The Mark of the Jackals

The recent collision between insurgents and government forces in Khorog, Tajikistan, has little, if anything, to do with a Taliban incursion. It has much more to do with the control by various groups and the regime over this part of the Tajik-Afghan border and its economic assets.

It was a rather unusual awakening that early Tuesday morning of July 24 for the inhabitants of the town of Khorog, the administrative center of Tajikistan’s remote Gorno (mountainous) Badakhshan province. It was still dark when the muffled sound of grenade explosions and machine gun fire on the town’s outskirts started. When residents went out in the streets to see what was going on, they saw armed personnel carriers and military and police road blocks. No one knew what was going on, and neither could they ask any one further afield, for the landline and mobile phone lines were dead. Somewhat later, at the break of dawn, people started to notice the snipers that had taken their positions on the slopes around the mountain town. As the hours passed, the gunfire persisted, this time joined by the rattling of combat helicopters. The rumor mill went full swing. It was said some 3,000 government troops had been sent in to put an end to the presence of some 200 rebel fighters in and around Khorog. In all, the heaviest fighting took about thirteen hours. Later it took up again, for three days.

No Taliban Invasion

Khorog, a town and district of about 30,000 inhabitants, is situated on the Tajik-Afghan border. The actual border is formed by the Panj river that winds its way beyond the town’s western outskirts. From its bank, the settlements on the Afghan side are well visible. This was long a frontier between the world of Soviet socialism and the wider Islamic world. To a large extent, the psychological and cultural divide between the two still exists. Unlike most Tajikistanis who are Hanafi Sunni, the majority of the people who live in Khorog and in the valleys of the Western Pamir culturally adhere to Ismailism, a branch of Shi’ism that is generally perceived to be ‘unorthodox’ and ‘moderate’.  To an extent, the linguistic, confessional, and at times genealogical ties with the Ismaili population of the villages on the opposite bank of the Panj river, in Afghanistan, were taken up and activated again after the dissolution of the USSR. For one, this has translated into active cross-border trade like in the border bazaar at Iskashim and in an active smuggling sector, not only in opiates and other drugs from Afghanistan as is generally known, but also in consumer goods and in the rubies this region is historically known for. 

For those less familiar with this part of Eurasia it is tempting to explain every outbreak of violence along the Tajik-Afghan border as a spill-over of what has been happening south of the Panj river for over a decade now. Yet this was not an incursion by the Taliban and their allies of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. And even if many in Tajikistan’s Hanafi Sunni majority do not consider the Ismaili to be real Muslims, this is not a sectarian matter either. So, what was it about then? Two days earlier, on the road between Khorog and Iskashim ‒ which is a border settlement and contraband crossing point some 130 kilometers further south ‒ as often happens, a car was stopped for searching at a check post of the national security agency, still dubbed here in popular parlance by its old Soviet name of ‘KGB’. As is often the case, vehicle checks end with a demand for ‘a share’ that is usually at a set tariff, but this time was different. Versions vary on how things escalated then. In the heated discussion and pulling and pushing between the car’s occupants and the officers, someone pulled out a knife and stabbed one of the officers to death. That officer happened to be Abdullo Nazarov, the dreaded security chief in Khorog who happened to be at the lucrative check post.

The Undigested Past

The person who got accused of stabbing him was one Tolib Ayumbekov, the former commander of the Iskashim border guards unit.  Some bystanders later said it was Ayumbekov’s younger brother who did it. But either way, kin stands up for kin here. As the subsequent manhunt for the Ayumbekov brothers brought no result and as rumor started to spread that they were mobilizing armed companions with whom they were hiding in Khorog, the answer of the central government fell on that town a couple of days later. Was a sledgehammer operation necessary to apprehend a couple of fugitives? Much has to do with the lingering impact of an older conflict of which few visible traces remain these days but that left a psychological mark. Sortly after the end of the USSR and almost simultaneously with the conflicts in Yugoslavia, Tajikistan lapsed into a civil war that left up to an estimated 80,000 dead, made some 700,000 refugees, ruined the country’s economy, and internally displaced and dislocated society for years. Contrary to Yugoslavia, it hardly made international headlines. The Tajik conflict is often represented as a war between the local Soviet compradore elite and officials who wanted to stay in power, and the United Tajik Opposition or UTO, an umbrella organisation of Islamist, nationalist, and democratic oppositionists that wanted to seize it.

Reality, however,  was more complex and rooted in the social legacy of the Soviet period, a power struggle between different micro-regional clans and the manipulation of the tensions by outside actors. Although the heaviest fighting took place outside of Gorno-Badakhshan, whose leadership backed the opposition at the time, the town suffered heavily from the arrival of Ismaili who were driven out of other parts of the country, and especially from the road blockade organised by pro-governmental militias. Both exacerbated the economic collapse which followed the disappearance of Soviet subsidies, supplies, and outlets. For a time, the region was on a purely survivalist mode and became entirely dependent on humanitarian aid. It also set up its own local militias, one of which was led by Tolib Ayumbekov and his brothers. Even if a peace and power-sharing agreement was signed by the UTO and the government in mid-1997, Tajikistan continued to be bugged by guerrilla actions and coup attempts by renegade commanders from both sides until mid-2001. 

Unreliable Periphery

Few visible traces of the civil war remain these days. But psychologically and politically, the effects remain. The integration of the UTO in the power structures was only partly put into practice and even largely undone at the higher level of governance. In the province, faltering power-sharing arrangements remained in which oppositionists obtained posts and a space for formal and informal economic activities as long as they paid a share to certain parties and stayed out of politics. The loyalty of former UTO members to the hard-line secular regime of president Emomali Rakhmon was always put in doubt however. This is why the upper echelons of the security apparatus in Gorno-Badakhshan and other ‘unreliable’ regions were staffed with people from outside the region, like Nazarov who was originally from Jilikul in southern Tajikistan. According to local sources, these external cadres were also to simultaneously oversee the interests of higher circles and powerful families in, well, ‘certain cross-border traffics’.

Along with the influx of remittances from the labor migration to Russia and the capital Dushanbe, and the foreign aid organizations in whose local personnel the Ismaili are disproportionally well-represented, cross-border traffic is one of Gorno Badakhshan’s main income-generating activities. Thecollision of interests in cross-border trade and the behavior of some officials towards the population have long been grounds for tacit unease. Beside, former local UTO figures who the regime depicts as bandits, enjoy not a little popular respect as community leaders. This is not only because of localist solidarity but because they and their relatives were seen to have done a lot for their region when things were really difficult. Tolib Ayumbekov is believed to have several hundred armed followers including some within the border guards which he used to command, and some kinfolk south of the Panj river. Ayumbekov’s other brother, the one-time strongman Abdulamon who is locally known as Alyosha the Hunchback, still has legendary status in Khorog after his death.

Escalations Ahead?

Many local people and opinion leaders believe this was the the reason why the Rakhmon regime, using the pretext of Nazarov’s murder and under the guise of eliminating illegal armed groups, wanted to do away once and for all with Ayumbekov and thus set an example for any other actual and potential competing source of local authority for that matter. That the move also targeted the organised legal opposition, became clear when the Khorog representative of Tajikistan’s Islamist party disappeared and was later found dead, shot outside the town. After three days of fighting there is now a ceasefire and negotiations are underway with Ayumbekov’s insurgents. At the time of writing, part of the governmental forces have withdrawn from Khorog and the bazaars and other economic activity have recommenced in the town. Figures on the death toll of the fighting starkly differ according to the source. Some reports in the social media reported the deaths of as many as 150 combatants on both sides and over 100 civilians. While official sources put the number of insurgents killed at 30, those killed among the governmental forces at 12, and the number of dead civilians at one, various unofficial sources speak of 15 to 30 insurgents, 15 to 20 civilians and 17 to 66 government soldiers, among which not a few were young conscripts.

Is the Khorog attack to lead to a new Tajik civil war? Quite unlikely. It is also hyperbolic to talk about a planned genocide and ethnic cleansing against the people of Gorno Badakhshan, as some Tajik opposition figures did. But there now definitely is a lot of popular anger over the fact that the population was left trapped in a combat zone without notice or any measures to protect it. The global Ismaili leadership, which over the years invested in a lot of development activities in the region from micro-finance and banking to macro-economic infrastructure, has now appealed to the insurgents to surrender to the authorities. It is not the first time that it has tried to mediate. This brings up the question of how long it can de facto play into what the Rakhmon regime wants, without losing part of its credibility in the country’s opinion. Since the attack on Khorog, some observe a revival of the separatist discourse that existed in Gorno Badakhsan to a certain extent in the late Soviet period and immediately thereafter. Yet, this author considers this more to be a temporary emotional development.  What is most probable on the immediate term is, that the events in Khorog will contribute to the broader social and psychological malaise that exists in Tajikistan in general and that will sooner or later lead to the demise of Rakhmon’s regime.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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