The eastern Badakhshan region of Tajikistan has a long history of opposition to the central government, and on Tuesday (July 24), tensions flared as a ‘special operation’ took place, killing anywhere from 42-200 people, depending on the source of the information. The operation followed the recent killing of a government official, General Abdullo Nazarov, who was chairman for the Committee for National Security. Nazarov, unlike many security officials, was known for being a prominent opposition figure and was only in the government due to a Peace Agreement which dictated 30% of government ministers must be named by the opposition.
This is a complicated series of events. To spell it out simplistically, an opposition figure in the government was stabbed to death in a province known to be rebellious. The government then attacked this province in order to reassert control, presumably to show that murders of government officials would not go unanswered. Of course, this, in all likelihood, is no where near that simple.
Breaking down the events:
Quick background on Gorno-Badakhshan: Locally known as Pamir, this semi-autonomous region of Tajikistan is populated by about 200,000 who campaigned for independence during the Tajik civil war of the 1990s. It is a remote, poor part of the country and a continual base for opposition politics and rebel groups. The shared border with Afghanistan has opened it up to smuggling and drug trafficking.
Nazarov’s death: Nazarov was pulled from his car while in the restful Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Province and stabbed to death on July 21. Nazarov has an interesting background: he was a KGB agent who spoke out against the KGB, claiming they killed protesters in the capital of Dushanbe during demonstrations in 1991. Not surprisingly, he was then fired. After Tajikistan gained independance from the Soviet Union, he was part of an opposition coalition who was granted 30% of government seats as part of a peace settlement. Some reports attribute his death to smugglers because of the security forces’ anti-smuggling operations. However, more complexly, the government claims his death is attributed to a rebel commander-turned-police commander who is also an accused tobacco smuggler, Tolib Ayombekov. The government states that Ayombekov ordered the hit to protect his smuggling ring. However, in an interview later blocked by Tajik authorities, Ayombekov claims Nazarov was killed in a drunken brawl and in the Guardian, is quoted as saying he ‘fell and knocked his head against a rock. It was a lethal injury.’ This explanation, of course, does not account for the stab wounds that eventually proved to be the cause of death.
The military retaliation: The reason for the military operation has not specifically been stated as a retaliation for the Nazarov’s death. Many analysts state that the death is an excuse for the government to attempt to re-exert control over the region. Additionally, opposition groups based in Gorno-Badakhshan claim the murder and a spate of killings in the area are a pretext for an ethnic cleansing campaign. In Ayombekov’s interview, he stated that about 800 troops came into the province and about 10 helicopters. The phone and internet connections were blacked out. Reports of casualties range from the government saying 42 total were killed, 12 troops and 30 militants, while the opposition states that there are hundreds of civillian casualties. A anonymous hospital official has stated that over 200 were killed, and estimated about 100 military personnel and 100 civillians. On the morning of the attack, residents claimed they were told to stay in their homes while helicopters flew overhead and they could hear gunfire.
As of Wednesday, the President of Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmon, ordered a cease fire in the town and authorities have started talks with militants. The skirmishes are being described as the worst since the civil war in the 1990s. The killing of civillians, though denied by the government, is likely to exacerbate problems between the autonomous region and the government and some fear the general outrage over the offensive will lead to further violence, and possibly a protracted full-scale conflict. However, as Eurasianet points out, the isolation of Pamir/Gorno-Badakhshan means the violence is unlikely to spill over into other parts of the country. It is worth noting though that instability on the Afghan border, especially during the drawdown of the US troops, will undoubtably make US policy makers nervous. This may or may not have any effect on the conflict or Tajikistan, but as pointed out recently by Casey Michel, people are becoming more aware of Tajikistan and its growing regional importance.