By Lola Olimova and Nargis Hamrabaeva
As Tajik government forces continue a security sweep to crush armed groups in the eastern mountains after losing 25 soldiers in an ambush, analysts are divided on the reasons for this resurgence in militant activity.
Enquiries by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) indicate that the resistance is coming from local paramilitary forces led by guerrilla leaders from Tajikistan’s 1992-97 civil war.
Claims by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, a militant group allied with the Taliban, that it was behind the attack are probably not entirely accurate but may contain a grain of truth, as the IMU has contacts with the Tajik groups and may have sent emissaries to encourage them to rise up.
The attack happened on September 19 as a military convoy was making its way through the Kamarob Gorge, in the Rasht valley some 180 kilometers east of the capital Dushanbe. Twenty-five soldiers were killed and 11 injured when their unarmored vehicles came under fire.
The troops had been dispatched to hunt down some of the 25 prisoners who escaped from a high-security prison in the capital Dushanbe in August. Most of the convicts were part of a group arrested last year following a drive by security forces to root out armed groups in eastern Tajikistan. (For details of that operation, see Taming Tajikistan’s Eastern Valleys, IWPR, 31 July, 2009.)
The Tajik Defense Ministry and the State Committee for National Security said the latest ambush was the work of a militant group led by Mirzohoja Ahmadov – a former police officer – also including the warlords Mullo Abdullo and Alloviddin Davlatov. This group, they added, had been recruiting young men for terrorist training.
On Monday, Security forces raided Ahmadov’s home near the town of Gharm, killing five suspected militants and seizing an arms cache in the process, while government troops launched a manhunt for local militants and any foreign allies present in the area.
A resident told IWPR on September 22 that the situation remained tense and military vehicles were driving up and down the main road between Gharm and the Kamarob Gorge. Another local man said the roads in and out of villages were blocked off.
Local or imported militancy?
The growing unrest in the eastern mountains is a worrying reminder of the 1992-97 civil war, when the United Tajik Opposition, UTO, a guerrilla force dominated by the Islamic Rebirth Party, IRP, fought against the post-communist government.
The conflict ended in a peace deal in which paramilitaries were disarmed and disbanded, the IRP became a legal opposition party, and former UTO leaders were given state positions. The list of alleged ringleaders named by the Tajik government point strongly towards a local origin for the violence – specifically, former UTO commanders who have grown tired of central government and are still able to command the support of local men, and arm them as well.
The story got more complicated when the IMU, believed to be based in Pakistan and Afghanistan, announced that it had carried out the attack.
This claim was made in a video recording sent to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tajik service showing a man who identified himself as Abdufattoh Ahmadi, an IMU spokesman. In the recording, he said the attack was retaliation for Tajik government policies such as closing mosques, jailing Muslims and banning Islamic forms of dress.
In the face of this apparent contradiction and the general lack of information, some have accused the Tajik government of jumping to conclusions about the culprits’ identity.
Others even allege that the government has put out misinformation in a bid to justify heavy-handed intervention in the eastern valleys. But Moscow-based Central Asia expert Sanobar Shermatova Shermatova insists it would be wrong to believe claims that the Tajik authorities “invented” the existence of a militant threat. “That cannot be true,” she said.
Some analysts suspect the IMU could be laying false claim to the attack as a way of boosting its image in Central Asia, where it originally came from and where it carried out a number of raids in 1999 and 2000.
“Whatever the IMU says, it’s nothing but talk,” Marat Mamadshoev, chief editor of the Asia Plus newspaper, said. “I’m sure that either there are no foreigners in Rasht at all, or else there are so few of them that it isn’t worth mentioning.”
But as Shermatova notes, the arguments for the attack being the work of locals or of the IMU are not necessarily mutually exclusive. “Maybe it really was IMU guerrillas, or maybe it was guerrillas who are linked to the IMU but are local residents who never laid down their arms,” she said.
An insider source in one of Tajikistan’s security agencies told IWPR that maverick ex-guerrilla commanders remained a force to be reckoned with in some eastern mountain regions that used to be UTO strongholds during the civil war. For years, he said, the government chose to chose to turn a blind eye to them because it had other priorities.
“After the  armistice, the authorities closed their eyes to numerous crimes being committed by former UTO commanders and tried to buy them off by giving them official posts, factories, and opportunities to earn money from the drugs trade,” said the officer, who did not want to be identified. “Throughout this time, there was a semblance of government – by day, officials, police and other representatives of the authorities went around the district centers, but by night, power lay in the hand of former UTO guerrillas.”
This arrangement began unraveling, he said, with a number of incidents including an attack on a Chinese coalmining venture in 1997, and the killing of a police colonel the following year, allegedly by supporters of Ahmadov, who is now accused of leading militant forces in Rasht valley.
Ahmadov was a UTO guerrilla commander during the civil war, but after the 1997 peace deal he was transformed into a senior officer in the government’s police force, serving on home ground. That lasted until early 2008, when another Tajik police unit was sent to Gharm to arrest Ahmadov, and its commander was shot dead. (See A HREF=”http://iwpr.net/report-news/murder-invokes-ghosts-tajikistan%E2%80%99s-past”>Murder Invokes Ghosts of Tajikistan’s Past, IWPR, February 28, 2008) IWPR’s security source alleges that the investigation into this killing was not conclusive and that once again, the government did too little to curb the growing threat.
However, when reports of armed men roaming the mountains – including Mullo Abdullo, apparently back in the country after many years in Afghanistan or Pakistan – emerged in spring 2009, the government was spurred into action and ordered a military operation, in which Mirzo Ziyo, a top UTO figure and still powerful in eastern Tajikistan, died under unclear circumstances.
“After that the authorities decided to tighten the screws a bit and this immediately put … the [ex-opposition] commanders on their guard. They began gathering former UTO fighters around them and also recruiting young men,” said IWPR’s source. The risks posed by the recent unrest would be greatly heightened if there were firm evidence of IMU involvement.
The government’s claim that Mullo Abdullo was involved would seem to point to a direct link. The ex-UTO commander was reported to have spent many of the intervening years with the IMU in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mullo Abdullo, whose real name is Abdullo Rahimov, was widely reported to have turned up in eastern Tajikistan last year together with an entourage of armed militants. (See Chasing Phantoms in the Tajik Mountains, IWPR, July 23, 2009.)
In his account of the resurgence of armed groups in east Tajikistan, IWPR’s security agency source said the IMU seemed to be involved, though not in a central role.
At the same time, as former guerrillas were reforming their groups, the IMU was infiltrating northern Afghanistan. After many years much further away in Pakistan, it used its new location to revive contacts with paramilitary commanders in Tajikistan. The IMU was created by Uzbek militants who fought on the UTO’s side in the Tajik civil war, so they shared a common past.
“The situation was hotting up in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the coalition and the Pakistani army were trying to destroy the Taliban’s combat capacity [including] the IMU guerrillas, who began relocating to Afghan provinces adjacent to Tajikistan,” said the security source.
“Some of its members crossed into Darvaz through our supposedly well-protected border. They included Mullo Abdullo, who met all the former UTO commanders and called on them to take up arms.”
As for the recent ambush, he added, “Yes, the IMU had something to do with it, although the main perpetrators were our own ‘mujahideen’.” The security crisis in east Tajikistan is not the only one with which the government has had to deal.
On September 3, two policemen died and 25 people were injured when a suicide bomber drove a car packed with explosives into a police office in Khujand, the main town of northern Tajikistan. While officials blamed the IMU, the group did not admit responsibility.
Three days later, five people were injured by an explosion in a nightclub in the capital Dushanbe. Police later said it was not a terrorist attack.
Finally, to underline the fragility of the border with Afghanistan, Tajik frontier guards say they killed at least 20 Taliban and lost one of their own men in a firefight on September 11.
Among the experts, there is little consensus on the scale of the problem in the Rasht valley, who is to blame or what should be done about it.
Ahmadshoh Komilzoda, a commentator for Voice of America, says the presence of armed groups is a real threat. “The government needs to make every effort, in conjunction with the local community, either to eliminate these groups or to reach agreement with them peacefully, to prevent even greater bloodshed,” he said.
IWPR’s security agency source said it was important for the government to communicate more clearly with the public.
“Above all, the authorities need to win the information war to make the public finally realize what’s going on in Rasht, and that if the public remains silent, further bloodshed could ensure,” he said.
No one, however, is predicting a rapid descent into conflict, or a replay of the civil war of the 1990s.
“Objectively, there aren’t the preconditions for civil war in this country,” political analyst Rashid Ghani Abdullo said. “If we go back to the 1990s, the war began because of a ferocious power struggle between regional political elites. Right now, there’s no question of a power struggle. There might be people who are unhappy about the authorities’ actions but there’s no one who fundamentally repudiates them. In addition, the public doesn’t support the guerrillas.”
Lola Olimova is IWPR Tajikistan editor. Nargis Hamrabaeva is an IWPR-trained reporter in Tajikistan.
(This article originally appeared in Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Used with permission.)