance sheet before hastening to apportion blame.
Ironically, Russia’s lackadaisical performance provides grist to the Western propaganda doubting Moscow’s sincerity of purpose. The insinuation is that Moscow deliberately exaggerates the threat of terrorism and militancy to the Central Asian regimes to establish its military presence in the region and to exercise imperial control over the region that formed part of the former Soviet Union.
This is where the current events in Gorno-Badakhshan should come as a wake-up call for both Moscow and Dushanbe. Simply put, the renewal of the lease for the Russian base cannot and should not be taken as the main template of the Russian-Tajik relationship. Indeed, in the immediate context, Moscow has done the right thing to close ranks with Dushanbe over the current events, expressing hope that “the leadership of friendly Tajikistan will be able to regain control over the situation, restore public order and the rule of law in this region.”
Tajikistan is a pivotal country as regards regional security in the post-2014 scenario. There are no two opinions that militant Islamist organizations are preparing for an offensive against the Central Asia countries. Objectively speaking, the conditions are probably “ripe” for the Islamic revolutionaries to challenge the established political order, given the highly corrupt authoritarian regimes in the region and the grave socio-economic situation. The target of the Islamist offensive will be Ferghana Valley, which is the geopolitical hub of Central Asia, and Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan provides the gateway to Ferghana Valley.
Like in the Middle East, it is inevitable that the Islamist forces operating in the region for the past decade or two would by now have foreign mentors. Although Gorno-Badakhshan makes up 45 percent of the territory of Tajikistan, it accounts for only 3 percent of the country’s population. The Pamiris have strong cultural, religious and ethnic ties with the Badakhshan province in Afghanistan. The region is virtually inaccessible and has a history of providing sanctuary for Islamist militants.
Interestingly, Qatar has lately established a political and diplomatic presence in Tajikistan. Qatar has enormous financial resources and rich “field experience” in harnessing the forces of radical Islamists in Libya and Syria. It worked closely with the Western powers and NATO in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, but in Central Asia it may aspire to be an independent actor patronizing certain select Islamist groups.
Quite obviously, Gorno-Badakhshan’s strategic importance needs to be factored in. The region borders the restive western regions of China. Nor can it be overlooked that the bulk of the population in Gorno-Badhakhshan belongs to the Ismaili faith, who are the followers of Aga Khan. From Gorno-Badakhshan an “Ismaili belt” runs down through Afghanistan all the way to Pakistan. Unsurprisingly, the Western commentators have already begun speculating about the nascent trend toward political separatism in the Gorno-Badakhshan region devolving upon the Pamiri-Ismaili ethnic identity, and of a possibly violent realignment of the Tajik society in the future.