IWPR regional director for Central Asia
The losses in the remote southeastern province of Badakhshan following the recent violence amount to much more than human casualties, large though those are.
The latest count indicates that fighting between the Tajik security forces and members of a rebel armed group left 17 government troops and 30 of their opponents dead. Officials say one civilian also died, although some estimates put the figure higher.
The violence is a blow to the national unity which Tajikistan has been trying to forge since the end of the five-year civil war in 1997.
It has only been in the last few years that people in this distinctive part of the country, Badakhshan, have really begun to feel like citizens of Tajikistan. The Pamiri people, who have a strong sense of regional identity, have only gradually come to share in a common sense of national identity. During the civil war, this region took the side of the United Tajik Opposition against the government.
The military operation launched by the central authorities has shaken the Pamiris’ emerging confidence in the Dushanbe government.
It now seems as if a couple of days of heavy fighting have completely reversed all the positive developments in the relationship between Badakhshan and Dushanbe since the civil war. The mood among Pamiris is a mixture of disappointment, anger and indignation at how the government treats its people.
The violence has also had a serious negative effect on the regional economy. Many smaller companies have taken out bank loans to build premises and do business, and this effort has been hard hit by the fighting. One businessman, for example, has lost thousands of US dollars because he has been unable to market the vegetables he transported all the way from Dushanbe.
This military operation is uncannily similar to the one launched in 2010 in the Rasht valley, a powerbase of the civil war-era armed opposition. But the authorities failed to take into account the fact that Badakhshan is different. Khorog, the provincial centre, is a small town where everyone knows everyone else. Whenever there is trouble, everyone unites behind the common cause – even those who would otherwise be enemies.
The authorities clearly believed that when they moved against renegade border guards officer Talib Ayombekov and his men, it would all be over in a matter of hours. After all, they already had substantial numbers of troops deployed in Badakhshan, for military exercises held in early July.
The government moved in army, special forces, and national guard units numbering between 2,000 and 3,000 and equipped with armoured vehicles and helicopters. This to deal with a rebel force of 150 to 200 men, which was refusing to surrender four suspects in the killing of a high-ranking security official.
People in Badakhshan were resentful of what they saw as the disproportionate military response, and of the civilian casualties that the authorities were initially reluctant to admit.
They were also upset by the deployment of inexperienced young soldiers as cannon-fodder, to draw the rebels out into the open so that army snipers could target them. One Khorog resident told me that while the fighting was under way, wounded soldiers were not given treatment, and it was left to local women to take them into their homes and care for them.
Now that mobile phone links have been restored, I have been able to get through to friends and relatives in Badakhshan. They are ordinary people – teachers, doctors, and lecturers – who do not support former warlords like Ayombekov.
One of these friends described how a neighbour’s teenage son was killed by a military sniper in his own back yard. It may have been because he was wearing an Afghan-style scarf round his neck – a fashionable item among Badakhshan youngsters, not the mark of a militant.
It has taken years for Badakhshan to become more closely integrated with the rest of Tajikistan, and for its population to stop feeling so neglected.
This geographical isolation was reinforced during Soviet times, because Badakhshan was administered directly from Moscow and had better transport links with neighbouring Kyrgyzstan than with the rest of Tajikistan.
Since the civil war ended, things have been changing slowly but surely. One of the most important factors has been the construction of a road allowing Badakhshan to trade with neighbouring China. This has turned the region into an important trade route, as a gateway for cheap Chinese goods which used to come via Kyrgyzstan.
Another positive step came when President Imomali Rahmon visited Badakhshan in 2007, and issued instructions for the national media to provide better coverage of this remote region. In a country with a strong top-down hierarchy, the president’s recommendations were followed, so that state-run TV no longer confined itself to a brief mention of Badakhshan in the weather forecast.
Another driving force for change is Badakhshan’s young people, who did not live through the civil war and are not burdened by prejudices towards others Tajiks, as their parents might have been. As members of the internet generation, with greater opportunities to travel and study abroad, they are more receptive to the ideas of globalisation, and regional or kinship ties do not play such a central role in their self-identification as they did for their forebears.
I am from Badakhshan, but live outside Tajikistan. When I meet my fellow-countrymen, what matters to me is that they are from Tajikistan, not what region they come from.
Better transport, trade links with China, and a rising standard of living have all helped improve Badakhshan’s relationship with Dushanbe, political as well as economic. This has played out at a day-to-day level, as Pamiris develop a loyalty towards Tajikistan as an integral whole, while other Tajiks stop viewing them as different because of their distinctive language and culture and their Ismaili faith, and see them just as fellow-countrymen.
In the last five or six years, people have moved into Badakhshan from other parts of Tajikistan in order to benefit from the flourishing trade with China or to set up businesses. As they have settled, mixed marriages have taken place – previously a rare occurrence.
This recent outbreak of fighting has cast a shadow over these achievements. It has undermined Pamiris’ faith in central government and planned seeds of suspicion and fear that this kind of violence might be repeated.
The Tajik authorities must therefore make every effort to restore public confidence, including assistance to rebuild damaged homed and businesses. They must also refrain from actions that might rekindle conflict. One positive step would be to withdraw most of the troops. It is one thing having a moderately-sized military unit on the ground, but the continued presence of thousands of troops is unlikely to defuse tensions.
Finally, a real effort is needed to address the issue of public mistrust of the law-enforcement agencies, seen as corrupt and inefficient, so that people come to feel they can turn to the police and expect to be protected. It is no secret that when people in Badakhshan fail to obtain justice from the police force, they approach informal groups. When a relative had his car battery stolen, the police took no action, so he asked an influential street gang leader for help and the stolen item was found in no time.
In that context, the authorities’ initiative of tapping into the local community – mothers, elderly people and religious leaders – to negotiate a way out of the crisis offers some hope. It is also promising that a preliminary agreement is in place on setting up special units including rebels as well as police to help restore stability. Unless they bring these fighters on board, the authorities will find it hard to maintain peace.
After watching how this military confrontation has unfolded, the casualties, and the blow this has done to post-civil war efforts to build peace in Tajikistan, I am still optimistic about the future, but only cautiously so.
Abakhon Sultonnazarov is IWPR regional director for Central Asia, based in Bishkek.
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