Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a bloody ethnic conflict raged in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan. The peace accord of 1997 appeared to put an end to the fighting, but recent clashes on the border with Afghanistan indicate that the civil war may be flaring up again. Marcus Bensmann explains the background to the conflict
On 24 July, all hell broke out in Khorog in the Tajik province of Gorno-Badakhshan. In the centre of the mountain town not far from the Afghan border, more than 2,000 soldiers carried out dawn raids on the homesteads of five gang leaders who unofficially control regional ruby and opium smuggling in the mountain province.
The heavy clashes that ensued lasted for more than a day, and even the government conceded a high death toll. In addition to 30 fighters, 17 members of the Tajik security forces and one civilian were killed, although independent sources claim that the true number of victims was much higher. Afghan fighters were also among those detained by government forces after the clashes.
Calm has since been restored; the government controls the town and most of the inaccessible province and is conducting ceasefire negotiations with the leaders, who fled into the mountains. In these talks, the godfathers of the Pamir Mountains have indicated their readiness to agree to full disarmament. Officials say 500 individual firearms have been handed in so far. Telephone and Internet connections in the region have also been re-established.
The Pamir Mountains are known as the "roof of the world". The Tajik part of the mountain range has three peaks over 7,000 metres, and their glacier-covered summits serve as the water reservoir for the Central Asian plateau. For a short time, the July clashes in the region drew international attention to the complex tinderbox situation involving religions, gang leaders and the desperate attempts by the Tajik state to maintain control of this mountain corridor between China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. A subsidiary of NATO's north supply route to the war in Afghanistan runs through Tajikistan, and the US and Europe are watching developments with concern. Troop withdrawal operations will also be partially conducted along this route in 2013.
Ghosts of the past
Above all, the government raid raised the spectre of the civil war that raged in Tajikistan from the dissolution of the Soviet Union until the ceasefire in 1997, the aftershocks of which are still being felt in the form of clashes such as those in Khorog. Tajik opposition forces, most of them in exile, are adamant that this now marks the beginning of a new ethnic conflict in the Pamir Mountains.
Tajikistan's Pamir province is primarily populated by Ismailis, adherents of a branch of Shia Islam that venerates the Aga Khan as a direct descendant of the Prophet.
During the Soviet era, the mountain province – which has just under 200,000 inhabitants, whose language differs from valley to valley and who make a point of saying they don't feel like Tajiks – was an outpost for Soviet border troops on the Afghan border and received privileged treatment from Moscow. Further back in history, during the Tsarist era, a Russian army reconnaissance unit from Osh in Kyrgyzstan forged its way into the Pamir region. The museum in Khorog still exhibits the piano transported over the mountains by the unit's Russian commander.
The Tajik civil war began after the collapse of the Soviet Union and saw highland Tajiks from the Pamir Mountains and Garm Valley locked in a power struggle with clans of lowland Tajiks from Kulyab.
At the outset in particular, the war was marked with instances of inter-ethnic brutality. When the victorious Kulyabi Popular Front stormed the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, fighters began what can only be described as a hunt for descendants of the Pamiri and other mountain communities. Those giving themselves away with a guttural Pamiri accent or those perhaps not familiar with a particular lullaby were dragged out of buses at checkpoints and shot.
Saved by the Aga Khan
The opposition, formed of highland Tajiks, waged their war against the central government from Afghanistan, while the Kulyabis enjoyed the support of Russia and Uzbekistan. One of the Kulyabis, Emomali Rahmon, was appointed president in 1994 and still rules to this day. The Pamiri, who as Ismailis eschew all forms of religious fanaticism, nonetheless entered into an alliance with the opposition, which is dominated by Islamist Sunnis. When Moscow's implementation of the peace accords in 1997 meant that the only legal Islamic party in Central Asia was able to begin its work, many Pamiri also joined despite the fact that the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) is dominated by Sunnis. Although the party has a decidedly progressive chairman in the form of Muhiddin Kabiri, its senior ranks are controlled by more radical elements. In a potentially inflammatory development, the Ismaili chairman of the IRP was also killed during the unrest in Pamir, and the party's city leader has disappeared.
After securing victory on the plateau, the Kulyabi Popular Front moved to conquer Pamir province too. As they did so, guerrillas from the mountains blocked the narrow access routes and saved – the inhabitants of Pamir are convinced of this – the people from the wrath of the lowland Tajiks.
But the roadblocks meant that supplies could no longer get through, and although Russian border units continued to patrol the border with Afghanistan and the Pamir highlands until 2004, support from Moscow had ceased with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Trapped in the valleys, supplies began to dwindle, threatening the people with starvation. During the Soviet era, only a few Ismaili Pamiri concealed their portraits of the Aga Khan. The prince did not forget his supporters in their hour of need. The Aga Khan Foundation organised a lifeline via the weather-beaten Pamir highway from Osh and ensured the Pamiri received what they needed to survive. When the Aga Khan himself visited the Pamir region in 1995, the people came from their villages and gathered on the banks of the Pamir River to see the descendant of the Prophet with their own eyes.
Return of the resistant spirit
Following the peace accord, the Tajik central government tried to reassert its authority in Pamir, in particular after Russian border units withdrew from the mountain region in 2004, but the civil war commanders were really the ones in control.
These self-assured field commanders from the opposition and Popular Front were a thorn in the side of central government. Many of them were employed in official positions as part of the peace accord, but remained autarkic and reluctant to subordinate themselves to the authority of the president. For his part, Rahmon gradually eliminated them; they were either killed or disappeared in prison. But the commanders in the mountains to the east of the capital were able to hold their ground. Since 2010, the central government has been waging a costly war – in terms of human life – against the recalcitrant commanders in the Tajik mountains.
On 21 July 2012, the head of the state security service was stabbed to death in Pamir province. Central government saw an opportunity to settle some outstanding scores with rebellious leaders and hit back. In doing so, it roused the spirits of the civil war from their slumber.
An echo with dangerous overtones for Tajikistan's central power structure. Opposition groups say the ethnic conflict has flared up again. The Tajik central government is reacting sensitively to reports in the Russian media that Gorno-Badakhshan province could secede from the rest of the nation and gain independence. The primary outcome of the attack has been that many Pamiri are again siding with the heroes of the civil war. At present, the fact that the situation has not escalated further is primarily due to the Aga Khan, who has a direct line to the Tajik president. His call for calm is also respected by Pamiri leaders.
Russia is adopting a conspicuously laid-back stance in the Pamir conflict. Before this latest escalation, the Tajik foreign minister made it clear to the Russians that the extension of an agreement for a Russian military base in Tajikistan has not yet been agreed. The clashes in Khorog are now showing the world that the government there is finding it difficult to control the highland border region with Afghanistan.
© Qantara 2012
Translated from the German by Nina Coon
Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de