Q&A with Man Nistam: What really happened in Gorno-Badakhshan?
This was originally posted by NewEurasia.net partner, Kanal PIK.
In late July, the Tajik military sent troops to the semi-autonomous province of Gorno-Badakhshan, claiming it was seeking the arrest of members of a criminal gang responsible for the assassination of Major-General Abdullo Nazarov, the head of the Tajik State National Security Committee (GKNB) in the province. Dozens were killed in the operation, with estimates of casualties as high as 200.
In the following weeks, government forces occupied the region. One of the main leaders of the forces resisting Dushanbe, Tolib Ayombekov, surrendered on Aug. 12. Ten days later, after voluntarily disarming his militia, local leader Imumnazarov was killed, allegedly at the hands of government forces.
Many questions remain about what led to this sudden confrontation, how exactly it went down and what’s next for Tajikistan. Bordering China, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan, the province was the site of furious fighting during Tajikistan’s bloody civil war, and also serves as a major drug-trafficking route. To learn more, I got in touch with an analyst with extensive knowledge of the province and its history, but who, due to the sensitivity of the issue, spoke to me under the alias Man Nistam.
Q: First off, could you give a bit of background on the post-civil war situation in Badakhshan, and what the overall relationship was between the autonomous government and the central authorities?
A: After the civil war, the four main warlords became informal leaders. They had all been key figures during the civil war and all were considered heroes for various reasons. They are important to the locals even if some of them are feared, etc. Also, the importance of His Highness, [Nizari Ismaili Imam] Agha Khan, cannot be overstated. People had been starving and suffering in Gorno-Badakhshan until he sent humanitarian aid and started helping them. Many in the Pamir [Mountains] still talk about an untold genocide that occurred during the civil war and many still want acknowledgement and restitution for this. They have told me about mass graves. Others point out that while many Pamiris died, so did many other groups in Tajikistan that were brutally killed as well, such as the Gharmis. Nevertheless, the OSCE did do some preliminary work and a couple of mass graves near Dushanbe were uncovered. Still, it is unclear. What is clear, is that the raping and killing of Pamiris was bad and even today, I have heard many Tajiks refer to Pamiris in extremely negative terms. So, reconciliation or acceptance of religious and ethnic difference among many groups hasn’t really occurred.
Given these issues, while many in Gorno-Badakhshan, before this raid didn not want to cause problems and wanted peace with the central government, they also did not rely on the central government for much.
Q: Who were the people who resisted the government incursion? Why did they resist and how would you classify them?
A: The people who resisted the government incursion belonged to four main areas in Khorog. They are loyal to local clan leaders or “warlords.” Some of them are drug lords but not all of the war lords are drug lords. These clan leaders provide protection to the locals, they mediate local disputes, and they help their areas (some more than others) financially and emotionally. They are all “heroes” from the civil war. Imumnazarov was brutally assassinated in that he had surrendered all of his weapons and was sick and in a wheel chair. He was the main leader and deeply respected by people in Khorog and he had limited involvement with the Tajik government. Boqir is also a respected leaders and many are scared he is next on the list to be assassinated.
The people supported these leaders and resisted the government because the government does not provide them, for the most part, with security, legal protections, or other forms of institutions that a government should provide. The government often does, however, take a large cut from the drug lords, shake down local businesses, request bribes for many things, and, in the worst case, the police and the GKNB abuse the locals and intimidate them in a number of ways.
The word I would use for the group of people who resisted the government is exactly that — the Resistance. I think calling them “militants” or terrorists or Islamists or whatever lacks a certain understanding of what is really going on. If a government is oppressing a group of people and they find it necessary to find other authorities in a clan-based society who will represent them, what should those people be called?
They aren’t really revolutionaries because they didn’t start anything. They reacted to a raid by 3,000 soldiers.
Q: Many experts have surmised that the conflict was based around a turf battle between drug smuggling organizations loyal to Tajik President Emomali Rahmon and independents that operate in Badakhshan. Do you agree with this theory? What else might have provoked the operation?
A: I agree. It likely was a turf battle with one group or two, doing what I would call a side-hustle – or using an alternative trafficking route. I can only speculate on this one. My speculation is that the General Nazarov, the head of the GKNB for Badakhshan, was killed either by the Tajik government or by a rival group in Ishkashem because of a drunken brawl (but this is just rumor and it is unclear what really happened). Both Ayombekov and General Abdullo Nazarov were Tajik government tools, Ayombekov more so than Nazarov. It has been speculated that these two (or at least Nazarov), was operating an independent trafficking lane but I am not clear about this issue as of yet. Regardless of the details of this issue, I do not believe this operation could have been put together by the current Tajik army in three days — killing/assassination of Nazarov was July 21, raid July 24. In fact, I heard from numerous sources who said that the raid had been planned since the spring. This version coincides with information and mumblings I had heard from people in the spring, but still, it is hard to confirm.
The question is, at least the one that is important to me, what role, if any, did the internationals play in all of this?
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